Joanne F. Duff, beloved mother, wife, and grandmother, passed away peacefully in her Bellaire home on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. Joanne was a beautiful caring soul, devoted to family and friends, and also someone who relished her solitude and independence. A “true Gemini” (her words) she had twin ties to life in Michigan and in California.
Joanne was born to Hazel Allen Fowler and Forest F. Fowler in Charlevoix, Michigan, on June 17, 1926. Her first home was at Loeb Farms (now Castle Farms), where her father was farm manager. After the farm closed, Joanne’s family moved to Benton Harbor, and soon after to Grand Rapids, where she graduated from Ottawa Hills High School, and went to junior college. Although she’d moved away from Charlevoix, Joanne returned frequently to visit her grandparents and many other relatives, and spent her summers at Intermediate Lake where her family rented a cottage, Joanne learning to canoe from her father. She married her high school sweetheart, Russell E. Duff, on June 15, 1947. After honeymooning at Intermediate Lake, Joanne and Russell moved into married housing at the University of Michigan where Joanne enrolled and Russ continued studies. Soon, when Joanne became pregnant, she was required to withdraw due to University policy.
Her first child Christine, and two years later, son Russell Jr., were born on campus. With Russell Jr. only two months old, Joanne was diagnosed and admitted to the University Hospital with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, then considered to be always fatal. Miraculously, she was released after over six months, with what her doctors called an inexplicable and unlikely remission. In actual fact, upon her death 70 years later, she had no recurrence of Hodgkin's nor suffered from any other cancer. Her experience of spontaneous healing was the foundation for a lifelong journey to seek and prove the power of prayer.
In 1951, after Russell’s graduation with a PhD in physics, Joanne moved with her husband and two children, to Las Alamos, NM, where her husband began a position at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Two more sons, John, and Eric, were born during the 10 years Joanne resided in Las Alamos. In 1961, the family moved briefly to suburban Washington, DC and one year later, relocated to Livermore, CA, after Joanne’s youngest son, Kim, was born. Joanne’s life in Livermore included responsibility for 5 growing children, construction oversight for a custom home she designed to meet the needs of her family of 7, family ownership of a cow and other hobby farm animals and college course attendance at Cal State Univ at Hayward. Five years later, Joanne moved to the San Diego area, where Russell had co-founded a startup scientific company.
For the next four years Joanne resided in La Jolla, CA, where she again designed and supervised building of a custom home, proving her intuitive gift for real estate investment and property development. During that time, she renewed connection with her close childhood friend, Shirley McVoy, spending a year with her friend in Brooklyn, MI as she and Russell considered formal separation. After divorcing and living independently for a time, Joanne fell in love with the Northern California coast on a road trip with Shirley. In 1976, the two ladies purchased Gualala, California land in partnership, naming their combined parcels “JoLey”. There, after dividing the property, each of the ladies designed and built unique custom homes in the redwoods with stunning ocean views.
For the next 20 years Joanne lived primarily in California, returning to Michigan infrequently, but increasing as her father and step-mother, still in Charlevoix, aged. Her California life included independent real estate purchases and partnerships with her son, Russell, and daughter, Christine. Joanne owned and managed The Anchor Bay Store, selling grocery and general merchandise for close to a decade. A spiritual seeker and voracious reader since adolescence, and having attributed her miraculous healing to her mother’s and grandmother’s prayers, Joanne studied various new thought doctrines. She enjoyed sharing discussion with others, and was comfortable attending a variety of churches. Her open heart and generous spirit prompted her to host spiritually-oriented group meetings at her home to provide emotional healing and provide respite to others. During this time Joanne lost her mother, with whom she had been in daily contact. She then gradually assumed a role in providing companionship and care for her step-father Ken Buckley, who lived with Joanne from 1987 – 1992.
Not only devoted to her mother and step-father, Joanne remained deeply connected with her father Forrest Fowler, and her step-mother Anne, returning regularly to their Antrim Street, Charlevoix family home. As her father’s health deteriorated, Joanne purchased a home on Intermediate Lake, and began spending summers there after he died. Then, when it was needed, she facilitated her step-mother’s move from the old Charlevoix home to an assisted living group home in Bellaire. Soon after, she inherited ownership of the old Antrim Street home originally built by her grandfather in 1903, and with the help of her late sister’s daughter, niece Tammy Norton, set about improving and modernizing it.
Winters in California with her friend and neighbor, Shirley, and summers in Michigan evolved into a steady pattern in the 90’s. Work on the Antrim Street home involved a number of tradespeople, with whom Joanne, now in her 60’s, happily and energetically shared construction and destruction tasks, as she had always done in her property development projects.
After the old house was mostly restored, Joanne sold her Intermediate Lake home. But, missing the quieter direct waterfront location, in 1999 she discovered an unbuilt lot in Bellaire with water on 3 sides, and purchased it, without a clear plan for development beyond possible use for herself for canoeing, and her dog, Blue, who was her almost constant companion and soulmate for many years. Two additional properties in Bellaire were acquired, one small home immediately adjacent to the original unbuilt lot in 2000, and in 2002, one waterfront with a charming 3-season cottage on a large parcel. By 2003, she spent summers in the 3 season-cottage in Bellaire, nicknamed Blue Haven, returning less frequently to Charlevoix to enjoy time in her home there, and contemplating making improvements to the little house she called Cozy Cottage next to the unbuilt parcel only blocks away. Slowly, in the next few summers, again acting as her own designer and contractor, she began to work toward full renovation of Cozy Cottage. She moved in, bringing many of her grandparents’ beautiful furnishings after happily selling the Antrim Street home to her granddaughter, Emily Selph, in 2015. Cozy Cottage was completed and Joanne signed off with the Bellaire Building Department in 2016, at age 90.
In 2017, when her friend Shirley sold her California home and relocated to Charlevoix, Joanne followed suit moving to her little home in Bellaire permanently. During the previous seven years, though she was basically untroubled by health concerns, it had become increasingly difficult for her to make the transition between California and Michigan. Yet, because she loved it, her children helped her make the yearly trip. After her final move to Bellaire, Joanne enjoyed experiencing the ever-changing seasons. During the spring, summer and fall she enjoyed the vibrant and varied colors of the leaves, flowers, sky, and water. She also treasured spending time with her children. She had high hopes of becoming more active within the Bellaire community, and made regular visits to her friend Shirley in Charlevoix. She enjoyed her solitude in winter, never tiring of its beauty, keeping in close touch by phone with family and with Shirley, reading books, and appreciating her daily “quiet time” in meditation. She was seen around town at the grocery store, at the Bellaire library, Nifty-Thrifty, the Senior garage sale, and sometimes the Bellaire Senior Center.
Joanne was a “gem” among people, ever positive, always focused on others’ needs, and endlessly creative with design and ideas. Her smile and sense of humor carried her far with men and women alike, she was accepting of all people, and her ability to listen was extraordinary. Joanne was a unique, deeply spiritual and vital person, with an active mind and contagious energy. She was artistic, revered beauty, and loved the idea of “home” and the natural world, leaving her worldly mark through the properties she created, restored and loved, and through the many, many trees she planted. Although we missed her final exit, her fervent choice to remain independent in her own home was respected and accepted by her devoted family. She was both loved and loving, and she will be tremendously missed.
Joanne was preceded in death by her father Forrest F. Fowler and step-mother Anna Fowler, her mother Hazel Fowler Buckley and her step-father Kenneth Buckley, her sister Barbara Fowler Norton, and her brother Forrest A. Fowler. She is survived by her daughter Christine Duff English (Alex English), sons Russell Duff (Carrie), John Duff, Eric Duff, and Kimeron Duff (Antoine Alexander); the father of her children Russell E. Duff; her grandchildren Philina English, Roanne English, Emily English Selph (Gordon Selph), Meg Duff, and Peter Duff (Teresa); her great-grandchildren Aurelius and Katrina Selph, and her lifelong friend, Shirley McVoy.
A memorial service will be held at First Congregational Church, 101 State Street, Charlevoix, Mi, on Friday, March 29th from 1-3 p.m. All are invited to come and celebrate Joanne’s life. Casual attire, in keeping with Joanne's positive personality, is welcomed.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council (watershedcouncil.org), Redwood Coast Medical Services, (RCMS), or the charity of your choice.