Celebrate Life & Honor Every Memory


Joanna M. Defeo

October 17, 1948 - October 13, 2021

Joanna M. Defeo

October 17, 1948 - October 13, 2021


Obituary For Joanna M. Defeo

Joanna was a devoted friend, educator, mentor, consummate host, patron of the arts, and restaurant connoisseur. She was bold and always immaculately put together – a classy, glamourous woman. Anyone who met her would never forget her.

She loved living in Boston, and remained here her entire life, walking various neighborhoods and constantly scouting new dining and entertainment possibilities. Joanna was raised in Haverhill, and after graduating from Haverhill High School, she completed her undergraduate studies at Merrimack College, then obtained a master’s degree in English from Dartmouth College.

Joanna spent the majority of her teaching career at Swampscott High School, where her knowledge of literature, writing, and grammar (usage!), along with her passion for teaching, inspired students and colleagues alike.

She never stopped thinking about how to create lessons that would engage students. For instance, two months before her death, she had an idea for a lesson connecting a current event with an Arthur Miller play and explained how to incorporate it into the curriculum. She never stopped creating lessons in her mind. She knew how to engage students, always encouraging them to think critically about events, people, fiction, and nonfiction. She also loved mentoring teachers and her creativity and skillful teaching techniques influenced many English teachers over the years.

Although teaching was her passion, profession, and calling, she never passed up a chance to kick up her heels. Famous for her witty banter, heated debates, themed parties, and cocktails, just the mention of her name conjures epic memories from friends and former colleagues: “A legend,” “A style icon,” “She made me the teacher I am today,” “Cheers to one of a kind,” and “What is she drinking? I’ll have one of those.”

Joanna’s genuine interest in people, cultures, and places fueled her sense of adventure and she traveled the globe, amassing a trove of stories and experiences that she shared often.

After she retired as the English department head of Swampscott High School in 2009, Joanna decided to pursue painting and drawing classes at her beloved Museum of Fine Arts. It quickly became evident that she had an incredible artistic talent, and she befriended a group of artists with whom she traveled, painted, and formed strong bonds.

Joanna was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer ten years ago and her innate tenacity that would simultaneously endear friends to her and drive them crazy, became her biggest strength as she continued to live an incredibly full life. She always had the ability to find humor in many experiences, despite hardship.

Joanna’s tiny size, small but lavishly decorated house, and micro-car were a stark contrast to her giant personality and infinite energy. To quote a friend of hers, “Let’s raise a glass to a woman who meant so much to us.”

Joanna is survived by long-time friend Marta Akim, her husband Vlad Akim, and their children – Yelena, Boris, and Tanya. In addition, she leaves a myriad of friends and former students who will miss her dearly and toast her often.

Visitation hours will be held on Sunday, October 17, 2021, from 4-6pm at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, 64 Forrester Street, Salem, MA. Funeral services will be held at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church on October 18, 2021, at 10am. In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to Joanna’s favorite charity, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 501 St. Jude Place, Memphis, TN 38105.

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