In memoriam: Jan Peterson, 1919-2011

I am very sorry to have to report the death of actress Jan Peterson, who died March 24 in Newburyport, Mass.

Jan was active in several Orlando-area community theaters in the 1990s — the old Civic Theatre of Central Florida, the Osceola Center for the Arts — but it was at Theatre Downtown that she seemed to thrive.

In 1994 she played Annie Nations in the Hume Cronyn-Susan Cooper play Foxfire. Here’s what I wrote:

“Not often do actresses, especially actresses who are no longer young – get to play roles as rich as the one Jan Peterson plays in Foxfire, the little comic drama at Theatre Downtown.

“As Annie Nations, an elderly widow who lives alone in the Georgia mountains, Peterson is bright and scrappy, a woman whose physical abilities may be failing her but whose self-reliance is powerfully strong. There are times when Peterson’s Annie is girlish; there are times when she seems to carry the weight of the mountains on her back. Anyone who doubts that this Annie can handle such a load need only glimpse the determination in her eyes.”

And in 1998 she played A, the oldest of the three characters in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. She was the character Albee based on his despised mother:

“And the wonderful Jan Peterson takes the meatiest of these three roles and makes it her own. Peterson captures the peevishness of this ailing old woman as well as the vagueness of a mind that is beginning to slip away.

But this performer never stoops to sentimentality. Her A holds on to every bit of the sarcasm and stubbornness she must have had as a younger woman. But she tempers all of it with the forbearance acquired in living many, many years.

“If this is a character the playwright hated, then all of us should be so lucky as to learn to forgive in such a way.”

I didn’t know Jan very well, although she was always warm and gracious when we ran into each other. But I was always delighted to see her name in a cast list, and I was sad when I realized she was getting older and we would no longer see her on the stage. As a good friend of mine said last night when we learned of her death, “She was the real deal.”

This is a bio that I received from one of Jan’s daughters, Patricia Peterson Jamison. It’s long, but it so captures Jan’s vibrant spirit that I hope you’ll read it. We should all be so lucky to know a woman like her.

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Mother, actress, sailor, card shark, writer, mentor, friend, and grandmother extraordinaire, Janet Richards Peterson lived an exceptional 91 years.  Her legacy and the memories of those she left behind are indelible.

From a taped letter to her daughter, May 1975:

“Don’t you kids ever keep me alive on treatments …. or anything like that.  Let me die in peace.  And, also, when you get around to the funeral for me, don’t you dare play dreary music, and don’t you dare be dreary.  I want you to play Glenn Miller and do the Charleston down the aisle and play Fiddler on the Roof and Godspell and … You can cry because you’re going to miss me, but for Heaven’s Sake – whenever – I’ve had a helluva good time and that’s how I’d like it ended.  Be cheerful!  ‘Cuz I have a faith, you see, that says that’s not the end anyway.  So . . it’s the beginning of something else.  Make it fun!  Emphasis the fun things that have been going on around here.”

Jan was born on October 7, 1919 while living in Evanston, IL, the younger of two daughters of Keene and Jennie Parker Richards.  She came into an educated heritage.  Her paternal grandfather was an attorney in Chicago, and her maternal grandfather founded Parker Publishing, which designed the first statewide educational curriculum in Illinois.  When Jan was 6, the family moved east to Poughkeepsie, NY, where her father became General Manager of Vassar College.  Jan grew up with the rest of the faculty children, spending summer afternoons on her bicycle between games when the thick heat of the valley drove kids from their houses. “Best of all, we had baseball!”  During winter, when cold blankets of snow gripped the town, the nearby pond would be teeming with brightly appareled children and their skates, Jan in the midst.

On nearly an entire year’s salary, Jan’s father invested in a purchase that would become a defining monument in her life to come: a boat.  He named it the Wivern, and for six weeks during the summer every year, they would sail up the Hudson River and out onto Lake Champlain.  Though as a teenager Jan sometimes griped about being torn away for her friends for so long, far into her life and to many who knew her, the Wivern became a thing of lore and legend.  In August of 1933, they were stranded on the water for several days during a hurricane.  When they got back into Poughkeepsie, the front page of the newspaper had the headline: Richards Family Lost at Sea!  It was all tremendously dramatic when they reemerged.

