Turning Tragedy into Support: Geri Joseph and Jen Kordell
by Jon Spayde
“We wanted to reach people who were going to be influencing the field of aging as advocates, like my mother was. People making individual lives better, richer, more meaningful, more comfortable.”
Geri Joseph and her granddaughter Jen Kordell turned a terrible tragedy into an ongoing act of support for U of M students committed to the care of older adults.
Geraldine “Geri” Joseph is one of the major figures of Minnesota public life. An award-winning newspaper journalist, she served as vice chair of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) and vice-chairperson of the Democratic National Committee. Appointed ambassador to the Netherlands by President Jimmy Carter on the recommendation of her longtime colleague, Vice President Walter Mondale, she later was senior fellow for International Programs at the U of M’s Humphrey Institute. Her life of service has included a galaxy of volunteer projects and board memberships as well.
Jennifer “Jen” Kordell is chief human resources officer at the global management consulting firm Charles River Associates in Boston, where she leads a large international team, takes part in board of directors meetings, and serves on the company’s COVID Re-Entry Task Force.
Geri is also a mother; and Jen is also a daughter.
Geri’s daughter and Jen’s mother was Shelley Joseph-Kordell, a woman who cared deeply about older people. Shelley’s care of her grandmother, Geri’s mother, blossomed into a business called Rent-a-Daughter. Shelley was the ”daughter” and she was a helper, advocate, and, most importantly, a friend for her aging clients. She helped them with everything from finances to medical appointments to housing. In this she was a pioneer. Rent-a-Daughter, which began as an expression of Shelley’s personal dedication to the well-being of older people, turned into one of the earliest examples of geriatric care management, incorporating medical advocacy, care coordination, long-term care advice, and more.
The “more” included love. “Whenever she would invite our family over for dinner or a special holiday,” Geri recalls, “she always had some of her clients join the gathering, too.” Jen remembers that “there were times we’d have to rent tables and chairs because we didn’t have enough places to seat everybody.”
And then tragedy struck. Shelley was shot and killed in the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis by a woman distantly related to her who was struggling with mental illness. Devastated, the family looked for a way to memorialize Shelley and promote her compassionate, holistic approach to elder care. Geri, a University of Minnesota graduate, and Jen knew that the U of M was the logical place for that commemoration. That’s how the Shelley Joseph-Kordell Memorial Scholarship was created.
The scholarship supports University of Minnesota graduate students, including those from the School of Public Health (SPH), who are committed to working directly to improve the lives of older people post-graduation. (It will be extended to include undergraduates committed to a career in geriatric care management and advocacy when SPH, currently a graduate school, accepts undergraduates — a change slated for fall 2023.) “We really wanted to draw people into the field in a very hands-on way,” Jen says. “We wanted to reach people who were going to be influencing the field of aging as advocates, like my mother was. People who make individual lives better, richer, more meaningful, more comfortable.”
The initial fundraising, Geri says, “was a matter of approaching friends, some of whom knew something about Shelley’s work because they had relatives in similar situations, and others who were sold on the idea by Jen and me. And it kind of gathered momentum.” At the beginning, says Jen, “we had lots of small gifts. The purpose was not rapid principal accumulation, but rather keeping my mother’s memory alive. And so, I was happy to take 50 gifts under 100 dollars, because that meant 50 people were thinking about my mother when they wrote the check.”
As of 2021, the scholarship has supported 21 students from across the University.
To those considering a similar form of giving — endowing a scholarship or fellowship — Geri cites the pleasure of meeting some of the recipients over the years and knowing that the scholarship is enriching an entire field by supporting its newest practitioners. She advises donors to “have a plan, and have a great partner, like the U of M.”
For Geri, who is a vibrant 98 and living in a care facility, the significance of maintaining and building on Shelley’s work is immediate. “I see every day where the gaps are in care for older people,” she says. A dedicated servant of the public good for decades, she wants to see elder care grow and improve in the holistic, humane direction her daughter epitomized, and she and her granddaughter are proud of the contribution that the Shelley Joseph-Kordell Memorial Scholarship is making to that noble end.