Dorothy Janes told her children to “leave things better than you found them,” and in her 101 years, she practiced what she preached.
In such places as Chicago and Stillwater, Okla., Janes stood up to whites who wanted to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods, fought for black children who were expelled from recently integrated schools and pushed for better housing for the elderly poor.
“She had five children, but she wasn’t home a lot because she was always volunteering for things,” said daughter Cynthia Janes.
Janes, who grew up in northwest Iowa and southwest Minnesota and spent the last three decades of her life near Brainerd, died Saturday at her apartment in Mahtomedi.
She was a cultivated woman, swimmer and gardener who loved the natural world, classical music and historical biography.
“Sunday afternoon you could smell the roast cooking and she was listening to Chopin,” her daughter said. “She was well-rounded.”
Born Dorothy Wick in 1913, she spent most of her formative years in Spencer, Iowa, and Jackson, Minn., where she graduated as valedictorian of her class. She studied at Macalester College in St. Paul, graduated in 1935 with a degree in economics and took a job as a teacher in Cambridge.
She told the Brainerd Dispatch before her 100th birthday that her dream had been to work for a large company, but during college she was getting more serious with Bob Janes, a man she met at Macalester before he transferred to the California Institute of Technology to study engineering. The two kept in touch, and he invited her to visit him in California to go to the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl over Christmas vacation in 1936. They were married in St. Paul in 1938.
The couple lived in Chicago; Evanston, Ill., and then Stillwater, Okla., where Bob Janes taught engineering.
Dorothy Janes raised five children, and everywhere she lived threw herself into Parent Teacher Associations, the League of Women Voters and the Girl Scouts. Often, she worked on behalf of black Americans during a time of racial tension across the country.
In Chicago, a group wanted her PTA to help fund a campaign to keep the neighborhood segregated, but she fought that.
“If things were wrong, she would stand up and say, ‘Hey, that’s not right,’ ” Cynthia Janes said.
In Oklahoma, she became more involved in social-justice issues. She wrote a letter in 1970 to her children explaining how two 13-year-old black students whose mothers were on welfare had been expelled for stealing clothing from other students’ lockers at a school in Stillwater that had just been integrated. One was named Bill.
“His mother had kicked him out when he was expelled from school because she then receives no welfare money for him,” Janes wrote. “He was living here and there.”
She drove Bill to a nearby technical college, helped him enroll and got him signed up for a grant that would pay his bills. He was not the only student she helped, her daughter said.
“It will be very difficult for him but is his only hope,” she wrote to her children.
Janes also helped establish a preschool in south Stillwater, the black part of town, and pushed for better housing for elderly people there. She became chairwoman of the Stillwater Housing Authority, and a street in town was named after her — Janes Court.
In 1980, she and her husband started splitting their time between a home near Brainerd and a condo in Evanston, Ill. Eventually they lived year-round near Brainerd. Bob Janes died in 2006, but Dorothy was bright and articulate up until her death. She lived in a home between two lakes and was an avid gardener and reader until her eyes failed.
Deb Cranny, the owner of Home Instead Senior Care, said Janes’ care workers always had to be out of the house by noon, because into her late 90s, she insisted on exercising in front of the TV at midday.
“Delightfully independent, never really wanted more help than she needed,” Cranny said. “Very kind to all the people that entered her house.”
Before she recently moved to assisted living in Mahtomedi, Janes was active at the First Congregational Church in Brainerd, the Nisswa and Brainerd Garden Clubs, Kinship Partners and the Heartland Symphony Board. She donated her body to the University of Minnesota Medical School.
She is survived by her five children and four grandchildren. A memorial service will be held 11 a.m. Saturday at First Congregational Church UCC in Brainerd.