Much to her delight, Jan was able to attend Putnam School when she was 11, a small private girls’ school.  “I think that no one who has not attended as awful a school as was that public school will ever be able to realize my happiness at being able to leave it.”  That year, she was asked (as a 7th grader!) to be in the school’s Christmas play.  She felt incredibly honored, until she decided that the reason they were asked was because they were the fattest of the small children and were supposed to be fat baby angels!  So started Jan’s theater career. The following year, however, she got to sing a long solo in a French play.

In 1930, the Richards family moved to “the country,” much to Jan’s delight.  Twin Brooks Farm — a beautiful old farmhouse on over 100 acres in Clinton Corners, NY — was in her mind a perfect place to have horses.  Though she never ended up getting any horses, they collected pigs and chickens, eventually able to sell eggs by the thousands for a considerable profit.  This house would become the true family homestead even for Jan’s own children many years later.  It was a haven of both freedom and comfort, nestled deep in the Poughkeepsie Valley.

When Jan was 14, she enrolled in an exclusive boarding academy in Millbrook, NY, the Bennett School for Girls.  Grand, prestigious, and artistically cultured, the school offered opportunities that would mark her for life.  In an outdoor theater, they staged classical Greek dramas, and it was there that Jan took on her first signature role: Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  She had found her love.

Jan entered Vassar College as a 16-year-old.  Though her passion was theater, her father put his foot down against allowing it as her major.  It simply was not a proper career choice for a girl of her upbringing.  So she chose botany instead.  However, her real major, as she said for many years, was the three “B”s:  Bridge, Booze, and Boys!  Vassar was a whirlwind time of social events.  Whether the tennis club during the afternoons or a vast array of ballrooms in the evenings, friends, music, and dancing filled the days.  At Spring Fling during her junior year of college, a relatively unknown new swing orchestra played onstage all night.  Their name was the Glenn Miller Band.  One of the saxophone players from that night would play for Janet again, 70 years later at her 90th birthday party.

Jan graduated from Vassar College in 1940.  She continued there to earn her Master’s Degree in botany 2 years later, during which time she worked at the college’s greenhouse to earn money.  Shortly after, she moved to an apartment in the Hudson Valley, not far from Twin Brooks Farm, and got a job working in a laboratory.  A handsome young doctor in the next lab over soon made her acquaintance.  He was a Ph.D candidate earning his degree at Cornell Medical School.  They saw each other often, and their acquaintance spun into a romance.  The year was 1942, and his name was Ralph Peterson.

Jan and Ralph were married on July 1st, 1944, at Twin Brooks Farm.  With the onset of WWII, the Army had taken over all of the medical schools and accelerated the completion of students’ studies in order to draft Army doctors.  Much drifting lay ahead for the newly minted couple.  Their early years were spent in New York City while Ralph studied at Columbia, then the couple moved for a short time to Minnesota, where their first child was born, Susan Lynn.  A year later in 1949, Ralph was sent to Austria, a country in shambles after the war.  Merrill Keene, their second child, was born shortly after across the border in Germany.  When they finally moved back to the States, Jan brought with her a special item.  For nothing more than two cartons of cigarettes, an Austrian painter had composed a lavish portrait of her on a broad oil canvas.  It was a classical masterpiece.

The Petersons relocated to Maryland, where Ralph took a position with the National Institute of Health.  In 1951, Lawrence Reed was born, and the family was 5.  A few years later, Jan’s father, Keene Richards, was struck by a heart attack while aboard the Wivern.  He died shortly thereafter, never to see his youngest 3 grandchildren.  Jan’s second daughter, Patricia Marie, was born in 1955.  Two years later, Dean Richards was born, and the family moved to a much larger home in Englewood, New Jersey, where they would live for the next decade.  Their 6th and last child was born there in 1959, Sandra Elizabeth.  With a household total of 8, there was never a dull moment in the Peterson household.

