Jane Rowe 3/25/1932 -10/19/2017
Jane was many things to many people. To me, she was a friend, the mother of a friend, Michele, the spouse or partner of friends, Carol, Bea, and Elthea, a mentor, a member of a fellowship we shared, and my first sponsor in that fellowship. Together with other women we founded a peer support recovery center WISH (Women in Support and Healing) which continued to sponsor meetings after the doors closed. I had the privilege of recording Jane’s oral history interview for the University of Wisconsin – Madison Libraries Oral History Program, LGBT Community, 1960s-Present.
Most recently, Jane and Carol Berglund, her surviving spouse, and I, along with a group of women friends have met once a month in a Death & Dying Book & Discussion Group where we focused more on life and living and prepared for this day. Jane, like most of us was human and flawed by her own admission, yet in the end was a brilliant example of how to live. Carol reports that Jane died while in her chair watching TV. In my mind’s eye I see her trademark smile on her face and one or more of their canine and feline family members in her lap. Rest in Power.
As I remember Jane, I can’t precisely recall the first time I met her. Jane was a member of many of the communities I traveled in. I may have met her in the bleachers at Olbrich Park in Madison, Wisconsin in the mid-to-late 1970s, watching a women’s fast pitch softball game with her then girlfriend, Marcia Dana, who I knew from the first National Organization for Women (NOW) Feminist Consciousness-Raising outreach program I attended at the YWCA on the Capital Square.
It may have been a year or so later at Lysistrata, the Feminist Restaurant & Bar Cooperative on Gorham off of State Street. My friends, daughter Michele Besant and her girlfriend, M.J. Trani could have introduced me as they sat at the bar, Michele in her beret, as both she and M.J. smoked pipes. Another first meeting possibility might have been Lizzards, a potluck social group for lesbians over 30, where I did meet Jane’s partner of many years, Bea for the first time.
After Lysistrata burned down in the early 1980s, I’d see Jane at Bowman field when she was playing softball or being a fan for A Room of One’s Own Bookstore, a Madison independent feminist bookstore where Michele worked at the time. Later Michele would become a librarian (and more) like her mother.
Jane’s best friend and former lover, Elthea Gill, were both married to men when they first met. They would become lifelong friends, the kind of friends, who like lovers, would challenge each other, spar in conflict, and yet be there for each other whenever needed. Elth would ride in on her motorcycle, well into her sixth decade, with her mane of white hair blown out like a crone’s crown from the wind, to watch Jane and friends play softball. Like Jane, Elth would become an elder mentor for me and teach me lessons I wasn’t even aware at the time that I needed to learn.
The moment when I saw Jane that would change my life forever was at an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting, most likely at 511 N. Carroll Street her favorite meeting place at the time. Normally, as a principle of the 12-Step program we would respect the anonymity of an AA member. Jane R. however was open about her membership and grateful for her recovery. She was not shy about sharing her drunk-a-log, her regrets, or imperfections, and the harm her loved ones had suffered as a result of her drinking and alcoholic behavior.
Jane was also an example of how the promises of the program could manifest in one’s life, if you worked the steps and practiced the principles in all your affairs, including taking a fearless moral inventory and then share it with another person. A couple of years later, I would share my story with her. More about that later.
Jane Rowe, Rest in Power (3/25/1932 -10/19/2017)
People who knew Jane tell stories about the how, where, when, and sometimes why she became an integral part of their lives and their shared history. People knew her as a parent, through her children and her relationships with her spouse and partners, from the schools where she was a librarian and touched countless lives and passed on her love of books and reading.
Friends met Jane through the fellowships of 12-Step recovery programs and the churches of which she and her partners were active members. Recovery and spirituality went hand-in-hand in her life. Jane was a member of a women’s spirituality group, our Death & Dying Group, and a book group up until her death. She was also a member of The Rollers, a retired lesbian women’s monthly luncheon group.
Many of us who knew Jane were grateful to be invited into her homes. Jane experimented with cooperative living, with her partner, friends, and family members aging in place, plus she offered temporary refuge to women and children of the community. The first was a home in the north side of Madison with her partner Bea, friend Vig, and Vig’s mother, Lara. They built an addition to the house for Vig and Vig’s mother, upstairs/downstairs suites with shared access of the kitchen, dining, and community living spaces.
