Beloved and respected wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt, friend and heart of her family, Ethel Agatstein Gruen, 100, died at home on Feb. 17, 2021, of natural causes with family by her side.
Blessed with natural charm and moxie, she was intelligent in both mind and heart, kind to a fault and good-hearted to the world.
Born in 1920 in the Bronx, New York, to Aaron and Sara Agatstein, Ethel was the youngest child and only girl in a family with three boys, all of whom she outlived. She was one of a pair of twins, her birth coming as a surprise since twins were not expected on that day. From a young age her furrier father sat her down every day at 5 p.m. to listen to the stock market reports on the radio, training her to add numbers in her head, and while still a young girl she managed her family’s household accounts. After graduating from Julia Richman High School at age 16 with a focus in economics, she attended Hunter College, earning a B.A.in Business Administration.
Unsure whether she wanted to pursue business or law or both, Ethel sat in on jury trials while also securing an interview with Hortense Odlum, the first female president of the Bonwit Teller chain of department stores, to discuss life as a female business executive. Ethel met her cherished husband and second cousin, Ronnie, when she was just 14 and he was 19; they would wed eight years later, remaining married for 67 years until Ronnie’s death in 2009.
In 1952 she, Ronnie and their then three children moved to Texas, Ronnie going first to secure an apartment and a job, Ethel following on the train with the children. Ethel’s intelligence and business acumen proved critical over the years, as together she and Ronnie built Gruen Manufacturing Company (a tool and die company), Dart Development Company and Remington Development Company (commercial real estate development companies) into successful ventures, all while raising their now four children.
Ethel was an elegant and eager dancer, gracefully cutting the ballroom rug with Ronnie and participating in an Israeli folk-dance troupe while also teaching folk dance. Into her later years she continued to check the stock market online, finish her daily crossword puzzle, respond to emails and oversee her household. And, she was passionately committed to her tradition and community.
She intervened when public schools compelled her children to participate in prayers that were not of their faith, speaking directly with DISD leadership to help change the practice. Over the years she dedicated her energies to Akiba Academy, Congregation Shearith Israel, Hadassah, Chabad and Young Judaea. She was a founder and early leader of Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson, and in her later years she and Ronnie established endowments at Yavneh Academy of Dallas and Yeshiva University.
As a young girl she received little formal education regarding her heritage, and unlike her brothers was denied the opportunity to attend school to learn it; most of her knowledge was self-taught and absorbed through her early family life. As an adult she taught herself Hebrew and guided herself through the texts.
In 2014, she received an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University honoring her contributions to the community, and the Yeshiva leadership came to Dallas to award her the degree; Richard Joel, then president of Yeshiva University, described Ethel as “…a true aristocrat of the spirit.” Yet Ethel didn’t seek the spotlight. She asked for little and gave much, and so was taken aback when such an honor came her way.
Her unwavering devotion to her family, answering their needs while holding them to a loving and firm set of boundaries and expectations, best reflected her essence. When she was needed, she was there. “That’s who I am,” she once said. “It fills my being.”
Ethel’s spiritual resiliency and deep, lifelong faith guided her through the deaths of her grandson Aaron in 2000, her husband Ronnie in 2009, and her son Ted in 2016. She modeled a life of optimism, kindness, generosity, humility, light-heartedness and spiritual grace and always, she led with integrity.
Ethel is survived by her son Dan Gruen and his wife Grace Bascope, daughter Naomi Schlinke and her husband Brit Schlinke and daughter Deborah Gruen; she was predeceased by her beloved son Ted and is survived by Ted’s widow Helen Gruen and her daughter Cathy Bogaerts.
She is also survived by her grandchildren Sara Gruen and her husband Jonathan Gaynor, John Gruen and his wife Antonia Strachwitz, Michelle Bryant and her husband William Bryant and Alyssa Gruen and her husband Sasha Sicular; she was predeceased by her beloved grandson Aaron Gruen.
She is also survived by great-grandchildren David Gaynor, Daniel Gaynor, Joseph Gruen, Bella Bryant, Beckett Bryant, Elliot Bryant, Diana Sicular and Micah Sicular.
The family would like to express their deep gratitude for the devoted care given Ethel by Farrah Junkin, Makida Walelegn, Fatou Coker Singhateh and especially to Renee Junkin, her longtime personal aide and loving friend.
Services and interment were conducted graveside at Hillcrest Memorial Park by Rabbi Mendel Dubrawsky, and a Zoom shiva minyan was held on Feb. 20 under the auspices of Congregation Beth Torah. Memorial contributions may be made to Akiba Yavneh Academy of Dallas, 12324 Merit Drive, Dallas, TX 75251.