Love for Life: Ned and Debby Jannotta

When Ned kissed Debby for the first time, she promptly turned around and walked into a door.

It was 1952, and Debby was at Princeton visiting her brother and touring colleges. Ned, a senior and football player, had agreed to be Debby’s escort after the football game.

“I thought she was cute then,” Ned says. “And I still do.”

Debby ended up at Smith and although they saw each other occasionally, there was no repeat of the fireworks from their first date. It wasn’t until Debby had graduated from Smith and Ned was a Navy fighter pilot that their romance took its next big, dramatic turn.

He flew his Navy plane from Virginia to the Naval Air Station in Glenview to propose. But instead of saying yes to the handsome man in uniform, she said no.

Ned responded that she shouldn’t assume he would ever ask her again, so she said she needed to think about it, and he should come by her parents’ Winnetka house in the morning. So, in full uniform, on his way to fly his plane back to Virginia, he did stop by. She made him play badminton—55 years later, he still remembers sweating from the hot day and the waiting—but she said yes. That was September, and by December they were married.

And today, when they talk about how they met, their four children and 14 grandchildren, and years of happy marriage, you have to ask them, “What’s your secret?”

“Don’t keep track,” Debby says. She’s talking about the marital scorekeeping that so many couples engage in: I got up with the kids; you should take them to the park. Instead her attitude is, “Just do, do, do for others.” She still gets up every day and makes Ned breakfast before he goes to work as chairman of William Blair.

Their other secret is humor. Debby has been fighting breast cancer for the last 11 years, and while the cancer isn’t curable, it is treatable. They take her battle very seriously, but when they tell the story about Ned trying to help her with a feeding tube and the resulting fiasco, they are both laughing.

They’re also big believers in having individual pursuits. As Ned says, “A reason to get up every day.” Debby and her friend Shirley Jaffee joined Joyce Rumsfeld’s fledgling Chicago Foundation for Education, which gives grants to Chicago Public School teachers with creative ideas for improving their classrooms and schools. For the past 25 years—through her cancer treatment and all the normal ups and downs of life—Debby has continued to raise funds for the organization.

But perhaps the real reason for their long, loving union is that they both feel—as Ned succinctly put it—“I’d be in the soup without her!”