A whiz at Navy codebreaking, being a mom
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter October 19, 2013 9:26AM
Maryce Klaff Sloan
Updated: November 21, 2013 6:47AM
Maryce Klaff Sloan, a University of Chicago-trained whiz at math and statistics, was a World War II Navy WAVE who worked on an encryption team that tried to crack Japanese codes.
She also helped coordinate the North Shore’s gargantuan Brandeis University used book sale, which for years filled shopping center parking lots with circus-size tents crammed with books. Sometimes, the sale turned up Antiques Roadshow-style finds, like $5,000 rare editions that helped send funds to the school.
After the war, she worked for the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago. Mrs. Sloan took a 14-year break to raise her family of four boys and then began working for the State of Illinois Department of Employment Security. At first, she processed claims for unemployment compensation. But with her MBA and organizational skills, she became a special assistant, helping to formulate policies on benefits.
Listening to peoples’ stories of hardship could be grueling.
“She occasionally was saddened by the daily experience,” said her son, Phil. Still, “she found it endlessly fascinating, meeting people; trying to work things through the bureaucracy.”
Mrs. Sloan stayed for approximately 35 years, retiring around the year 2000.
She died Oct. 15 at her Northfield home at age 89.
Born in Chicago, she was named after her maternal grandfather, Moritz Klaff, an immigrant from Latvia. Her father, Rudolph, was a pharmacist. Her mother, Hannah, was a volunteer with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. She attended Senn High School and the University of Chicago, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1944.
After enlisting in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), she was stationed in San Francisco, working with teams attempting to decipher Japan’s coded wartime messages.
“She had a background in math and statistics, which is very much related to cryptography,” said another son, Steve.
“She was just very proud of being in the WAVES and serving in the Navy and working on a team focused on cracking codes,” said her son, Cliff.
In 1947, Mrs. Sloan earned an MBA at the University of Chicago.
She met her husband of 59 years, Howard Sloan, at a social hosted by her parents at the Klaff home at 78th and Jeffery in the South Shore neighborhood. It was organized by KAM Isaiah Israel in Hyde Park, called the oldest Jewish congregation west of the Ohio River. Mrs. Sloan worked at the Federal Reserve Bank until she had her first child in 1951.
The Sloans lived in Calumet Heights near 89th and Constance in a house with a living room dominated by a piano and brimming bookshelves. She made sure her four boys practiced playing for 30 minutes every day. “Friends of ours, when we were growing up, said they had never seen a house with as many books,” said another son, Marty.
The dinner table was where the family reconnected and exchanged ideas. “We were expected at dinner, not only by our father, but by her, to talk about what we did at school; current events,” Marty Sloan said.
“A birthday was never a birthday without us getting a book,” he added. She bestowed age-appropriate classics, like “The Red Badge of Courage” or “A Tale of Two Cities.”
“The quest for learning and the process of learning was the most important thing,” Marty Sloan said.
Mrs. Sloan used to refer to herself as “the original hippie.” “She wore jeans before they were fashionable,” said Phil Sloan. She also was a nonconformist when it came to school parties. “When kids were supposed to bring in treats, I remember all the other kids, the mothers went out and bought cookie cutters and made cookies,” her son said, “and my mother made hers by hand, and they were not perfectly shaped — and kind of healthy.”
She usually could be found smoking (Kents or Virginia Slims), reading, or more likely, a combination of the two. “She read every New Yorker cover-to-cover for 25 years,” Phil Sloan said, “and she was in a book club, and she started a Great Books program for children.”
She was active in the PTA and enjoyed going to the opera.
A city girl “very adept at public transportation and taxis,” Steve Sloan said, she always had a license but never really liked driving. In 1970, when the family moved to Winnetka, her childrens’ friends could tell when it was Mrs. Sloan doing the pickups. She wouldn’t parallel park.
Services were held. In addition to her sons Phil, Steve, Marty and Cliff, Mrs. Sloan is survived by eight grandchildren, whom she visited on their birthdays, and enjoyed drawing into card games.