Obituary of Joan Catherine DeMerell
Joan DeMerell, 86, of Brookfield, died Jan. 7, 2024 peacefully at Regional Hospice in Danbury.
Born in the final years of the Great Depression, Joan was a testament to her Midwestern roots: she was strong, scrappy, and stubborn. Born in Merrill, Wisconsin, the youngest of three children, Joan was the only sibling never to meet their father, Joseph. He died in a car crash months before her birth. Her mother Linda made ends meet by renting out rooms to college students and giving violins lessons. Tragedy again would strike Joan again in her teenage years when her mother Linda died from breast cancer at age 49.
When Joan was 14, her father’s brother Leonard Schmitt, a successful attorney who argued before the Supreme Court and ran against Sen. Joseph McCarthy, became her legal guardian. Despite missing her family, Joan thrived under Uncle Len’s guidance, learning to water ski at their summer home on Lake Katherine in the Wisconsin North Woods, eventually putting on water ski performances as an infamous Minocquabat on Lake Micoqua.
After starting the University of Wisconsin-Madison with dreams of becoming a doctor until she found out she would have to take chemistry and anatomy, Joan fell in love with co-ed Richard Noel DeMerell and changed her major to English. The ensuing years would find Joan working as a stewardess, model and on-the-job trainer with United Airlines (where she met Walt Disney on a flight) until her engagement to Richard. After living in Colorado, Ohio and New York City, Joan worked as a layout editor at McCall’s magazine where she worked with Andy Warhol (before he was Andy Warhol) in the early 60s. She left when the paint fumes in the building made her sick – she found out she was expecting her first child, Robin Elizabeth.
The family moved to Connecticut in 1967, first to West Hartford and then settling in Bethel, where Joan locked eyes on an 1898 Colonial that needed the touches that only her degree from the New York School of Interior Design could provide. While the home was her pride and joy, nothing made her as joyful as the birth of her baby boy, Richard Nichols. Despite being a devoted stay-at-home mom, Joan yearned to work on something beyond her home. Together, she and her husband purchased a struggling bakery in Newtown, Connecticut, and it became the family’s second home. Through her detail to design and love for cooking and baking, Mrs. Anderson’s Foods became an epicenter in Newtown during the 1970s. The business had become her youngest baby.
After a divorce in the late 1980s, Joan gave up the bakery and retained the family home. She found work as a designer with Henry Dick & Sons in Danbury, Connecticut, where she sold a rug for Robert Redford’s Connecticut home and hitched a ride on the delivery truck only to find that Redford wasn’t there. Not wanting to be thoroughly disappointed, Joan took off her shoes for a brief roll on Redford’s bed.
In the end, Redford paled in comparison to Robert Wagner, a former Marine and TWA pilot from Brookfield, whom she met on a night out with friends. After years of dating, Bob finally proposed, but their 10-year fairy-tale romance ended quickly with Bob’s cancer diagnosis. Joan spent every waking moment caring for him until his death in 1993. She never bothered with men again because no one would ever measure up to the man she loved.
Joan eventually sold her home and moved to Bob’s condo in Brookfield. Her last job was as a designer at Klaff’s bath and kitchen design, a job she enjoyed until retirement at age 75. Joan’s retirement years were spent playing weekly bridge with her friends, dining out with her BFF Annie Trister, finding fabulous treasures at flea markets with her BFF Lorraine Dipaola, getting pedicures and going to music events with her daughter, Robin, and cooking and philosophizing with her son, Richard.
Despite being diagnosed with terminal cancer in July 2023, Joan continued to live life on her terms. She didn’t want the chemotherapy to rob her of special moments, as it did during her first diagnosis 8 years earlier. Instead, she chose to live each day as though it really were her last. Not one day since July did Joan ever stop doing whatever she wanted: she went to concerts, she went shopping, she played bridge, she made her own meals, she got pedicures, and she spent as much time with her children as they would give her.
On Jan. 1, a debillitating stroke brought her to Regional Hospice where she ate a little ice cream, sipped a little water, and hugged her family before falling into a deep sleep. Early on the morning of Jan. 6, she quietly and peacefully slipped away.
Even as she grew old and was a tiny slip of a lady, Joan was fiesty and unforgettable. She was opinionated and gracious. She was a fighter and yet the most loving mother her children could have asked for. She will live on in their hearts.
Joan is survived by her children, Richard DeMerell of Waterbury; her daughter Robin (Roger) Provey of New Preston; her former son-in-law Andre (Sonia) Havasi; her grandchildren Sarah (Nick) Batey, Noah Havasi and Nicholas Havasi; and two great-granddaughters, Olivia and Piper. She was predeceased by her brothers Donald (Lavonne) Schmitt of Madison WI and James (Esther) Schmitt of Verona WI.
Joan’s cremation remains will be buried alongside the love of her life, Robert Wagner. Graveside services for family and close friends will be Saturday, April 27, at 10:30 a.m. at Central Cemetery in Brookfield.
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