During the 1950s, when computers were as big as a room, Jane Pejsa was an accomplished programmer and analyst. She was also an astute collector of interesting people with unbelievable lives that she’d spin into deeply researched books. And often, her life became intertwined with theirs.
“She considered writing an avocation; she did it strictly out of love,” her daughter Ilse Gayl said. “She would ask questions, hook into people’s life and become irremovable.”
Pejsa died on April 1 near her son’s home in Fairfax, Va. She was 89.
Pejsa was born in Minneapolis, graduated from West High School and was tops in her class at Carleton College with a degree in math and German. She was a programmer for Northwestern Bell, Univac and General Mills, where she helped program the company’s first mainframe computer system.
In 1950 she met Franz J.F. Gayl, a German paratrooper/POW and then an architecture student at the University of Minnesota. Working together, nights and weekends, Pejsa and Gayl used reclaimed materials to build a house on an improbably steep slope in Minneapolis. They had two children, Ilse and Franz Gayl.
Their second house was no less interesting. Gayl hungered for wilderness, but Pejsa was committed to the city. The compromise was an island in Lake Minnetonka, where the family spent many weekends sailing. Gayl designed a house and Pejsa mapped the island and named it Mahpiyata in honor of a Lakota princess.
As Pejsa raised her children, she worked part time for her father, Walter Hauser, a lawyer who was an honorary German consul who helped Jews reclaim stolen property from the German government. She translated an advanced mathematics book from German to English, was appointed to the Minnesota Governor’s Indian Rights Commission and was an active member of the League of Women Voters.
The couple divorced in 1968. Briefly, Pejsa worked as an editor at a local press and then for more than a decade as a systems analyst at Honeywell, where she worked on software for the space shuttle and met her second husband, Arthur J. Pejsa, an aerospace physicist who died in 2014.
They lived briefly near his hometown in Stevens Point, Wis., where Jane Pejsa was elected to the Portage County Board of Supervisors at age 80.
Pejsa held several patents, including one for an energy submetering system, and was active in several organizations including the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis and Plymouth Congregational Church.
She started writing books in the mid-1980s with “The Molineux Affair,” the colorful tale of a New York socialite who becomes a bag lady at the public library in Minneapolis.
“The thing that was important to her was that other people’s stories be heard,” Gayl said. “That’s why she wrote them, and that’s why people were drawn to her.”
After stumbling across a memorial garden in the Stevens Square neighborhood in Minneapolis, Pejsa started asking questions about its namesake, Emily Peake. And she didn’t stop.
In a Star Tribune review of Pejsa’s book about Peake, an Ojibwe woman who enlisted in the Coast Guard, studied at the Sorbonne and helped found the Upper Midwest American Indian Center, the reviewer wrote: “Everyone hopes for a biographer as tenacious and openhearted as Jane Pejsa. … Anyone who cares about the history of Minnesota, the history of the Minneapolis urban Indian community, and the difference one life can make in the lives of others, will be very glad that Pejsa found that garden.”
In addition to her son and her daughter, Pejsa is survived by three stepchildren, a sister, Susan Hauser Bishop, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There will be a celebration of life at the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis on May 25. For details, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.