Janice Rettman probably wouldn't like to see this obituary in the paper.
Despite more than three decades representing the North End of St. Paul and its surrounding areas in local government, she was an intensely private person, friends said, with strong convictions about what was right. She died after a short illness on Nov. 18 at 75.
"Basically, she represented Rice Street. And she represented people who have limited political power. And she fought for those people, and she didn't forget about them," said Joe Collins, who worked for Rettman earlier in her career and remained a friend.
Rettman had a tough childhood, growing up in Texas, a self-described "nondescript, dirt-poor kid."
"She started working in the third grade, so she could eat," Collins said. He said she later put herself through college at Abilene Christian University by working three jobs. She landed in the Midwest after serving in the program now known as AmeriCorps VISTA in Iowa.
Rettman spent more than a decade on the St. Paul City Council before she was elected to the Ramsey County Board, where she served from 1997 until she lost re-election in 2018.
On the City Council, Rettman helped St. Paul develop a strategy for demolishing vacant buildings, Collins said, making space for redevelopment.
On the County Board, she was known as a workhorse who kept an eye on dollars and cents. In debates, she frequently found herself at odds with colleagues and often cast the lone "no" vote — including against pay raises for herself and colleagues.
She was instrumental in developing Ramsey County's yard waste sites and helped stop a proposal to build a new Vikings Stadium in Arden Hills. Former Star Tribune columnist Joe Kimball nicknamed her "skunnel queen" for championing the connection between the St. Paul skyway system and Xcel Energy Center through a tunnel.
"That was Janice," Collins said. "That was Janice pushing."
Taking to the podium at her last meeting in 2018, Rettman addressed colleagues, staff and constituents. "I created my own set of values when I began to run, on the vision of democracy: Idealistic, realistic, optimistic, with a fiscal note," she said.
Victoria Reinhardt, a longtime colleague on the County Board, said she first learned of another of Rettman's accomplishments while she was away at a conference and happened to catch an episode of "Forensic Files."
"I heard Janice's voice coming out of the TV," she said. The episode covered the 1981 kidnapping and murder of Cassie Hansen, a 6-year-old who was abducted from a bathroom at a church in St. Paul's Hamline-Midway neighborhood.
Rettman had run across suspect Stuart Knowlton when she was the head of the St. Paul Housing Information Office. A housing resident had alleged Knowlton had made sexual advancements toward kids, according to "Forensic Files."
According to the episode, Rettman volunteered to wear a wire and talk to Knowlton, asking him if he'd followed news about the Hansen case. During their conversation, Knowlton revealed a detail that hadn't been made public about the murder, helping prosecutors make a breakthrough toward Knowlton's conviction. Later she advocated against Knowlton's release on parole, Collins said.
Rettman was known for loving her dogs, Tigger and Pilgrim. She also loved the music of Dolly Parton, said friend Linda Penrose, who along with Collins helped care for Rettman at the end of her life.
And she loved kids. Reinhardt recalled leaving her grandson, around age 3, with Rettman in her office when she had to step out. When Reinhardt came back, she found the two laughing on the floor, coloring with coloring books.
"I just cracked up and I went, 'OK, well, I'm glad that you're entertaining him,'" Reinhardt said. "And she said, 'Oh, no, he's entertaining me.'"
In her retirement, Rettman moved to Cambridge, where she built a home on a lake and enjoyed new adventures, including travel, plays and relaxation, Penrose said. Rettman continued to serve others through her local food shelf and her church, Open Range Cowboy Church in Ham Lake, where she was known as the "treat lady" for handing out goodies. "The kids swarmed to Janice every Sunday," Penrose said.
A private celebration of life will be held at Rettman's church, according to her wishes, Penrose said.