Joan Clara Lange, children’s librarian, lover of the written and spoken word and 35-year resident of Easton, Conn., died peacefully at home on Cape Cod July 12 following several years of declining health. She was 92. Born April 8, 1931, in Queens, New York, to William and Antonie Jung, who came to the United States from Germany just before World War I, Joan was raised in an extended immigrant family that stayed afloat during the Depression because her father owned an auto body repair shop. She and her mother went regularly to the movies, packing a lunch so they could spend the day watching double features and shorts. When Joan was eight, her mother went into the hospital for gallbladder surgery. Joan as usual went to the movies. An usher came to get her during the middle of the picture: Her mother was dead. “Poor little girl,” relatives said. Joan did not want to be a poor little girl.
Since Joan’s sister Gertrude, 17 years her senior, had already married, Joan’s Tante Anna moved in to help raise her. Joan enjoyed a lot of freedom. With her best friend, Ruth, she roller skated in their Maspeth neighborhood and took the subway into Manhattan to shop. Once, when Ruth and Joan were sent home because they showed up for Girl Scouts without their uniforms, they snuck off to Coney Island. At age 16, Joan graduated from Grover Cleveland High School. She hoped to go to Juilliard—she had studied piano for years—but she froze during the audition. Instead of taking classes at one of New York City’s free public colleges, she was sent to work. Joan started as a receptionist and switchboard operator at the Dreher advertising agency in Manhattan on the 48th floor of the RCA Building—you could see Connecticut. After improving her typing and learning shorthand, she was promoted to secretary for an account executive.
Around this time, through a church youth group, she met Alfred Lange (Buddy), “the man of my life.” They married in May of 1950 just before the outbreak of the Korean War, then waited for him to be drafted. During his two years in the Army in Korea, they wrote each other nearly every day. After he got out in November 1953, they moved to Champaign-Urbana, where Al studied architecture at the University of Illinois with the help of the G.I. Bill. Joan worked at the Grubb advertising firm until their first child, Andrew, was born in 1957. The next year, they moved to Connecticut for Al to take a job in Bridgeport. In 1959, their second child, Adam, was born and they moved into the house in Easton they built with the help of Joan’s father. Their third child, Karen, was born in 1962.
Joan was active in the Congregational Church of Easton, where she sang in the choir, as a volunteer with the Easton Public library, as one of the few members of the Easton Democratic Town Committee (in the staunchly Republican community), and as one of the women who formed the Easton Human Relations Committee. The group, led by her dear friend Jane Kennedy, created a program called Summer Adventures that brought together white kids from Easton and black kids from Bridgeport.
The women formed a tight-knit social circle. Early on, Joan smoked Lark cigarettes and drank black coffee as they chatted while the children played. Later, the families invited each other over for boisterous parties. Al, who didn’t drink, would want to leave early, but Joan would slip from room to room to stay.
At home, though Joan required the family to keep things clean and orderly, spirited discussions erupted at the dinner table. Children were encouraged to express their opinions. Argument was a sport.
When Karen started first grade, Joan went back to school to become an elementary school librarian. She graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s from Southern Connecticut State College in 1972, at the age of 40. She was hired by the Stamford Public Schools system, a tough commute down the Merritt Parkway, and for 20 years ran the media centers at Stillmeadow, then Willard, then Riverbank, then Rogers elementary schools. She earned a master’s from the University of Bridgeport. Summers, she traveled overseas with friends and younger family members (Al happily stayed home). In 1981, guided by her nephew Daniel Gehnrich, she went to East Germany, to the town of Ronneburg (Thuringia) that her father had left nearly seven decades before.
In 1994, Joan and Al retired to Cape Cod. They built a house in Brewster where they hosted their children and grandchildren over many summers. Joan worked part-time in the children’s section of the Brewster Ladies’ Library until she was 80.
Joan’s final years were filled with loss and joy. Her son Andrew took his own life in January 2010. To honor his memory, Joan established a science scholarship at Joel Barlow, the high school he attended before becoming an astrophysicist. Shortly after, Al was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Joan cared for him until his death in 2014. In 2013, Joan was invited to the White House to meet President Obama during a ceremony honoring her daughter-in-law, Frances Arnold. In 2016, Joan’s grandson William Lange died in an accident. In 2021, Joan’s first great grandchild was born.
Joan could be, as she might say, “a real pip”: tough, blunt, tenacious, passionate and impatient. She was also tender, honest, loyal, thoughtful and generous. To her last months, she loved movies, eating out, parties, stories in the New Yorker, following the news, engaging in fierce verbal debates and cats.
Joan is survived by her children Adam Lange of Palm Coast, Fla., and Karen (Stuart Gagnon) Lange of Takoma Park, Md., her daughter-in-law Frances Arnold of La Canada, Calif., her grandchildren Cody (Kelsi) Lange, Joe Lange, Jeremy Gagnon, Max (Kylie) Lange and Caroline Gagnon and her great grandson Luke Lange. A memorial service is scheduled for October 21 at noon in the Congregational Church of Easton (336 Westport Road, Easton, CT), with a reception after in the church hall. Donations in Joan’s memory may be made to the Congregational Church of Easton (send check to P.O. Box 37, Easton, CT 06612) or to the Andrew E. Lange Memorial Science Scholarship Fund (send check made out to Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, with fund named in memo line, to FCCF, 40 Richards Ave., Norwalk, CT 06854).