Reine-Marie Mikesell

Reine at a University of Chicago function in 1978. 

Reine-Marie Flora Rachel Mikesell died on April 3 at the age of 93, at Montgomery Place in Hyde Park. She was born in Tourcoing, outside Lille, France, completing her classical education there with language study in England and Spain. During an extended visit to Morocco in 1956 she attended a Christmas celebration hosted by the American legation in Tangier where she met the American she would marry three months later, Marvin W. Mikesell. Marvin was engaged in fieldwork on the cultural geography of the Berber tribes living in the Atlas mountains, and, when done, he and Reine traveled to Berkeley, California, for him to finish his dissertation. A timely opening in geography at the University of Chicago in 1959 brought them to this Midwest metropolis, where Reine has spent the rest of her life. She was naturalized an American citizen on May 9, 1962.

Reine Mikesell lost no time developing interests that appealed to her intellect. These included Gothic cathedral architecture, especially in France, and for several years she conducted a class — of University faculty wives — on the subject. Inspired, several attendees one summer made a trip to France on their own, and, in Chartres, to experience it for themselves, rose early one morning to see the sunbeams burst through the great East window, which, when she heard of this, gave Reine the inestimable pleasure of sensing her influence. More formally, she taught French to undergraduates in the University’s College for five years (1965–70), which also resulted in a 1972 self-publication of 100 pages, “Essai sur les prépositions,” copies of which can be found as far away as the British Library and Dalhousie University.

Having moved to Illinois, the state’s substantial French legacy opened a door for her to the wide geographical impact French continental penetration had on American history, and she became active in several national and regional French-American historical societies. The single project that engaged Reine’s earnest creativity the longest grew out of a surprising confluence of events. Marvin and Reine took their summer holiday in 1967 touring the Gaspé in Québec. Returning, they traversed the francophone districts lining the St. Lawrence River, just one day after the politically charged promenade of Charles de Gaulle through the area. Ostensibly there to observe the centenary of Canadian Confederation, de Gaulle famously declared, “Vivre le Québec libre.” What memorably impressed Reine was the palpable elation the locals felt at the presence of the French president and the sense of validation it gave them.

In 1981 Reine accompanied her husband, invited to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to lecture on cultural geography, and she read in the Jerusalem Post that young Israelis were being asked: Is it worth being Jewish, to which the answer was a resounding YES, in order to preserve their identity. This resonated with her own cultural upbringing, in her case more strongly French than Catholic.

These various experiences intensified an urge in Reine to recover and memorialize in some interesting way the rich French contribution to North American history. The medium she chose was to create and privately publish a bilingual annual calendar filled with images of well-known historical sites, French-built structures, portraits of iconic explorers and voyageurs, and other signifiers of the French reach across the continent. These illustrated calendars she produced between 1985 and 2002. In December of 1990 she was invited to address the French Senate in Paris, and in 1992 she was awarded the Order of Academic Palms of France for her cultural activism.

The availability of surplus books in French resulting from the closure in 2004 of a cultural institution in Quebec City motivated Reine with Marvin to endow the “Bibliothèque Mikesell” at Le Club Français in Madawaska, Maine. Nestled in the St. John’s Valley right on the border with Canada, the library opened in November of that year, as a blow struck for language survival. Widowed in 2017 at age 89, Reine finally moved from the coop apartment at 1155 E. 56th Street, that she had long owned with Marvin, to Montgomery Place. Reine Mikesell will be especially missed by those who remember her organizational and creative gifts in cultivating a nuanced regard for the enduring Frenchness of America.

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