That is how Jean Lichtenstein Kerner ’39 describes her robust health and mental acuity as one of Hunter’s oldest – if not the oldest — living alumna. Having celebrated her 102nd birthday in March, she lives independently in a Queens apartment tower. A lifelong learner, she stays active by playing bridge, exercising and taking classes – most recently in quilting.
Vividly recalling her time at Hunter, the grandmother of six and great grandmother of 11 effortlessly rattles off names, dates and places of her college years and of her subsequent experiences.
Born Jean Lichtenstein in the Bronx, she graduated from Walton High School at the age of 16. Entering Hunter as a business major, she commuted by subway to her classes held in an office building at 32nd Street and Lexington Avenue, on a floor permeated by the aromas of an adjacent coffee roasting business. Packing a lettuce and mayonnaise sandwich for lunch every day to save money, and working part time at Bloomingdales’ flower shop, she took classes in the use of technology such as adding machines and mimeograph equipment, and an advanced course in stenography.
A year after graduation, while working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, she met a supervisor named Nathan Kerner, a graduate of City College and St. John’s University School of Law.
“He would suddenly appear when I was walking to the subway,” she laughs. “He lived in the East Bronx. I lived in the West Bronx. He would accompany me home from Brooklyn to the Bronx. He was very old fashioned!”
They married in 1945, moved to Jamaica, Queens, and raised two children – Jerry, now an attorney, and Marion, now a child psychologist. Wishing to fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher, Kerner returned to Hunter in 1955, once again commuting by subway, taking night classes to qualify for a teaching license.
Landing a job at the Camp Avenue School in North Merrick, N.Y. at a time when it was not customary for women to work, she taught fourth and fifth grades for two decades before retiring in 1980 – but not before bucking the conformity that was the norm at the time by instituting her own variations to the curriculum and using team teaching.
“We designed an individualized curriculum,” she said. “The children learned cooperation skills with each other as well as independent self-monitoring learning skills.”
“She loved teaching,” said her son, Jerry Kerner, a Manhattan attorney.
As an expression of gratitude, Jerry Kerner and his wife, Louise, made donations over a period of years to the Mother’s Day Scholarship Fund in Jean Kerner’s honor. Their gifts will provide direct aid to a half-dozen full-time Hunter students during the 2021-22 academic year.
The Fund was started in 2005 by Hunter College President Jennifer J. Raab on the premise that every New Yorker has a wife, mother, sister, grandmother, or aunt who went to Hunter.
“We are very pleased to have been able to make scholarship donations, given the wonderful educational experience my mother had some 80 years ago at Hunter during the Depression,” said Jerry Kerner.
One beneficiary is freshman Ryve Obion. Born in the Philippines, he came to Queens as a child, growing up speaking both English and Tagalog. A media major with a near-perfect 3.99 GPA, he plans to continue his career in theater arts.
“After all the years that have passed, there are students today who are experiencing the travails of meeting expenses without resources to draw upon,” said Jerry Kerner. “My mother is so grateful to Hunter for providing her with the education in hard times to be able to achieve her goals.”