Jane D. Diefenbach, a retired Baltimore County guidance counselor who took an innovative approach to dealing with a schoolyard bully, died of complications from liver cancer Nov. 17 in Mays Chapel. The longtime Catonsville resident was 90.
“I used to say she was as wise as Solomon,” said her daughter, Patricia Havranek, 65.
She was born Jane Downing in 1927 to Rebecca Lucille, a teacher, and John Dent Downing, who worked in the customs office in Baltimore City. As a girl, she moved from Baltimore to Catonsville, where she lived for much of her life.
In high school, she played the saxophone in the school marching band and sang a cappella. She later earned a bachelor’s degree from what was then the State Teachers College at Towson and became a teacher in Baltimore City.
She met John J. Diefenbach Jr., an engineer, through her aunt, who worked with him. They married and had four children: Patricia, Susan, Luci and George.
“You weren’t allowed to work when you were pregnant back then,” said Luci Loeffler, her daughter. Mrs. Diefenbach stayed home to raise her children until her eldest daughter was in high school. While tending to her family, she received a master’s in education at the University of Maryland, College Park in 1952, and earned a certification in guidance counseling from the Johns Hopkins University.
Returning to work, she became a guidance counselor at Catonsville Junior High, where she once took a genius approach to dealing with a schoolyard bully. In a story that Mrs. Havranek told, a shy young student approached Mrs. Diefenbach to complain that a bigger boy was forcing him to carry his books between classes, and filching food from his lunches. He was afraid that if an adult intervened he’d get in trouble for tattling.
Mrs. Diefenbach called the bully into her office. She asked him if he was feeling all right.
“He said, ‘Yeah,’ and he puffed up,” Mrs. Havranek recalled.
But, Mrs. Diefenbach had heard other children were helping him carry his books. And if he wasn’t feeling strong enough and needed help, she offered, the school could have some of the other students volunteer to help him.
Next, she asked him if he was getting enough to eat. The teachers noticed that other children have been giving him food at lunch off their plates. If he needed more, Mrs. Diefenbach could call his mother. There were free school programs that could help him. No, he insisted, his mother packed him nice, big lunches.
“After that there were no more problems,” said Mrs. Havranek. “The boy who had come to her said he didn’t know how she’d done it.”
She loved reading and music, regularly attending the opera with friends and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with her husband. Show tunes and musicals were a favorite. And she encouraged – and forced, if necessary – an interest in her children, sending them all to music lessons.
But she had a quiet, gentle demeanor, said Mrs. Havranek. She spoke in a soft voice. “She had a way about her. … People described her as ladylike and gracious.”
A founding member of the Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, she taught Sunday school there and helped with the choir and Christmas pageants.
She was always well-groomed, loved ones said, taking care to match her earrings and necklace and to coordinate her outfits. Before Easter, she took her daughters to Hutzler’s to buy their holiday clothes – bonnets and “starchy, starchy dresses,” said Mrs. Loeffler. She sewed many of her own clothes as well as clothes for her kids.
“I don’t know how she learned, but that sewing machine was always, always out,” said Mrs. Loeffler. She made draperies, slipcovers for furniture and clothes for Barbie dolls, too.
Christmastime meant candles in the windows, garlands and a wreath.
“She was very traditional in the way she decorated things,” said Mrs. Loeffler. “She always carried it off just beautifully.”
Mrs. Havranek recalled her mother cooking apple fritters and soft-boiled eggs for her children – “getting ‘em just right,” she said. On special occasions, according to Mrs. Loeffler, the family headed to Haussner’s, taking home a strawberry pie for dessert.
A dedicated gardener, Mrs. Diefenbach grew vegetables and pink, dinner plate dahlias. Mrs. Havranek tended to the flowers after her mother’s eyesight failed due to macular degeneration.
An active member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, she traced her family tree back centuries. A DAR insignia is on her gravestone, said Mrs. Havranek.
Mrs. Diefenbach had an aura of calm reassurance that she carried with her until her last days on earth, said Mrs. Havranek. It was hard to pick out one single, happiest memory. Just being in her presence was enough.
A memorial service was held Saturday at Catonsville United Methodist Church.
In addition to her daughters Patricia Havranek of Chestnut Ridge and Luci Loeffler of Round Hill, Va., she is survived by her other children, Susan Diefenbach of Mays Chapel and George Diefenbach of Catonsville; a sister, Patricia L. Aitkens of New Jersey; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Diefenbach’s husband died in 2004.