As far as Jean Garvey was concerned, a child’s appearance or background had nothing to do with that child’s worth.
Hair color, body piercings, tattoos. It just didn’t matter. She looked at the child and saw possibilities.
“She gave them the same amount of attention and love,” said Karen Norton, former head of the Independent School, which was founded by Mrs. Garvey and her late husband, Willard, a Wichita businessman and philanthropist.
Mrs. Garvey, 90, died at her home Sunday night with her family gathered around her.
She spent a lifetime helping others, but she was especially passionate about encouraging children in their education.
She didn’t just talk about it, though.
After World War II interrupted her college education, she returned years later to get a degree from Friends University in 1988 at the age of 66.
Children were always at the center of why Jean Garvey did what she did. She and Willard had six children, 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
She and her husband help start Wichita Collegiate School in 1963, and their children attended it. But Mrs. Garvey also wanted to provide a private school that would meet the need for all students at a modest price. That led to the creation of Independent in 1980.
“School is where my heart is,” she told a gathering in 2010 during a celebration of the school’s 30th anniversary.
Ann Garvey said her mother’s final words were, “There’s more to be done, more children, more families to help.”
“She never did anything for her own glory,” Ann Garvey said. “She did these things just because it was the right thing to do.”
Mrs. Garvey’s family and friends described her as gracious, caring and selfless. She was a strong supporter of the Salvation Army, had headed Goodwill Industries capital campaigns and was presented the Uncommon Citizen Award by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce in 2004.
She served on multiple boards, supported the arts and was a huge fan of the opera. She took an active part in her church, the Second Church of Christ Scientist.
But to her, it was all about people.
“The whole core of her being was to work and do good,” said Mary Theroux, another of Mrs. Garvey’s daughters.
Maj. Douglas Rowland, who heads the Salvation Army in Wichita, said, “This is really a sad thing for the community. Spending time with her was always a pleasure.
“She had a love for kids. She was always happy, always joyful, always had a smile on her face, always positive. We all could learn a lot from that spirit and who she was.”
As the head of school at Independent for 26 years before retiring in 2006, Norton saw Mrs. Garvey’s passion regularly.
“I think one thing people took for granted was her open mindedness, her willingness to consider all possibilities,” Norton said. “She would talk to anybody. She would say, ‘Everybody has a story, and I can learn from them.’ ”
That could be someone she passed on the street or someone she was talking to while ringing bells during the Salvation Army’s annual red kettle campaigns, something she continued to do well into her 80s.
Linwood Sexton, a former Wichita State University star athlete who is black, recalled the days when Wichita’s restaurants were segregated.
“That didn’t stop Jean,” said Sexton, 86. “She was so conscious of everybody being the same that there were times she would take black ladies to the nicer restaurants. Because of her status, they wouldn’t run her out.
“She was one of the instruments in breaking down segregation as far as eating in restaurants in Wichita. She was a great person.”
Mrs. Garvey also was generous with her money. In May, she donated $1 million for the continuing renovation of the Orpheum Theatre. She also continued to support the YMCA, as she and Willard had done together for years.
But she wasn’t just about throwing money at a cause and walking away. She regularly attended events at Independent, even driving in her golf cart from her nearby home for homecoming football games in recent years.
Dixie Madden knew Mrs. Garvey from when Madden’s daughter attended Independent from kindergarten through high school. But as the director of Friends University’s Institute of Law and the Garvey Lecture Series, Madden saw even more of Mrs. Garvey’s willingness to pitch in and help.
Willard Garvey died in 2002 before his plans for the master’s degree in business law at Friends were finished. Mrs. Garvey made sure the ball kept rolling, Madden said.
“She’s an absolute fount of information and thinking,” Madden said. “She’s always looking for ways to improve the world, and she’s very effective at finding those.
“Mrs. Garvey is without any reservation the most impressive person I’ve ever met in my life.”
She raised her children to care for others but to find their own causes.
“She raised us to be independent thinkers and doers,” Ann Garvey said. “She raised six completely wild people and lived with a man who had the energy of 50 people. She never said anything unkind.
“If she was really mad, she’d say, ‘Oh, bad word.’ ”
Mrs. Garvey, born on Feb. 3, 1922, grew up in Riverside and graduated from North High School. She was attending what was then Wichita University with plans to be a Latin American diplomat when World War II started in 1941.
She left school to work for Swallow Aircraft in Wichita and later as a file clerk at Boeing.
After the war, she met a WWII veteran on a blind date shortly before Christmas 1945. By their second date, on New Year’s Eve, Willard Garvey was talking about marrying the attractive brunette.
They were married April 18, 1946.
She had traveled very little up to that point, never going farther west than Denver or south of Oklahoma City and east to Cincinnati to attend the opera with her grandparents. But over their 56 years of marriage, she and Willard would travel around the world together.
Her devotion to family and friends was evident even in recent weeks.
About 50 family members and friends were at her house for Thanksgiving. Thirty family members attended a Christmas party at her house Dec. 18, complete with carols and a visit from Santa Claus.
“We’ve lost a lot of grand women and men lately,” said Norton, the former Independent School administrator. “They had a very special outlook. They dedicated their lives to making society better for people. Jean Garvey was one of those.”
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Orpheum, 200 N. Broadway. Broadway Mortuary is in charge of the services. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations be sent to the Independent School, 8317 E. Douglas, Wichita, KS 67207.