Married to Ray Giornelli for nearly 67 years, she was the ‘best kindergarten teacher ever’
Jillian Laning Giornelli, wife of Raymond Giornelli, mother of five children, grandmother to six, and great-grandmother to one, died at the age of 86 on November 25, in Marietta, Ga. Jill passed away just one month shy of her 67th wedding anniversary with Ray, the love of her life.
Jill was kind, smart, loving, generous, and creative. She was the best kindergarten teacher ever, adored by her students. A voracious reader and learner, she was inquisitive and curious about others, a champion of human rights and equal opportunity.
She was known as Gamma to her grandchildren – with the perfect reading lap and biggest children’s library, fun art projects, scavenger hunts, and fresh hot bread always on hand. She was a hobby seamstress often at work on homemade Christmas pajamas, Halloween costumes, and American Girl doll outfits. So many of her admirable traits (the most important being kindness) have been passed down to her six grandchildren, all of whom she loved dearly, and each of whom adored her in turn. She had such immense pride in all her grandchildren. By her influence and example, two grandchildren are teachers; all work in the service of others. They are her living legacy.
Jill was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 18, 1937, to Caleb Laning, a career naval officer who would later become a World War II hero and Navy Cross recipient, and Micky Dunlap, a charming and adventurous woman who, in the 1920s, took flying lessons, drove race cars, and was a professional dancer on stage in Los Angeles. Jill, and her older sister Judy, were devoted daughters who revered their parents.
As a Navy brat, Jill traveled and lived all over the world. One of her father’s fateful assignments brought their family to Honolulu in the late 1930s. Four-year-old Jill’s earliest memories of green Hawaii and swimming in the ocean were soon overshadowed by her eyewitness to the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. In the car with her family to get her father to his ship, she had an abrupt and confusing parting from him to the backdrop of the overwhelming sounds and sights of explosions. On the drive home, the family car was strafed by a Japanese fighter plane, making that morning an experience which would influence Jill’s earliest years and development.
Jill’s youth involved a series of moves to different cities in the United States and abroad, requiring frequent readjustment to new schools and new faces, which was difficult for her shy and inward nature. Some of the moves required lonely stints at boarding schools. But happier experiences were found at an elementary school in Washington D.C., and another at a iunior high school in Newport, R.I,, where she had exceptionally kind, caring and encouraging teachers who influenced Jill’s eventual career choice many years later. Her early childhood experiences would make her uniquely empathetic towards young children.
Some of Jill’s most cherished youthful memories were from the years she spent living in Italy as a teenager and attending Marymount School in Rome. Her connection to Italy would grow even stronger after a family move to Newport, R.I., where, after graduating from high school there, she attended the University of Rhode Island and met Ray Giornelli, from East Greenwich and the son of Italian immigrants. Together they would grow a lifelong appreciation of all things Italian.
After an immediate attraction and lovely courtship, Jill and Ray married on December 29, 1956, and quickly grew their family to include five children. They moved all over the Northeast for Ray’s sales job with Shell Chemical Company. Jill spent her time raising children, sponsoring foster kids, volunteering for political causes, taking the occasional classes towards earning a college degree, and attending evening dance classes with Ray at the local community college. They danced a mean shag to the delight of their kids.
After a permanent move to Atlanta, Jill gained more independence as her children grew older. She was able to go back to school and in 1976 graduated Magna Cum Laude from Georgia State University with a degree in Early Childhood Education. Her 25-year teaching career in Cobb County Schools, most of it spent as a kindergarten teacher, was the most fulfilling time of her life.
As empty nesters, Ray and Jill had more freedom to travel, and in 1984 they went on the first real solo trip of their marriage – a spectacular six weeks in Italy where Jill revisited memories from her youth and Ray was able to explore his Italian roots. This was the start of travel adventures spanning almost 40 years and 40 countries, but they came back to their beloved Italy time and time again.
Jill and Ray modeled a beautiful marriage for their five children, while Jill provided a great example of a loving daughter, mother, grandmother, and a strong individual of great character. Jill was the driving force in creating their close family unit with fun family gatherings always propelled on the gift of laughter. She will be profoundly missed at these events.
Jill is survived by her husband, Raymond Giornelli, five children and their spouses, Leslie Giornelli (Jim Clemmer), Trace Giornelli (Joe Durando), Greg Giornelli (Lillian), Barry Giornelli (Cindy) and Jillian Giornelli (Andrew Wiseman), her six grandchildren, Adelaide Giornelli, Ann Woodward (Noah), Jill Giornelli (Nick Evert), Thomas Giornelli, Elisabeth Wilkerson and Raymond Wilkerson, and a great-granddaughter, Ruth Laning Evert. She also is survived by her many loving nieces and nephews.
A private family service will be held on December 23, 2023.
In lieu of flowers, please make any donations to Plan International, a non-profit that advances children’s rights and equality for girls in over 80 countries. Jill was a 30 year contributor to the organization.
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