Nelly Sfeir Gonzalez, 90, died at 9:56 p.m. on Sunday, November 29, 2020 from respiratory failure caused by covid19 after fighting valiantly for two weeks at Carle Hospital.
Nelly was exemplary at all the stages of her life, being at different times a fun playmate to her siblings and neighborhood children, a student leader in her university days, a supportive wife to her civil engineer husband Walter, a dedicated mother to her five sons (Walter Ramiro, Mauricio, Javier, Fernando and Sergio), a nationally-recognized librarian and award-winning bibliographer at the University of Illinois, a doting grandmother to eleven grandchildren (two of whom died prior to puberty) and one great grandchild, and a fearless elderly person who faced the challenges of aging with serenity. A consummate oral storyteller, she had a winning smile, charming wit, and the gift of making and cultivating friends of all ages, and all social backgrounds, for the long haul. At a few points in the timeline, her life intersected with persons of historical importance.
Nelly was born in Cochabamba, Bolivia on July 1, 1930, the fourth of five children of Emilio Sfeir and Maria Cavero. From infancy, she received the affectionate appellation “Pirucha.” Her father, a hero of Bolivian counter-intelligence against Paraguay during the Chaco War (1932-1935), was an entrepreneur who moved the family to the capital city of La Paz for business reasons. Nelly was educated at the American Institute in La Paz, a private school founded and run by Methodist missionaries from northern Illinois, which nurtured several of the most influential leaders of the Revolution of 1952 that radically reorganized the structure of Bolivian society. It was there that Nelly made life-long friends and first learned English as well as American cultural values. In her retirement, Nelly enjoyed attending “Amerinst” reunions with her sister Blanca and niece Dr. Patricia Cavero. It was also during her school days that Nelly learned about world history on a personal level. Many of her classmates in the late 1930s and early 1940s were children of Austrian Jewish refugees who had fled the Nazi Holocaust. Nelly’s father, who had been educated at a French Jesuit high school in Lebanon, was decidedly a Francophile. During the Second World War, Nelly would enjoy staying up late after dinner to hear her father talk with oldest brother Jorge about the Maginot Line, General De Gaulle, and the Resistance. Growing up, Nelly preferred to play “cops and robbers,” shoot marbles, jump rope and spin the top with her older brother Pepe rather than play “tea time” with dolls with her younger sister Yola, which Nelly did nevertheless to please her. In addition, she assisted Pepe with his stamp collection. Losing him in an automobile accident when he was studying at the University of La Plata (Argentina) was a terrible blow.
Thereafter, older sister Blanca became her role model and best friend. After graduating from high school, Nelly emulated Blanca, who had worked full time as a bilingual executive secretary during the day and studied finance and economics at night, eventually earning a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Iowa. Nelly worked at Romecin, a men’s and women’s clothing store, while studying law at the UMSA university in La Paz. She was one of only three women in her graduating class. With her law school classmate and life-long friend Graciela “Chela” Lara, she founded the Teatro Universitario and successfully staged Alejandro Casona’s “Nuestra Natacha” to favorable reviews. The Director was Hugo Salmon, a renowned master of Bolivian radio theater who later became mayor of the city of La Paz. Salmon is the inspiration for the eccentric character Pedro Camacho in Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.” Nelly was also a student leader. She served as President of the Union Femenina Universitaria (Women’s Student Union) and her friend Chela served as Secretary. Together they organized a protest march in 1949 demanding suffrage for women (which march was dispersed by gunfire into the air as the protesters reached the government plaza). Women finally won the right to vote in Bolivia in 1950.
