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Senior Correspondent

A Tundra Sister

A Tundra Sister

Jan (second from the left) and her Tundra Sisters. Photo courtesy of Jan Vanasse.

When the International Women's Day came in March, I wanted to honor my niece Jan, whom I’ve admired her entire life. She was born with polio in 1955, a month before the Salk vaccine came into use. In addition, both of her hips were dislocated. My earliest memories of Jan are of a little blond baby seated in a chair with huge casts on both legs.
Numerous surgeries at the Shriners Hospital in Portland, Ore., followed throughout her childhood. She has the highest regard for that organization and credits their doctors with making it possible for her to walk, though not perfectly.

If someone comments on her gait, she responds, “I had polio, and I limp.” Matter of factly — no trace of self-pity. Recently she told me, “I have never run.” I could only imagine how it would have been to be the only one not playing outside with classmates. But at the same time I could visualize her inside  tidying up the schoolroom for the teacher while the others played.

Early on Jan showed an aptitude for helping special needs children, and for some time she worked at that in Portland before deciding to get her teaching credential. That sounded perfect to her family. But after her graduation we were a bit taken aback by her decision to teach in native villages in western Alaska. “There were lots of openings,” she says.

Her first teaching job was in a village along the Yukon River. She liked it from the start, but it was temporary and she had to interview elsewhere. Small planes are the everyday method of local transport in Alaska, and as the young pilot flew her to the interview, she looked over and noticed he was asleep at the controls! She had to wake him up!

Her next village was not so pleasant as the first. The kids were used to teachers coming and going almost every year, and as a newcomer she didn’t get much respect. She was called nasty names, including “You crippled slut!” No wonder she was ready to leave by the end of the year.

What followed was 28 years of teaching elementary grades and special needs, from which she retired last year. Most of her teaching was in Bethel, a town of 6,000 on the Alaskan western coast. This is a town, not a village. So she was dismayed to see the homework papers she had given out sprawled over the streets on her way home.

Even though some experiences were bad, she made friends every place she taught and is still in touch with them. One of her plans now is to travel to see them, which could take her to a number of states.

She found great joy in helping special needs kids acquire daily living skills. Many needed to be reminded over and over that elimination is to take place only in the bathroom. Seeing youngsters compete in the Special Olympics was a great joy.

Bethel is the administrative and transportation hub for 56 surrounding native villages. It was here that Jan met her husband, Gary, then mayor of Bethel. He was from Minnesota originally but had already fully embraced the Alaskan way of life. And Jan soon did, too. 

She learned everything about fishing — baiting the hook, cleaning the fish, labeling it for freezing to be eaten in the winter months. She knew how to package caribou and moose for freezing, to be enjoyed when the temperature was way below freezing for weeks at a time. This was subsistence hunting, not for sport.

Gary was on many civic boards including the school board and the Kuskokwim 300 dog sled race. “We often had 14 dogs and their mushers staying overnight with us,” Jan recalls.

She and Gary adopted two daughters and soon began a family tradition of Thanksgiving dinner for 30 to 40 friends and extended family. Guests brought food, too, but not always traditional. Ham, lamb, ducks and game hens were among items savored. Jan learned how to cook more than one turkey at a time and assemble enough tables and chairs for the big crowd.

There are new challenges, as Gary died a year ago overnight from cardiac arrest. These days she is sampling Arizona sunshine. A long way from Bethel, but she will always have ties in Alaska. One daughter works with special needs children in Bethel and the other, a native, is pursuing native studies at the University of Alaska.

Recently, she observed a Bethel tradition — a “one-year feast” of Gary’s passing. Out came the huge offerings of food, and Jan cooked a 20-pound turkey and coordinated arrangements for the crowd. Pictures were shared, stories told, and when Jan stood to thank the crowd of 85 and told them how pleased her husband would have been, all applauded. “It made me happy that so many people cared about him,” she says.

She trained three student teachers during her career, and all are still teaching. She also received an award from the governor for starting a Special Olympics program in Bethel. 

A special joy was being part of a singing group. Five or six women took part over a period of 20 years, with many local appearances singing three-part harmony. Their name was The Tundra Sisters, of no special significance other than the soft and spongy terrain is everywhere in Bethel. One of Jan’s favorite songs was “Sincerely,” which seems indicative of how she has lived, forming friendships and loving her family, being authentic no matter life's challenges. 

The Tundra Sisters are now long disbanded, with some members having moved away. That era is a bright memory for Jan like so much of her past. She looks back with gratitude, which is what I feel as well when I observe her remarkable life.

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