By all accounts, Jean Donato was a lovely woman, inside and out. Fiercely independent, she would do almost anything for almost anyone, except for one thing: she wasn't going to be talking about how old she was.
At 73 - a number few people who saw her could believe - Jean was the poster child for vibrant, healthy, and glowing "women of a certain age."
Her age was her little secret, her son, Robert Donato, said.
Donato remembers now with fondness and not a few tears his mother's sweet little vanity about her age.
That's because the last time anyone asked Jean how old she was, it was an EMT outside the building where she was employed.
Last Thursday, Jean Donato tripped and fell in a bizarre accident that ultimately cost her her life.
Her friends and colleagues surrounded her, trying to comfort her in her injuries. The EMT, Robert was told, tested Jean's competency by asking, "How old are you?"
"She said, ' I'm not going to tell you in front of all these people!' " Robert said with a soft chuckle. "Even as hurt as she was, she still had a thing about telling anyone her age."
The accident was freakish.
The Board of Education and schools throughout Woodbridge were participating in a three-minute exercise event sponsored by the township. was set to begin at 10 am.
Jean, chief clerk in the district's purchasing department, joined her colleagues as they went outside to engage in some dancing and mild exercise. That is when "she tripped or fell, and somehow became airborne," Robert said.
She catapulted down the stairs, breaking both her wrists, and smashing her head on the sidewalk.
"She came down so hard, no one could stop it," her son said.
His mother "was still conscious when they took her to the hospital. Her friends said she kept saying, don't bother, don't call an ambulance."
Jean was alert on the way to the hospital, but she began to lose consciousness in the emergency room. She had suffered traumatic brain injury, Robert said.
An operation to relieve the pressure on her brain was successful, but not long after, she suffered a massive stroke before she passed away.
As tragic and senseless as her death was, Robert was shocked at the outpouring of love and affection from her BOE colleagues, and from people in the township who knew her for years.
"Everyone I talked to loved my mother. I loved her, but I didn't know how much other people loved her," he said.
Jean Walz was born in Perth Amboy and graduated from Perth Amboy High School in 1957. Two years later, she married Robert Donato, and the young couple moved back to the Avenel section of Woodbridge, where he was from.
Robert's father passed away in 1974, leaving Jean to raise Robert and his sister by herself. In 1988, finding the Avenel house too much to take care of, Jean moved to a smaller home North Brunswick, where she stayed until her death.
"At the age of 50, my mother took a job with the Board of Education," Robert said. After working at the BOE for 23 years, Jean showed little sign of slowing down. "She loved that job. It was her life," he said.
"She was independent, and loved that the job made her independent. She was proud that my sister and I didn't have to worry about her.
"She could take care of herself."
That included Jean's meticulous grooming and a standing weekly visit to her hairdresser, Dimensions in Avenel.
At his mother's immaculate home, Robert saw from a calendar that his mother had made an appointment to get her hair done, so he called to tell her hair stylist about his mother's death.
"She cried and cried. She was so upset," he said, and that was just one expression of grief the people who knew Jean were feeling.
There are two things Robert wonders about: how this could have happened to his adored mother.
He also wonders if she knew he was at the hospital after she lost consciousness.
"They said she was awake for about an hour in the emergency room," Robert said.
It took him two hours to drive there from his Millville home.
Board of Education officials did not return phone calls for comment on the accident.
Visitation and funeral services will be held on Saturday in Metuchen. For details, please see the obituary at this link.