Jean Passaro, a cheerful matriarch who worked hard and lovingly at everything she did, died October 3 in Coeur d’Alene of complications from dementia.
A longtime Wood River Valley resident, she was 89 and loved her children and grandchildren as much as she was beloved by them. In addition to family and close friends, she loved entertaining, her Scottish heritage, jazz and the Sun Valley Jazz Festival, hiking in the Sawtooths, long walks, the beach, travel, handwritten letters, red wine, mint chip ice cream and the “kabritzled” end of the meat. She was always game for adventure, whether it was building a fort with a grandchild or a summer-long tour of Civil War battle sites with her husband.
As they talked about Jean, family used the Italian word sprezzatura, which means doing something with such ease and grace that it looks easy, even though it’s not. It’s the opposite of fuss and showiness.
A home economics major in college, Jean was a capable seamstress, cook, and householder, leaving a legacy of cherished objects such as expertly constructed cloth diapers and knitted sweaters for children and dolls alike. She was intuitive and adept in social situations, keeping your plate and your glass full and making you feel like you were at the right place at the right time. And she was an invaluable partner in three businesses she owned with her husband over more than 40 years.
Born February 3, 1932, in Verona, New Jersey, Jean Marilyn Nuss was the only child of Henry J. and Annette Crawford Nuss. She was raised in a tight community of loved ones, with extended family always near and her dear cousin Carolyn just down the street, like the sister she otherwise didn’t have. She fondly recalled the weekly and holiday clan parties, boisterous gatherings with food and drink and laughter and singing of old Scottish songs.
Jean graduated from Verona High School, class of 1950. She attended the University of Vermont and received her B.S. degree in 1954.
At college, she met Frank Louis Passaro at a party organized for her sorority and his fraternity. The story goes that at the parties and dances the two attended, Jean would water the plants with her beer. The cigarette smoke bothered her eyes, so Frank would take her outside for fresh air. Talking and love ensued. They were pinned in 1953.
After college, while Frank attended pharmacy school, Jean worked for two years at J. Schumacher & Co in New York City as a secretary to an executive, often folding fabric on the showroom floor.
Following her marriage to Frank on June 8, 1957, and settling in Wyckoff, N.J., she raised three boys, making hot breakfasts most every day of the week (except on Saturday when she slept in and let them eat Sugar Pops). She volunteered for the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs, serving as president and working on community projects. She kept the books for Frank’s first business, Ringwood Pharmacy.
Frank and Jean bought a Winnebago motorhome and used it for family trips up and down the east coast, from the Carolinas to the tip of Nova Scotia. These travels got them thinking about a new business, and in 1976 they sold the pharmacy and purchased a KOA campground just south Ketchum (later known as Sun Valley Camping Resort). Jean had not even visited Ketchum until they rolled into town in a U-Haul truck.
While we don’t know what the conversation was like around relocating to Idaho, we are certain of two things: Jean didn’t complain, and she said she would never clean the campground bathrooms. In the family’s ten years owning and operating the campground, Jean stayed true to her word, and left that task to Frank.
The first years at the campground were difficult financially. Their first winter, a drought devastated ski tourism and the buyer of Frank’s pharmacy defaulted on his loan. Jean raided the coin-operated washers and dryers to get food on the table. But the boys didn’t know this. The meals were as steady as Jean always was.
After they sold the campground, Jean and Frank started another business, a shop in Ketchum called The Cottage Flowers & Gifts. Jean had a knack as a florist and befriended customers of the store, including Sun Valley celebrities, though she often had no idea exactly what they were famous for (“He was in some rock band or something,” she might say.) It was just her way to be sincere and friendly with those who came into her orbit, whoever they were.
Although Jean didn’t hold leadership roles in tourism and floral associations as Frank did, she was essential to his successes in those roles and was probably undervalued, as she was often content to stay in the background and do the unseen work.
After running the Cottage for more than 15 years, Jean and Frank retired to Boise. Years of work gave way to travel, with trips to China, Turkey, Poland, Italy, Panama, Germany, France, Portugal, England, Scotland, Alaska, Hawaii, and a long motorhome tour of the continental United States. Jean made scrapbooks of each trip, which Frank would tease her about – until a question came up about a past trip, and Jean just opened a scrapbook to deliver the answer.
When Frank began to show symptoms of dementia, eventually being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Jean cared for him at home for several years. Frank eventually moved into memory care at Emerson House in Boise where he lived for three years. Jean visited him most days and volunteered her time to make weekly flower arrangements for the common room. They were married for 56 years.
She joined Eagle United Methodist Church and loved hanging out with ladies in Bible study and going to lunch after church with the Dutch lunch bunch. She would admit she didn’t really know a lot about the Bible, but the church gave her community, comfort, friends and laughter.
Later, Jean moved to Coeur d’Alene to be closer to family, and in a cruel irony, she was stricken with dementia herself. Yet she continued to find joy traveling with her children and grandchildren, listening to jazz, laughing at the dinner table, and of course savoring the king of foods: ice cream.
When COVID-19 hit and Jean’s care in a memory care unit was compromised, family moved her to her granddaughter and her husband’s home, where she spent the last year of her life, surrounded by love, food, and music.
In the Passaro family, sprezzatura is the name of a pasta dish whose simplicity belies the skill needed to make it. It’s no wonder Jean’s two sons know their way around the kitchen and each can make sprezzatura pasta to perfection. Jean’s legacy lives on in family meals where the wine and laughter flows.
Jean is survived by her sons David (Karen) Passaro and Robert (Jamie) Passaro; her granddaughter Jennifer (Scott Gittens) Passaro, grandson Jeffrey Passaro, granddaughters Olive and Vivienne Passaro; and one great-grandchild on the way, “Muffin.”
She was preceded in death by her parents; her husband, Frank; and a son, Thomas Passaro.
Family will host a graveside service at Ketchum Cemetery Saturday October 16 at 11:30 a.m. There will be ice cream.
A special thank you to Hospice of North Idaho for their compassionate care. In lieu of flowers, honor Jean’s memory by donating at hospiceofnorthidaho.org or mail to 2290 W Prairie Ave. Coeur d’Alene, ID 83815.