Nelly married Walter Gonzalez in 1952 and their first-born son Walter Ramiro arrived in 1953. Walter had graduated first in his class and was a promising civil engineer. In 1955 he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship for post-graduate studies at the University of Illinois in Urbana. Second son Mauricio was born in 1956 in Los Angeles, California, and third son Javier was born in 1958 in Urbana, Illinois. In 1959 the family returned to La Paz, Bolivia, where sons Fernando (1960) and Sergio (1965) were born. During this time husband Walter worked for the Corporacion Boliviana de Fomento, served as dean of engineering at the UMSA university, and was elected president of the Society of Bolivian Engineers. Nelly taught Spanish at the American Cooperative School. The period 1952 to 1963 was a golden age of Bolivian democracy and political stability; however, it was followed by an unstable period of seven years in which short-lived military dictatorships alternated in power. It was during this time that Nelly’s life intersected with actors on the world stage. She inadvertently hired communist revolutionary Che Guevara’s chief urban spy as a German-language teacher for her two oldest children. The spy became known around the world as the guerilla fighter “Tania.” So impressed was Nelly with this smart and personable German-Argentine woman that she recommended her to a neighbor, Colonel Fox, the US Airforce Attaché, who also turned out to be the CIA Station Chief in Bolivia. Tania died in combat some weeks before Che Guevara’s own life came to an end in the Bolivian wilderness.
In 1967, Walter and Nelly and their five boys moved to Urbana, Illinois, beginning a new chapter in their lives. Eventually, the couple chose to become naturalized citizens of the USA. From 1967 to 1975, while Walter worked at the engineering firm Clark, Dietz & Associates, Nelly was primarily a homemaker and mother, always encouraging her sons to do well in school and to learn new skills, such as playing the piano, riding a bike, swimming all the strokes, skating on ice, etc… She also encouraged her husband, who had been a highly-skilled violinist in his youth, to join the Champaign Civic Orchestra. All this emphasis on education, broadly defined, yielded a rich harvest. Two of Nelly’s sons earned MD degrees, one an MBA, one a JD, and one a CPA. One son is a Marshall Scholar. One grandson is a Rhodes Scholar. One granddaughter is a Fulbright Scholar. In addition, Nelly mentored and encouraged numerous other family and friends to obtain higher education and embark on successful careers.
Once most of her children reached middle school, Nelly decided to seek employment at the University of Illinois library and then to enroll in the Master of Library Science program. She was inducted into the Beta Phi Mu honor society, graduated with honors and embarked on a 25-year career as the definitive bibliographer of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez (“One Hundred Years of Solitude”) and eventually as the Head of the Latin American library at the University of Illinois. She was able to accomplish this through hard work and the generous mentorship of Carl Deal and Sister Eustella Fau. After Nelly’s husband Walter died from pancreatic cancer in 1979 at the age of 55, the profound loss nearly shattered her emotionally. However, she responded with valor and diligence, earning tenure as a Professor of Library Science. In memory of her deceased husband, for the past 25 years without interruption Nelly has awarded a cash prize for academic excellence to the top civil engineering graduate of the UMSA university.
Nelly was a two-time winner of the Torribio Medina Prize for best Latin American bibliography, founding editor of the peer-reviewed Bolivian Studies Journal, and a past President of SALALM (Seminar on Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials), by election of her peers. During her fruitful career at the University of Illinois Library, one of the highlights was travel to conferences hosted in foreign countries. Nelly always enjoyed remembering her visit to the Dominican Republic with Joyce Wright during the merengue festival. She travelled to China with Karen Wei and her daughter Melissa, who became a fast friend of Nelly. She travelled to Brazil with Vera Mitchell and visited with their dear old friend Venicio de Lima, who had obtained his PhD in Social Communication at the University of Illinois. In retirement, Nelly enjoyed attending the twice-monthly gatherings of the “Club de Español” for intellectual fellowship and Spanish conversation.
Nelly was always a good neighbor. She cultivated close ties with the Lilly and Kingsley Allan families on her street, and was always happy to hire neighborhood boys to mow her lawn. She and husband Walter also served as a host family for foreign students; out of this hospitality came a long-term friendship with Takaaki Okada from Japan. In retirement at the Clark-Lindsey Village, she started an Argentine Canasta weekly table with Charlotte M. and enjoyed sitting in the courtyards and memory garden. The family is grateful for the care Nelly received at Meadowbrook Skilled Care.