Jan spent the first half of her life as “just a housewife,” raising six children and doing the usual diapers, dishes, dinners, scouts, Sunday school and chauffeuring.  Eventually, Jan took a job teaching Bible at the Dwight School for Girls in 1963, where she quickly became one of the most adored faculty members.  Her love for people was thriving.  Whenever foreign exchange students would come to see the city, she would throw open her doors and welcome them to stay.  At the respectable Field Club, Jan honed her bridge skills over many an afternoon, and on Sundays, the family attended First Presbyterian Church in Englewood.  Her own passion for the arts was cultivated in her children, who began their own theater company in the attic of their Englewood home.  They called themselves the Maple Street Players.  Summers were spent with the kids at Twin Brooks Farm in the lazy heat, where the children could roam the vast grounds and Jan would visit with her mother and her childhood friend, Sally Marsh, playing endless card games.

Into the ’60s amidst a rapidly changing world, so was changing the Peterson family.  Increasing estrangement led Jan and Ralph to a breaking point, and in 1968, Ralph moved out.  Lost in a world she didn’t recognize – single motherhood – Jan moved the remaining 4 children at home into the mountains of Bolton, VT.  The following years were difficult, as Jan battled poverty, alcoholism, and raising children on her own amidst the brutal winters of Vermont.  Yet the demise of a 25-year marriage forced her to delve deep and find the latent talents and interests that had lain buried for many years under the responsibilities of the wife and mother.  This life brought new adventures she could never have dreamed of.

In 1971, her daughter Patricia, who had inherited her mother’s love for acting, dragged Jan with her to an audition at the local theater.  Unable to help herself, Jan ended up auditioning as well.  She and her daughter were cast in A Pound of Lard at the Essex Street Playhouse.  From there, her love was reignited.  She would go on to star in several productions with her daughter, including her much-lauded and favorite role as Henry in The Fantasticks.  Her return to acting this time would eventually garner her appearances in film and television, as well as stages from Vermont to Florida and numerous awards for excellence.

It was 1977, after all her kids were grown and out of the house, when she finally checked herself into an AA residential center and conquered her alcoholic demon.  One of her proudest accomplishments was the 33 year “medal” she received recently, signifiying her time sober.  Like most things in life, when she got into it, she was all in.  AA was a place of triumph, humility, and community for her.  Over the years, she helped, mentored, and befriended hundreds of fellow members of all ages and walks of life.  The many testimonies of people who count Jan as instrumental in their path to lifelong sobriety attest to the investment of her love, dedication, wisdom, and compassion.

It was also through AA that she rediscovered another love that had been shelved for decades.  Jan met Bill Duffy, a fellow member and former Merchant Marine captain in 1977.  Together, they began to sail Lake Champlain, and their bond was formed. Under the stern but loving tutelage of this man who adored her, she acquired the skills and confidence to eventually captain her own boat. To her children, they recall this as the happiest time of their mother’s life.   In August of 1983, while he and Jan were racing together on their sailboat on Lake Champlain, Bill suffered a heart attack and died out on the water.  It was devastating.  Only 2 weeks later, her mother passed away.

In her late 60s, Jan completed a second Master’s Degree at the University of Vermont, this time in Human Development with an emphasis on aging, or, as she deemed it, “how to grow old with zest.”  She was constantly asking questions, constantly seeking answers as to how to better the lives of those facing the changes of aging.  Jan herself was a living example of growing old adventurously, taking charge of her life rather than watching it fade away from her.  The year after Bill’s death, she ventured back onto the water by herself, taking the helm for the first time and doing what she’d dreamed about since she first sailed Lake Champlain as a young girl; she bought a sailboat of her own, the Hobbit Hole, and became captain of it.  She even recruited some friends to form an all-female racing crew out of the Mallet’s Bay Boat Club.

