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Former Navy Capt. Jordine Skoff Von Wantoch, who broke barriers for working moms, dies at 89

Folded flag resting on a headstone. (MaxPixel/Released/TNS)

Jordine Skoff Von Wantoch was born a coal miner’s daughter, but with her hard work, perseverance and adventurous spirit, she rose to a top position in the U.S. Navy, forging a path like no other woman who came before her. She was 89 when she died June 22 at her Coronado home with her daughter by her side.

Von Wantoch spent 30 years in the Navy, rising to the rank of captain eight years before her retirement in 1986. But it was in 1970, when she became pregnant with her daughter, Lianh, that she become a boundary-breaker for all women officers who followed in her wake. Von Wantoch was the first female Naval officer in the U.S. to be allowed to remain on active duty and complete a normal career while raising a child. This opened the door for a change in policy regarding women with children in the Navy and is documented in Jean Ebbert’s 1993 book “Crossed Currents: Navy Women from WWI to Tailhook.”

Lian Von Wantoch, now 49, said her mother’s never-say-never attitude and passion for world travel inspired her own career as a 22-year U.S. foreign service officer, now based in Washington, D.C.

“She was a great role model,” she said, of her mom. “I was so impressed by her tenacity and her not taking no for an answer that it inspired me. She is the reason for things that I take for granted about the role of women. She showed me what was possible if you just persevere.”

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Born Jordine Skoff on May 12, 1931, in the small coal-mining town of Weston, Pa., she grew up in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where her parents, Victor and Edith Skoff, moved in search of work during the Great Depression. After earning her master’s degree in English literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1954, she taught high school English for two years in Eastpointe (formerly East Detroit), Mich.

Frustrated that women teachers were paid less than men, she joined the Navy in June 1956 because it was one of the few jobs offering equal pay. She’d planned to serve for just two years, but the job opportunities and travel the Navy offered proved irresistible. At the time, many positions in the Navy were reserved for men, so she applied for positions that no men wanted. Her first assignment in 1958 was working 12-hour shifts as a cryptologist for Naval Communications in London. In 1959, she took an administrative job at a remote Naval radio center in Northern Ireland, her daughter said.

In 1965, she was assigned to the commander in chief’s staff for what’s now known as the U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va. That’s where in 1966 she met her future husband, Harvey Von Wantoch, who was serving as an adjudicator for Navy disciplinary hearings. They married in May 1967 and a year later transferred together to Coronado, where she directed the Vietnamese language training program at the Naval Amphibious School and he continued his work in the Navy’s legal division.

She was nearly 40 when she gave birth to their only child. Though the Von Wantochs had long wanted a family, she didn’t want to give up her career. So they wrote a persuasive letter to the U.S. Secretary of the Navy in 1970 asking him to grant a policy waiver, citing her distinguished record. Under the unusual deal, she had to submit a letter of resignation to retire, but the Navy agreed not to act on it. It wasn’t an official policy change, but it was the first time a woman Navy officer was allowed to stay on active duty after becoming a mother. Four years later, the policy was abolished, Lian said.

“She was an important crack in the policy when they granted that waiver,” Lian said. “For me growing up, I remember all of these women friends of hers in the Navy coming up and touching me. I felt like I was the holy grail. None of them were able to get married and have children, so she was the trailblazer.”

Later in her career, Von Wantoch served as executive officer for Naval Administrative Command at the Naval Training Center in San Diego; director of administration and logistics for Navy Recruiting Command in Washington, D.C.; and commanding officer of Personnel Support Activity in San Diego. Her husband retired from the Navy in 1972, practiced civilian law for 20 years and passed away in 2007.

After retiring, Von Wantoch threw herself into another lifelong passion, the theater. In 1969, she became an active member of The Old Globe’s volunteer auxiliary group, The Globe Guilders, and continued to work closely with the Globe for the next 51 years as a volunteer, committee chair, donor and board member.

A close friend of the Old Globe’s founding director, the late Craig Noel, she chaired the Craig Noel Legacy Society Committee after he died in 2010. She was also close to longtime artistic director Jack O’Brien and former managing director Tom Hall, and she enjoyed following the careers of many former Globe artists, including former artistic director Darko Tresnjak and MFA actor Sam Avishay, Lian said.

“She was completely tireless,” said Tim Shields, the Old Globe’s managing director since 2017. “She carried with her an acuity of recall and a clear sort of understanding of everything going on at the Globe.”

Shields said Von Wantoch had a “people personality” and cared deeply about ensuring the Globe’s future survival. In recent years, she’d slowed down a bit due to heart problems. But last summer she attended both outdoor Shakespeare productions in a wheelchair and she called into a Globe board meeting as recently as June 8.

“At the Old Globe of today, in its 85 years of history, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, whether it’s Craig Noel, Jack O’Brien or Tom Hall. Jordine is one of those giants. We’re just so delighted to have gotten to know her and have had her in our life at the Old Globe,” Shields said.

A memorial service for Von Wantoch will be held at 10 a.m. July 8 at Sacred Heart Church, 655 C Ave., Coronado. She will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. In lieu of flowers, Von Wantoch had requested that gifts in her memory go to the Old Globe’s Endowment Fund at P.O. Box 122171, San Diego, CA 92112-2171, or to any other theater of choice.

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© 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune