Janet and Janice Robidoux didn't live the kind of life that people would expect of women of their generation.
The 86-year-old identical twins studied electrical engineering and worked for pioneering computer companies at a time when few women had careers in STEM fields.
They didn't marry or have children. But they built canoes and raced them, became competitive bowlers and tramped through all the state parks in Minnesota, searching for and photographing 600 varieties of wildflowers and 43 orchid types, almost all known orchids native to the state.
If living a full, long life means having a variety of interests and being actively engaged in the world, the Robidouxes are good role models.
They've traveled the world via the airwaves as avid ham radio operators, a hobby they took up in their teens. They've also traveled the world in real life, driving a series of RVs to every state (except Hawaii) and taking volunteer trips to places like Tonga and Indonesia.
When they retired from their jobs, acquaintances wondered if they were going to move out of the family home in Fridley and downsize to a condo or a retirement community.
Instead, they built a new home on the Mississippi River on a 1.5-acre lot in Coon Rapids and tackled an ambitious 20-year gardening plan that included an English garden, a 30-foot-wide, boulder-edged pond full of goldfish and frogs, terraced flower beds, a prairie plant habitat, statues and a footbridge painted in a shade of green inspired by a Monet painting.
That was nearly 30 years ago, and the garden is still going strong.
At an age when some people give up their driver's licenses, the twins are steadfast volunteer drivers for Meals on Wheels, sometimes driving up to three times a week, often delivering meals to people younger than they are.
Playing to win
The sisters don't just have a wide variety of interests, whether it's photography, ham radio or bowling. They like to compete.
"We're goal-oriented," said Janet.
They win prizes for wildlife photography and they like collecting rankings and certificates from amateur radio competitions. They exchange Morse code transmissions at 20 words a minute to other amateur radio operators in all 50 states and contact ham radio operators located in as many national parks as possible.
They've contacted people over the airwaves in about 200 countries, but "we always want to get more countries," Janet said.
"Morse code is almost a lost art, but the twins are expert Morse operators," said Lyle Koehler, a ham radio operator friend from Shoreview.
On her 85th birthday, Janet bowled a 600 series, or three games in a row with a score of 200 or better for each game.
"She was obnoxious," Janice said of her sister's feat.
"They're awesome ladies, that's for sure," said a bowling friend, Londa Kroone. "I think they've always wanted to be busy. They like people and they've enjoyed meeting people all over the world."
The sisters were born in Minneapolis (Janet is the older twin), the youngest of the five kids in their family. Their mom was a teacher and their dad was a receiving clerk and an avid reader.
They grew up in Columbia Heights. In high school they had to beg to get into the physics class and lobbied, unsuccessfully, to take shop class. They also pursued interests that few girls did, joining the ham radio club at a time when getting an amateur radio license meant you had to know how to build an antenna and understand how a radio tube worked.
At the University of Minnesota, they designed their own major to train themselves to be technical writers, taking engineering as well as journalism courses.
After college, they both got jobs at supercomputing company Control Data Corp., working in what was cutting-edge technology in the late 1950s. Janet did technical writing for software while Janice specialized in hardware manuals.
After retirement, they built their home on the river, partly because of their interest in canoeing. Charter members of the Minnesota Canoe Association, they built their own woodstrip canoe and paddled with local racing greats like Gene Jensen and Buzz Peterson.
"We canoed with the best in the state," Janet said.
Back then they did a lot of tent camping, too, because that's what canoers did. But after 20 years of that, "you got tired of cooking in the rain," Janet said.
So they upgraded to a series of Class C RVs — 26 feet, then 28 feet, then 32 feet — that they drove all over the country, taking their bowling buddies along. They've also been to Australia and New Zealand three times, visiting fellow ham radio operators there.
Slowing, taking stock
The sisters say they don't regret staying single.
"We had each other," Janice said "and I think we felt that was enough."
"It was never a big deal to us to raise kids," Janet said.
But the Robidoux sisters admit they have slowed down in recent years.
COVID concerns put a hold on competitive bowling. Problems with balance mean they've given up ice skating, snowshoeing and mountain biking. Friends with whom they used to go botanizing have died, and they recently sold their RV.
They've cut back in the garden, too, planting only 400 annuals this year, not the 1,000 they used to.
It's also been a while since they've climbed the 65-foot steel tower near their front steps. That's what holds the antenna they can rotate to send a 1,000-watt radio transmission soaring toward Europe or Africa or over the North Pole. (They like to say that their elaborate garden was created to distract people from the structure.)
"I stopped climbing it when I got to 75," Janet said.
But they're holding on to their canoe.
The deaths of friends over the years have made the twins more appreciative that they still have each other.
"They've basically remained together as each other's support group," said friend Lyle Koehler.
The sisters have met other twins at a convention called the Twins Day Festival held every year in Twinsburg, Ohio. They're planning to go again in August.
They know how rare it is for twins to make it to their age together and still be healthy and active.
"We're wondering about our end game," Janet said.
"We're just grateful we've been able to do it this long," Janice said.
Richard Chin • 612-673-1775