In the mid-’80s, she bought a home in Florida and began spending winters there.  It wasn’t long before she had an ever-expanding social circle in a brand new state.  Yet Vermont was still the place that held her heart.  She always felt that it restored her soul.  Undaunted by the wildness, she made her home in a mere shack when she was in her 70s, across the street from the Bolton house in which she’d raised her children.  Tales abound of visits to the shack with grandchildren, cramming any available floorspace and having to take a lantern to the outhouse in the middle of the night.  No one else could claim a grandmother like that.

Jan relocated to Newburyport, MA in 2009 to be near two of her daughters and their families.  She moved into an apartment in an assisted living facility and became an instant celebrity with the other residents.  The first night they had a social, Jan dressed in her finest glittering sleeveless top and recruited everyone to start a conga line.  She would perform songs and skits at gatherings and regularly trounced friends in bridge.  All her days, she was an avid writer, chronicling thoughts, musings, memories, and dreams on paper.  Crossword puzzles fell to her mighty pencil, and no deck of cards sat unplayed within her reach.  She taught her grandchildren to play cards, to collect puzzles, to adore sailing, to dance the Charleston, and to love Ben & Jerry’s.  If you are reading this, you probably know that there has never been anyone quite like her.

How little she knew of the adventures she would have when she wrote in a short autobiography on March 23, 1934,  “As you have probably already noticed, my life has not been one of many exciting adventures, but it has been a very happy life and I hope it will continue to be so until … THE END.”

6 responses to “In memoriam: Jan Peterson, 1919-2011

  1. Tom Joyner

    Many of my indelible memories of Theatre Downtown’s great production of “The Grapes of Wrath” in the early 90s are of Jan as Grandma Joad. She was something else. My thoughts and prayers go out to her family and friends.

  2. Leslie Penuel

    Such sad news. But, what a great testament to a life well lived.
    I had the great pleasure of working on stage with Jan. She was a special lady who was well loved and will be dearly missed. I am sad to say goodbye. Rest in peace Jan.

  3. Peg O'Keef

    Golly, how apt that description of Jan leading a conga line at the assisted living facility!

    She was one in a million. We were lucky to know her.

  4. I had the pleasure of being in “Levitation” with Jan at Theatre Downtown. I adored her. I hired her when she was about 70 to be an atmosphere character on an all-gay cruise to Mexico. She played a nun who accidentally booked onto the wrong ship and as the 4-day cruise progressed the good sister began to deteriorate: drinking a little and dancing a little until she ended up drunk (her character, that is) and entering the strip contest, shedding her habit down to bra and bloomers and twirling her rosary around her neck like a flapper would a string of pearls. She was 70! In Mexico she went on a hike with us, drank with us at Carlos and Charlie’s, and on the trip back she gladly appeased me by donning all kinds of stuff you would never anticipate a grandmotherly type would wear, so that she would fit in at the Leather Ball. Jan was a ball. She was spit and vinegar and gentility and sweetness all rolled into one. A tremendous talent and a real special spirit. I have many pictures of her on that cruise and always think of her fondly when I look at them. She has been missed for quite some time now. Now may she rest.

    • Michael, I am Jan’s ‘middle daughter’, the one that really was closest to her all these years. My goodness….I remember hearing about a couple of cruises, but I didn’t get all the details on this one. I am dying, laughing, reading about this – what a riot! It sounds just like her at the young age of 70!

      You mentioned you had lots of pictures. I would love it if you’d be willing to share them with me – either by mail or through email. I’ve put together a number of scrapbooks for her over the years, and am currently compiling one with notes and pictures and memories of her last couple of years and from her memorial service. I sure would love to include some of those

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Parker Jamison

    Thank you so much for posting this, for telling your stories about her. I’m her granddaughter, who wrote the biography posted here. She was my favorite person in the world and one of my best friends, which just goes to show what kind of grandmother she was! I love hearing from friends of hers and people who knew her from all different areas of life. She did so much living it’s hard to encapsulate, but the stories and the vignettes and the impact she had on people are so wonderful to be able to hear. Not a day has passed in which I don’t miss her terribly. I’m glad others know just how amazing she was.