Vig would sponsor board game afternoons, and Jane celebrations and potlucks. Bea and Jane hosted football games on Sunday. The basement suite was offered to those women or families in transition. Later Jane and Bea would purchase a home on James Street on Starkweather Creek on the east side of Madison off Fair Oaks.
After Bea’s death, Carol entered Jane’s life and like the north side home, soon Jane and Carol would add on to the house, first a sunroom after Jane retired, then Carol designed another addition, a suite for herself, a room of one’s own. Also, like the north side cooperative home, Carol and Jane would open their basement suite to those in need.
Jane and Carol remained active members of social change organizations and were environmental activists. They each worshiped at different churches when they met, Carol at James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Church and Jane at St. Francis Episcopal Church. Like good partners, they attended services at each other’s place of worship, yet when they couldn’t agree on each other’s church, they made a list of all Open and Affirming congregations and settled on Plymouth Congregational UCC on Atwood Avenue. After they attended for the first time, it’s became their spiritual home.
Jane and Carol could be seen at any Pride March, or rally at the State Capitol riding their three-wheeled bikes, festooned with Gay Pride flags and signs and messages. Jane also wore her broad smile wherever she traveled.
Following is a small sample of testimonials and memories from people who knew and loved Jane that were posted on social media following the announcement of her death:
“I first met Jane when I was five years old. She was our school librarian. No one could read aloud like Jane. Over a sixty-year period, our paths crossed in other places where people read aloud. Jane left her sui generis voice and laugh in all of them.” — Sandra Finn
“About 13 years ago, a 17-year-old transgender young woman had been kicked out of her home by her parents, and came to us at OutReach. No shelter, no system was a safe option for her, so I paid for motels, but options and resources were dwindling, and so we reached out to the community for help. Jane and Carol answered that call, taking her into their home. It was an act of kindness in a life filled with many such acts, all of them grounded in love. Every culture and community has its elders, kind souls who guided and supported us, who never forgot what it was to be young and seeking your way. As a school librarian, a social justice advocate, a spiritual teacher, and a community leader, Jane was always there to exchange a precious pearl of wisdom, extend a helping hand, or to serve as an inspiring mentor and role model.” — John Quinlan
“My partner and I lived across James Street from Jane and Carol for years. She was such a wonderful woman. I’ll never forget dancing in the street with them when Obama won the election.” — Wendy M. Christensen
“We spent yesterday (the day Jane died) with our spirituality group where Jane lead a discussion on empathy. In that discussion, Jane spoke of not having a lot of time in this life and wanting to do all she can as long as she can. And she DID. We will miss her dearly.” — Linda Ransom
“Jane and Carol are part of a Spirituality Group I belong to… Jane did an amazing presentation on compassion and empathy; and how they demand action from us. She positively glowed with life and passion…even more than her usual self (if you can believe that!). I wish everyone who loved Jane could have been there. I got the call about 9:45 pm from Rory Ward and Linda Ransom, who are also part of that group. The shock has been so profound. At midnight I couldn’t sleep, so sat out in my back yard and looked at the stars…and then the meteors started! The most beautiful shower I have ever seen…I waved goodbye to Jane, who was truly a meteor shower in human form.” — Deborah Nelson
“I am deeply saddened to learn of Jane’s passing and find myself thinking this morning of the many people whose lives have been affected by just knowing her. I feel so blessed to have gotten to know her and Carol through our ‘life and living’ group, a spirituality group and a book group. She has made a huge difference in my life.” — Carolyn Hopp
“She was a tireless advocate for so many. The hole she leaves at Plymouth UCC… all over Madison will be hard to fill.” — Ben Anton
“I miss Jane already, even knowing that she led a full, fabulous life and died as many of us would wish to die. Getting to know Jane has been one of the gifts of my life. I just want to have one more time with her…… Isn’t that always how it is.” — Pat Calchina
“We will dedicate our day too. We will also do as Jane did and help others and speak out for social justice and equality.” — Donna Winter
Jane Rowe: A Recovery Reminiscence
Over 30 years ago, I began attending first, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and later Al-Anon among other 12-Step Recovery meetings. I’m what’s referred to in the program as a double-winner (and more!). Newcomers are told to attend a number of meetings and after listening to and witnessing the recovery programs of “old-timers,” it’s recommended that one choose a sponsor.
