Jim Dey: Naomi Jakobsson, family matriarch

Jim Dey: Naomi Jakobsson, family matriarch

When Democratic state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson announced last year that she would not run for another term in the Illinois House of Representatives, she gave the standard response for stepping down — a desire to spend more time with her family.

Her explanation may have been the stereotypical response of the tired and fired, but Jakobsson's family defies convention — it's so big it requires extra time just to call and say hello.

"I really do want more time with the family," said Jakobsson, who recalled that it "wasn't an easy decision" to end her political career.

It's on days like this Mother's Day that Jakobsson enjoys the bounty that comes from her role as matriarch of a family of eight children and 12 grandchildren ranging in age from 2 years-plus to 21.

The children Jakobsson and her husband, Eric Jakobsson, a longtime University of Illinois faculty member and Urbana alderman, reared include two by birth and six adoptees — two from South Korea, two who are biracial and two who came in a single package, twin daughters. And that doesn't include the foster children they brought into their home.

"It's my family, and they're great," said Jakobsson, who has melded careers as a mother and homemaker, nontraditional student, teacher and public official.

So what's up this Mother's Day?

"I'm not sure yet," Jakobsson said earlier in the week.

One thing's for sure, it will be a different, sadder Mother's Day for Jakobsson. Son Garret, who was 46 and living in Mattoon, passed away in November 2013 after battling a neurodegenerative disease.

"This will be the first Mother's Day without him," she said.

How does a family of this size and variety come about? Actually, it's pretty simple. They wanted to provide homes for children who didn't have them.

"We just decided that we wanted a large family and that there were children in the world who didn't have families," she said. "It was about them."

The Jakobssons met in the early 1960s in High Bridge, N.J., a city were Naomi grew up and where Eric was working at a cryogenics laboratory. They married in 1963 and had their first two children, Beverly, now 49 and a teacher, and Eric, now 47 and a musician who installs home theater systems, in 1965 and 1967, respectively. After that, they adopted two South Korean orphans, Susan, who is 47 and works in medical records, and Garret, through the Pearl Buck Foundation.

They had four young children under their roof while Eric was still a graduate student working on his doctorate in biophysics at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

Jakobsson confesses to a certain amount of naivete about their ambitious undertaking.

"We certainly weren't thinking about the cost of living," she said.

But, at the same time, Jakobsson said she never felt overwhelmed by the responsibility to oversee four young children.

"It was something I never really thought of as work," she said.

But Jakobsson noted that it takes a combination of qualities to handle children of that age as well as a division of duties with a husband who's fully on board with the program.

She agreed with suggestions that it requires patience, compassion, organizational skills and intelligence to keep track of the kids. But she added one more that's crucial — a sense of humor.

"I do look back on it as being wonderful. I'm not sure I'd have the energy to do it again," Jakobsson said.

Their natural children took quickly to the first two adoptees. Jakobsson recalled that daughter Beverly suggested the name "Susan" because Beverly had an imaginary friend who was named Susan. Beverly had another imaginary friend, and Jakobsson said the name Susan "was better than the other option — Fraffalee."

Four children soon proved not to be enough. Jakobsson recalled that Eric called her one day in 1970 when they were living near Cleveland and he was doing post-doctoral work at Case Western Reserve University.

"He said, 'Hey, do you think it's time for another baby?' I said, 'Sure,'" she recalled.

They then adopted 9-month-old Jonathan. He's now 44 and a building construction inspector at the UI.

His addition meant there were five children under first grade in the household. Filling out the roster in 1973 were daughter Sarah, now 41 and an employee at Metritech, and then twins Brenda and Linda, both 37 and stay-at-home moms. They took in the twins as foster children before adopting them.

While rearing the children, Jakobsson also went on to get her bachelor's and master's degrees between 1972-79, starting at Parkland College and finishing at the UI. She recalls that she and the children were in school at the same time.

"We always sat down and did our homework together in the evening," Jakobsson said.

Looking back on her brood, Jakobsson recalls that the kids mostly got along, although "they were siblings," and that family outings were spartan but fun.

"When they were little, most of the family vacations were in a tent," she said.

But Jakobsson is remarkably circumspect about her management of a household overrun with children, like it was no big deal.

"I really don't think it was too difficult."

"I can hit the ground running in the morning. The laundry basket can be in my arms before my eyes open."

"I never minded homemaking. I enjoyed sewing, cooking and doing things for the family."

The key word for her is "family," and sharing its joy, camaraderie, sadness and success with those who might not have had it otherwise.

"We certainly tried to get them a family life and opportunities," Jakobsson said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette family, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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