Prior to being admitted to Carle Hospital, Nelly had resided at the Meadowbrook Skilled Care wing of the Clark-Lindsey Village since December 2017, where—prior to the covid19 lockdown—she had been visited on a daily basis by her sons Sergio, Fernando, Javier and Mauricio as well as family friend Elpidio Sanchez and from time to time by dear old colleagues from the University of Illinois library, including Joyce Wright, Karen Wei and Yolanda Deal. She also enjoyed periodic phone calls and visits from her Gonzalez grandchildren, and her Cavero, Sfeir and Reid nieces and nephews. In the weeks prior to her passing, she enjoyed heartfelt phone conversations with family friends Chela Lara, Cecilia Rios, Fatima Soria, Doris Busch, Charo and Marcelo Murillo, Venicio de Lima and Maria Tapias. In the final months of her life, Nelly was able to sing “Happy Birthday” by telephone conference call to son Sergio (September) and granddaughters Natasha (October) and Andrea (November).
Finally, the story of her life would be incomplete if we failed to note the importance of religion. Nelly was a woman of quiet faith, who wasn’t overtly religious. But she was a regular church goer, a habit instilled in her by her mother, whose own great uncle had been Roman Catholic bishop of Cochabamba in the late 1800s. On the paternal side of the family, Nelly’s uncle was an archbishop in the Maronite Catholic church and cousin Cardinal NP Sfeir was one of the longest-serving Patriarchs of all time. In her final years, this religious faith helped her cope with the sudden death of her son Walter Ramiro in 2015, and her declining eyesight (she suffered from macular degeneration), impaired mobility and loss of short-term memory. She believed that there was a room waiting for her in our Father’s heavenly house. Her favorite Catholic prayer was “Anima Christi,” which concludes with these words: “At the hour of my death, call me and bid me come to you Jesus so that with your saints I may praise you forever and ever. Amen.”
Nelly is survived by her sons Mauricio, Javier (Natalya Smith), Fernando and Sergio, and grandchildren Walter Francisco, Angela (Manolo Garcia) and Mariah; Andrea (Daniel Torres), Mauricio Jr. (Ruti Prudencio) and Victoria; Xavier Jr. and Natasha; Sergio Jr. and Alex; and great grand-daughter Patricia Garcia-Gonzalez. She is also survived by her sisters-in-law Maria Luisa Sfeir and Maria Luisa Gonzales as well as numerous nieces and nephews descended from her deceased siblings Jorge Sfeir (Maria Luisa), Blanca Sfeir Cavero (Jorge), Yolanda Sfeir Reid (Carl), and from her deceased brothers and sisters-in-law Antonia Gonzales Herbas (Emilio), Ruben Gonzales (Corina), Juan Gonzales (Maria Luisa) and Jorge Gonzales (Mary). Nelly’s husband Walter, first-born son Walter Ramiro and his daughter Patricia predeceased her.
The family is grateful to Walter and Miriam Karpovics for arranging for the traditional eight-day mass celebrated on December 7, 2020 at Iglesia San Miguel Arcangel in Calacoto, La Paz, Bolivia. A funeral Mass for Nelly to be celebrated by Father Chase Hilgenbrinck has been scheduled for Thursday, December 17, 2020 at 9am in the sanctuary of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Champaign, Illinois. The mass shall also be live streamed on You Tube, accessible by private link (see link below with the service information). Nelly’s remains will be buried next to her husband Walter and son Walter Ramiro at Woodlawn Cemetery in Urbana.
In lieu of flowers, charitable donations in Nelly's memory may be made to the Bolivian Studies Journal, of which Nelly was a co-founder and editor emeritus.