James G. Gutensohn (83), a South Haven enthusiast born in Cambridge, Massachusetts and former Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management (1983-1989) died at his home in southern France on May 18 following a long illness.
Jim and his wife Joanne (Kauffman) were married in South Haven 35 years ago at the home of her mother, Tillie Kauffman, and made frequent trips back to spend time with their extended mid-western families. The most recent was June 2020.
A dynamic and creative leader, Jim helped the DEM acquire more than 200,000 acres of open space land for conservation, shepherded completion of Massachusetts’ system of Heritage Parks that celebrate the state’s cultural and industrial diversity, and introduced Arts in the Park featuring the work of local artists to draw visitors’ attention to the richness of the state’s forests and parks.
Over a long career in state government, he also served as Under Secretary of Transportation and was the first Executive Director of the State Ethics Commission.
Born in 1938 in Monticello, Iowa he was the son of the Reverend Sam Gutensohn and Martha (Kinsey), a school teacher. His father died in 1950 when “Gerry”, as he was known to close family was 11 years old. He and his mother then moved to Sterling, IL where she taught school and he took on many odd-jobs to help support them: paper-boy, steel mill worker, gas station attendant – experiences he would relish and draw upon in his writings later in life. A graduate of Beloit College (1960), he went on to graduate degrees in theology (Andover/Newton Theological) and urban planning (University of Wisconsin), preparing him for a career rooted in public service, social justice, and integrity.
After retirement from the private sector in 2003, he and his wife Joanne Kauffman moved to southern France where he pursued organic gardening, continued lessons in jazz piano (re-launched when he was 60 after a failed attempt in childhood), turned to writing essays, memoir, and a novel “Phelps County: An Adult Fairytale” which he completed in 2018. A sweeping literary and cultural journey through small town Middle America in the mid to late 20th century, the book explores the relationship between memory and history, drawing upon his own youth and experience as a Freedom Rider, North Carolina (1963). True to his convictions for social justice and peace, he continued all his life to support efforts to assist and sustain refugees from economic and military strife in their quests for freedom, which he fervently believed every individual (no matter their life circumstances) deserved. Although he never could learn French (“I’m lousy at languages”) he dove into the literature and culture of his adopted country, the better to understand it, completing a reading of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” in its entirety – twice – and most of the essays of Montaigne. It may be why in spite of his language limitations, Jim Gutensohn had many friends in rural France – especially young people who were drawn to his enthusiasm, joie de vivre, and support for the pursuit of their dreams. Many who came to practice their English with him left instead with greater confidence in themselves and their own talents.
In addition to his beloved wife he is survived by her daughter, Alexandra (Callaghan of Wheat Ridge, CO), Alexandra’s husband, Dan, and daughters Olivia and Sophie; two daughters by a previous marriage, Julie (Kevin Moran of Peabody, MA) and Sara (Tom Lillis of Bloomington, IN) and their children: Brendon, Lindsey, Will and Erin, and his godson, Sacha Bessler (Aups, France).
A special place in his heart was reserved for his beloved extended family: the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of his two sisters, the late Helen Vukelich of Madison, WI and Sylvia Ball of Albuquerque, NM, as well as the young Kauffmans, children and grandchildren of Joanne’s brother Fred (S. Haven, MI). He cherished their visits to his and Joanne’s rural home and sharing their simple and organic way of life with them.
He will be remembered most for his enthusiasm, courage, integrity, humor and optimism, words that were oft repeated by the many friends around the world and those who came to say “au revoir” at his memorial held in Manosque (Alpes de Haut Provence), May 22. An ardent environmentalist and optimist, he would appreciate a gesture for the Earth in his memory.
Private family services have been held in France.
To send flowers to James' family, please visit our floral store.