Joanna Hildebrandt passed peacefully on February 16, 2023, age 100, having lived a life based on the lesson she learned as a child, to love her neighbor.
Born Joanna Jane Wilder on December 19, 1922 in Modesto, California, at five days old she lost her mother, Josie. Out of this difficult beginning came one of Joanna’s strongest traits: the power of attitude. This woman born without a mother chose to serve as a mother to so many.
From just 10-days-old, Joanna was looked after by “Mom” and “Uncle”, her father’s uncle, Billy Jolliff, and his wife, Flossie. Her father, Charles, remarried several years later to Gladys Bradley and by the age of 12, Joanna was joined by four half-siblings, Florence, Ellen, Inez, and Fred. They remained connected all their lives.
A graduate of Modesto High School and Modesto Junior College, Joanna met Robert L. Hughes in the spring of 1943, and they were married on October 9, 1943. Bob and Joanna were married for nearly 52 years, before his passing in early October 1995. They raised two children in Modesto, daughter Carolyn, and son Loren.
By 1948, she and Bob were among the founders of the new College Avenue Congregational Church in Modesto. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Joanna was deeply involved with her local and national church communities as a volunteer and leader. In 1957, she was chosen as a delegate for the Uniting Synod of the new United Church of Christ in Cleveland, an historic occasion that brought together the merging of several denominations.
With Carolyn and Loren having graduated from high school by 1969, Joanna and Bob began an adventurous decade that saw them relocate for Bob’s work with General Foods, first to LeRoy, New York and then to Mexico City, before their eventual retirement to Santa Cruz in 1980. The “Ex-Mex” and Western New York friendships from these experiences lasted the rest of their lives.
From their retirement home in Santa Cruz, Joanna and Bob welcomed four grandchildren into their active lives - David, Joanna, Robert, and Allison. Their new church community, UCC Santa Cruz, later renamed Peace United, would become an anchor point in their lives and be the place where family and friends gathered to celebrate Joanna on her 100th birthday in December 2022.
Early in her time in Santa Cruz, she helped lead a music program for Hill Haven’s memory care residents, and upon hearing her sing, one woman remarked, “Joanna, you have such a beautiful voice.” She told the story often and with laughter as she admitted to not being able to “hold a tune in a teacup”.
Self-described as a “professional volunteer,” Joanna underwent the rigorous training to become a Stephens Minister, enabling her to care for others in a more formal way. Deeply committed to visiting the elderly, even as she began to outnumber some of them in age, Joanna maintained her playful spirit, with a ready wink and a smile until the end.
Health challenges affected her entire family in the 1990s, as Joanna had a bad fall in 1993, just before her 50th wedding anniversary, and daughter Carolyn and husband Bob both died in 1995. None of that diminished her spirit of volunteerism, active swimming, bridge groups, and travels with her band of “Silver Foxes” widows. She was an early adopter of email in the 1990s and embraced texting and FaceTime in more recent years to stay connected with family and friends.
Unexpectedly, and to the great joy of both families, in 1999 she reunited with an old family friend, Lou Hildebrandt, who was visiting for a wedding. That first visit turned into several more and they were married on June 25, 2000, at age 77 for Joanna. This happy and deeply loving marriage lasted until Lou’s passing in February 2016. Joanna remained in her own home, enjoying her wonderful gardens, until relocating to Dominican Oaks in 2019 at age 96.
Never one to dwell on matters beyond her control, “Whatever, whatever” was her watchword for surviving and thriving during the past few years of pandemic-induced restrictions. She used the power of positive thinking and mindfulness practice to carry her through and was a source of light and inspiration to others in difficult times. She lived with a unique and profound inner strength and grace, even as she prepared for her life to end. She had the blessing of being surrounded by family and friends in her final weeks, all of whom had a chance to say goodbye in person. She was especially grateful for her wonderful caregivers, Ophelia Harrop and Rosario Ingham.
A woman of great faith and peace, Joanna will long be remembered by those who knew her. All who did so were fortunate to experience what it was like to be loved by her.
Joanna Jane Hildebrandt (née Wilder and Hughes), December 19, 1922—February 16, 2023. Only child of Charles Chester Wilder and Joanna Elizabeth Wilder. Half-sister to Florence Brooks, Ellen Perry, Inez Peterson, and Fred Wilder. Predeceased by husbands Robert L. Hughes (1995), Louis L. Hildebrandt (2016) and daughter Carolyn Margaret Normoyle (1995). She is survived by son Loren Robert Hughes (Jane Veneman), son in-law Michael Normoyle and grandchildren David Normoyle, Joanna Normoyle, Robert Veneman-Hughes and Allison (Hughes) Collins. Great-grandmother to Annie, Liam, and Henry. She is also survived by members of her late husband Louis’ family. Stepdaughter Kay (Roy) Steege, Linda Ocheltree, stepson Marc (Deneece) Hildebrandt; five step-grandchildren; Tamara Mayes, Deven (Amy) Ochletree, Scott (Keri) Steege, Sara Steege, Colin (Jesse) Hildebrandt, and six step great=grandchildren.