Fjelstad—Ruth Anne Susanne Giovanna Epsilon Houtermans Fjelstad, 87, on June 20, 2019, peacefully at Northfield Hospital in Northfield, Minn., surrounded by family members. Giovanna was born in Berlin, Germany, on April 13, 1932, to Friedrich Georg Houtermans and Charlotte (Riefenstahl) Houtermans, who were physicists engaged in world-changing scientific research. The family escaped from Germany during the rise of Hitler and moved to the Ukraine. Subsequently, Giovanna’s father was imprisoned during the Stalin purges. With support from the scientific community, Giovanna’s mother was able to flee the Ukraine with Giovanna and her younger brother, Jan. The family traveled to Latvia and then to the United States. Giovanna’s experiences as a refugee profoundly shaped her lifelong exploration of the meaning of family and home.
Giovanna studied at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, N.Y., and earned a master’s in mathematics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. She met Paul Fjelstad, a Harvard-trained physicist, while she was on a Fulbright Scholarship in Germany. Giovanna and Paul married in 1957. Their first son, Per, was born while they were working in Norway. Their daughter, Annika, was born while they were at Shimer College in Illinois. Their second son, Kaj, was born in Switzerland while there on a research fellowship that had been awarded to Paul. The family moved to Northfield when Paul joined the faculty of St. Olaf College. The family resided in Northfield for the next 50 years, where their youngest son, Lars, was born. Although anchored in Northfield, the family traveled widely, including sabbatical years in Germany and Liberia, West Africa. Giovanna and Paul divorced in 1987. In later years they re-established a steady companionship, sharing meals, concerts, travels, and visits to children and grandchildren.
Giovanna taught mathematics in many settings from elementary school to college, including at St. Olaf College in Northfield and St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn. She loved having her own home at the end of a dead end street with woods on two sides of her yard. She nurtured many vegetable and flower gardens there, finding special enjoyment in early spring flowers. Giovanna was creative, teaching herself new languages and crafts. She especially loved spinning and weaving.
Although the family had been active for many years at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Giovanna found her spiritual home at Cannon Valley Meeting in Northfield. She was actively engaged in the community, serving on committees, participating in spiritual nature activities, and taking leadership roles in education and peace activism. She supported the Saturday peace vigils on Bridge Square and was instrumental in the installation of a peace pole in a city park.
Giovanna lived at Northfield Retirement Community during her last years, where she remained a prodigious reader and found great joy in watching birds, nurturing plants, and witnessing the accomplishments of her grandchildren. Giovanna is joyfully remembered and deeply missed.
Giovanna is survived by four children, Per Fjelstad (Lu), Annika Fjelstad (Heather Ferguson), Kaj Fjelstad, and Lars Fjelstad (Martha Richards); four grandchildren; and a brother, Jan Houtermans. Donations may be made to Cannon Valley Meeting, PO Box 805, Northfield, MN 55057.