Back in the days before most Twin Citians had air conditioning, Janet Gerhauser used to spend three summer evenings a week skating to orchestra music at the old St. Paul Auditorium. She and partner John Nightingale, along with twins Marlyn and Marilyn Thomsen, performed as a foursome in the Pop Concerts ice shows that entertained thousands of spectators eager to escape the heat.
The Pop Concerts are long gone. The fours are a quaint part of skating history, and Xcel Energy Center has replaced the Auditorium as the capital city's marquee rink. But Gerhauser, now Janet Carpenter, outlasted them all -- and she will return to St. Paul ice on Jan. 25, when she will be inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
Carpenter, 75, is the only American skating personality to have participated in the Olympics as an athlete, a team leader and a judge. The Minnetonka resident also has coached, served on U.S. Figure Skating Association committees and acted as mentor, role model and cheerleader for the local skating community.
She actually was selected to the Hall of Fame in November 2006 but asked to defer her induction until this month, when the U.S. championships will be held at Xcel. For a woman who has spent her life in figure skating, the symmetry was irresistible.
"The whole thing has come full circle,'' she said. "I did most of my skating at the St. Paul Auditorium, which is right there [by Xcel].
"I'm still friends with people I skated with years ago. To me, that's what's been most special, the friends I've made through skating.''
Carpenter grew up watching Sonja Henie movies and going to the Ice Follies, just like so many of her pals and neighbors in south Minneapolis. Her father, Frank, used to take Janet and sister Cokey to skate in Lynnhurst Park.
Both girls soon began lessons. At age 9, Janet joined the St. Paul Figure Skating Club, an association that continues today. She competed in singles, fours and pairs -- sometimes consecutively, a feat unthinkable in this age of specialization -- and made the national championships from 1947 through 1952.
She was asked to participate in the fours for the Pop Concerts, where the skaters performed with a 70-piece orchestra and a choir. The group won the U.S. fours title in 1947, '48 and '50. Carpenter and Nightingale meshed so well that they began skating pairs; after winning the national junior title in 1950, they were silver medalists at the senior nationals in 1951 and 1952.
That earned them a spot at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo. Skating in an outdoor stadium alongside U.S. legends such as Dick Button, Tenley Albright and Hayes Jenkins, they finished sixth and made lifetime friends and memories.
"Janet was a very pretty skater, a very classical skater,'' Nightingale said. "She made it very easy for me. All I had to do was show her off. And we never fought! I was fortunate to have her as a partner.''
Because she wanted to finish college, Carpenter bypassed the ice-show circuit. She began coaching while attending the University of Minnesota, then started judging in the mid-1960s at the suggestion of Matthew Zats, then president of the St. Paul club.
Her 40-year judging career has included 16 national championships and three world championships, in addition to the European Championships, International Special Olympics, World University Games and Goodwill Games. The highlights came in 1988 and 2002, when Carpenter judged two very memorable Olympics.
She helped decide the Battle of the Brians at the 1988 Games in Calgary, when American Brian Boitano edged Canada's Brian Orser by a 5-4 margin in one of the greatest men's competitions ever.
"I was so lucky to draw the assignment in '88,'' Carpenter said. "Both of the Brians were wonderful skaters. But there was no question Boitano deserved to win, and it wasn't as close as a 5-4 split.
"I put in my marks, and you couldn't tell right away who had won. My hands were shaking. It was so thrilling.''
Scandal and change
Skating created just as much discussion at the 2002 Games, for much different reasons. That year, Carpenter again judged the men -- ending her international career by awarding a 6.0 to gold medalist Alexei Yagudin -- but found herself defending her profession when a judging scandal enveloped the pairs competition in Salt Lake City.
That led to a new judging system. Though Carpenter didn't believe the old one was broken, she adapted to the complicated new Code of Points method. Judges must retire from international competition at age 70, but Carpenter continues to judge U.S. events, including the 2006 nationals and last October's Upper Great Lakes Regionals.
"People still ask about Salt Lake,'' she said. "I think it was about the personalities involved, not about the system. It is a subjective sport. But I do think with the new system, the right people are winning, and the results have been good. I think it's here to stay.''
Lexie Kastner, president of the St. Paul Figure Skating Club, said Carpenter has been invaluable to the local skating community. In addition to representing the area as a competitor and judge, she also speaks to young skaters and is involved with the Minnesota Skating Scholarship, a program that raises money to help local college skaters with training expenses.
Many of those people will be at Carpenter's Hall of Fame induction. So will some from the days of fours and pop concerts, creating a perfect circle -- just like the school figures Carpenter used to trace.
"I was very comfortable as a figure skater from the beginning,'' she said. "I knew I wanted to spend my life in an ice rink. I loved it.''