Journey to 100
She once met Helen Keller when teaching at the New York School for the Blind, cared for prominent businessman William Zeckendorf’s children and just missed the start of World War II while on a family trip to Europe.
Jane Martin Person has experienced what many have only read about in American history books. She celebrated her 100th birthday with family and friends on April 22, 2011, at the same Stanchfield home that introduced her to farming life in the fall of 1945.
For daughter Kathi Conrad, who helps care for her mother at the old farmhouse, this Mother’s Day may take on a little extra meaning, too.
“I look at her as a pioneer war bride who came to this world from another world (East Coast) to make the best of it. But she loved every minute of it. She opened doors for women. She shared her education and experience in subtle ways and learned from others. She admired the women here for what they did,” said Kathi of Jane’s transition to country living in the mid-1940s.
A mother’s story
Jane grew up among the upper middle class in the Ambler area of Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia, with a father who worked as a lawyer and businessman.
It was a time when ballroom and Vaudeville boomed. The one millionth Model T rolled off the assembly line. Just days before her first birthday, an iceberg in the Atlantic claimed the Titanic. America entered World War I five years later.
She moved with her family to Fox Chase, a neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia, and remembers spending summers in Ocean City, N.J., to escape “city germs” and the likelihood of contracting the dreaded 1918 flu pandemic — or as many called it, the Spanish Flu.
Still, at just 8 years old, Jane lost her mother to the flu that also took the lives of between 50 and 100 million people worldwide over a two-year period.
Jane graduated from high school in 1929, the year of the Stock Market Crash that signaled the beginning of the 12-year Great Depression. But the family managed, she said, thanks to her father’s business savvy and use of savings and loans.
In those days, rationing tickets weren’t even allowed for weddings, Jane remembered.
Also in the ‘30s, she loved the music and arts scene, from the Big Bands to Shakespearean plays, which led to trips to New York City.
Education was important to Jane who graduated from Virginia’s Sweet Briar College in 1933 before earning her master’s degree in elementary education from the University of Iowa. During her college years, she served as governess caring for the children of prominent real estate developer William Zeckendorf who was friends with the likes of John D. Rockefeller.
She worked as a teacher, feeling fortunate to this day over a recommendation that landed her the opportunity. She taught fifth grade at the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind from 1935-40. A rewarding experience, it was there where she met famed author and political activist Helen Keller.
The greeting was relatively short, admitted Jane, because it was difficult for her to understand Keller’s unique way of communicating with her hands.
The school also introduced Jane to Elizabeth Thode, who became a successful concert pianist accompanying many world renown singers. Now at 104 years old living in Georgia, she and Mom are girlfriends who keep in touch to this day, smiled Kathi.
Jane remembered making two family trips to Europe just before the start of World War II. The first occurred in the summer of 1938, but it was the 1939 voyage and the timing of their return from southern France that was like no other.
“Our ship docked at Boston harbor when Hitler invaded,” recalled Jane of her family’s near collision course with Nazi Germany’s initial attacks on where they had visited. The same ship was later sunk in the English channel, she added.
While on leave from the war, Jane’s brother brought home a soldier friend named Harold Person, from Stanchfield, Minn., who was introduced to Jane. First, an attraction, then a short courtship ensued as they began to write letters back and forth throughout Harold’s deployment.
Wedding bells rang on October 16, 1943, at Jane’s parents’ home in Pennsylvania. The marriage meant Jane would be saying goodbye to the East Coast city life and hello to country living as a farmer’s wife in Isanti County. And that was fine by her.
“It was her goal to become a wife and mother no matter where she lived, noted Kathi, joking that even a college professor said Jane seemed more interested in getting her M.R.S. (Mrs.) degree than her Ph.D.
In the fall of 1945, with Harold still on active duty, Jane was instructed to travel back to Stanchfield and “buy the farm on the hill if you can get it. She made a handshake deal with the Petersons after walking the land,” recalled Kathi.
Jane estimated she paid $5,000 in cash (later totaling $7,000) for the small, 80-acre dairy farm, which she homesteaded with “big help” from her in-laws down the road. She was reunited with Harold who was honorably discharged in December 1945. He later worked in civil defense and as a zoning officer for Isanti County. The couple had three children: Bruce, Kathi and Doug.
Jane adapted well to the role of a farmer’s wife, and she cherished visits from her mother and sister every fall. She could drive a car — a unique skill for women at the time, so she gave neighboring wives “certain freedoms” by getting around more.
In turn, she was embraced by a “good network of farm wives” who taught her how to peel, pickle and can foods. With a sense of humor, she shared how her first bread loaves were “hard as a rock,” and the rooster that “scared Kathi half to death” when she was a child.
Jane wasn’t always a homemaker and kept active in the community. She worked as a research librarian for five years at the East Central Regional Library in Cambridge. She was active in PTA, 4-H and Braham Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Active in the DFL party, she had lunch in the ‘50s with then Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey at the Park Cafe in Braham. “He knew our children by name; that was a surprise,” said Jane.
Reflecting back on her life, Jane doesn’t make a big deal about turning 100 years old. She’d rather talk about fond family memories or her love for Bert Blyleven and the Minnesota Twins.
Even so, her birthday is a big deal, and so is remembering Mom on her special day.
“Mom was always very kind, strong in her faith, patient, supportive and encouraged us to do anything we could afford to do,” shared Kathi. “Her character inspired me to be a good person and to get an education.”