Geraldeen G. Chester, or Gerri to everyone she knew, died peacefully at home July 18, surrounded by family.
She was born in Longmont, Colorado on April 13, 1944. An only child, she grew up in Downey and was a majorette who twice led the Downey High School band in the Rose Parade.
Having skipped a grade, she was Downey High School’s valedictorian at a recently-turned 17, and majored in International Relations at Stanford University. After a semester study-abroad program focusing on renaissance art in Italy, she completed a year at the London School of Economics.
She went on to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1968, one of the 5% quota of women students accepted there in those days. A notorious curmudgeon Harvard professor, W. Barton Leach, wrote her a letter, which in part said grudgingly: “I wish to congratulate you on a very fine paper in Property. Oddly enough, the Ladies usually do not do well in Property. But you have established the fact that it can be done…”
She was the third woman ever hired by the law firm Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro in San Francisco where she met George, her husband to be. She forewent a legal career to marry George in March 1970, and moved to Washington D.C. where George had accepted an appointment as a Foreign Service Officer at the State Department.
At his first posting to Durban, South Africa, Gerri moonlighted writing confidential cables to the State Department reporting on a major terrorism trial, which she was not authorized to read after they were sent because she did not have the required security clearance.
Returning briefly to Washington before George’s transfer to Hamburg, Germany, she had her first daughter, Cara, and due to a change in policy that spouses could both be in the service, she took the Foreign Service exam. She was soon offered an appointment and was assigned to the Legal Advisor’s office to become one of the two lawyers on the US delegation to negotiate the Panama Canal Treaty. That became her passion until the Treaties were signed in September 1977, just three months after the birth of her second daughter, Serana.
She and George were assigned to Panama to assist in the implementation of the Treaties from 1978 to 1981 and were subsequently given a year at the University of Wisconsin in Madison to get their Masters degrees, where Gerri had her son, George III, in 1981.
In 1978, Gerri was awarded the AFSA Department of State Harriman prize. They were then sent to the US Embassy in Brussels for four years. In 1986, Gerri was assigned to Philippine Affairs in the State Department, where she played a key role in the base negotiations and the visit of Corey Aquino.
In 1990, she was selected to attend the prestigious National War College, and in 1991 she was assigned to Guatemala, first as Economic Counselor and then in 1995 as Deputy Chief of Mission until her retirement in 1997.
Guatemala went on to become one of Gerri’s most cherished places, and she and George built a house in Antigua, the former capital of Spanish colonial Central America, where they spent some of their happiest times in retirement.
The Chesters lived briefly in St. Simons Island, Georgia for their son to finish high school, and moved to the Fernandina Beach Florida area to build their dream home and realize George’s dream of sailing the Caribbean.
Gerri was active in Democratic politics in Florida. She was also active in a range of other areas, including teaching Economics at a local university, providing legal advice to refugees and other immigrants, and serving on several overseas electoral observation missions with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Carter Center.
But the Chesters had truly left their hearts in San Francisco, George’s family home and where they had met and married, and with their daughter Serana and husband having settled there, they pulled up stakes and went west in 2014. George and Gerri’s dream of grandchildren was met with the birth of Elizabeth Simona in January 2015.
After retirement, Gerri traveled with her adult children, including to Africa, Australia, China, Europe, India, Latin America and Southeast Asia, among others.