Early on in my recovery, I was motivated and did what I was told. It’s also required that one identify a higher power, critical to recovery success. As an agnostic, I followed the suggestion to use the meetings as a “power greater than myself.”
After attending a number of meetings, one candidate for a sponsor emerged, Jane R. I sheepishly approached Jane, and asked if she would be my sponsor. She paused, thought for a moment, and with both compassion and honesty told me that she was willing to be a “temporary sponsor” until I could identify a permanent one. She indicated she was already sponsoring many people, and felt it important for me, to find someone who had more time to assist me in my recovery.
I, on the other hand, was less than honest. Instead of finding a new sponsor, for the next few years I used Jane as my sponsor and she was always available when I needed her. Early in my sobriety, I religiously kept recovery journals, which I shared with Jane. After reading them, she suggested that once I felt secure in my sobriety, I might want to consider attending Al-Anon and/or Codependents Anonymous. I laugh now when I reread my journals. I was clearly a mess.
One piece of advice Jane gave me, as I mentioned earlier, I did what I was told (for the exception of finding a permanent sponsor), she told me not to make any big decisions or changes the first year, which included new romantic relationships, jobs, moving, or geographic escapes.
When the year was drawing to a close, a recovery friend, Rhonda, and I had been spending time together, and we were flirting with the idea of dating. On Valentine’s Day Rhonda made me a heart-shaped meatloaf which was a clear sign that I needed Jane’s counsel. Jane knew both Rhonda and I well, and the progress of our recovery programs. Without going into much detail, she simply said, “You would be like two legs holding each other up.” Her response answered the question for me.
The day came for me to share my Fourth Step Inventory. Jane agreed to have brunch with me so I could complete the Fifth Step, “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
It was a weekend and we decided to have brunch at Morgan’s, in the Schenk’s Corner neighborhood, a restaurant and bar which was affectionately referred to at the time as a “fern bar,” due to the hardwood floors, bright windows full of greenery, and more restaurant than bar ambience and clientele. It was a great place for brunch and acoustic music including traditional Irish folk music. The restaurant and bar, Alchemy currently is located in that space.
We ordered our food, made a little small talk, until I mustered the courage to share my fourth step inventory with Jane. For those unfamiliar with the process, and those familiar with an act of confession or atonement, it’s an extended revelation of all the secrets, wrongdoings, regrets, the very things that we would drink over to suppress, deny, or forget. The concept is by sharing that story with another person, we would release its power over us. After sharing our story, the sixth step is: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” And, next, the seventh step, eighth and ninth steps.
Jane and I spent at least two hours, or more, at our table at the window in the front of the restaurant under the green plants, while I told my story chronologically from childhood to the present. I did most of the talking, and Jane did most of the listening, smiling and nodding at appropriate moments. Like most small restaurants and bars, space is at a premium, and tables were close together.
I overheard a woman at the next table, who unsuccessfully was trying to control the volume of her voice, comment, “Can you believe that woman at the table next to us? She’s telling her friend her ENTIRE life story, and her friend is too polite to tell her to shut up!”
When Jane I finally left Morgan’s that day, just like when I was a child attending Catholic Church, I felt spiritually lighter afterwards, a burden I had carried all of my life was removed. Jane and I laughed about the woman at the next table and what she thought of us. Years later with other women in recovery we founded a meeting space on Williamson Street called WISH House (Women in Support and Healing). We provided 12-Step and 16-Step recovery meetings. When attendance declined and we could no longer afford the rent, Jane continued to organize and often lead WISH recovery meetings at rotating locations.
Jane’s daughter, Michele, became a librarian like her mother. Michele was involved in helping to recruit interviewers for the UW Library Archives Oral History Program. I completed the training with a number of friends including Pat Calchina. I conducted about a half dozen or more interviews of our LGBT Community, including her mother, Jane. Jane and I came full circle, it was my turn to listen and Jane’s turn to talk. And, like me she did, sharing her life story, not only the events leading up to her recovery, but her life afterwards. I’m grateful we were able to share some of those experiences together.
To listen to Jane’s Oral History Interviews, click here.
Jane Rowe, Rest in Power
A service commemorating Jane’s life will be held on Saturday, November 4th at Plymouth Congregational UCC at 1:30 at 2401 Atwood Ave. Madison, Wisconsin.
Jane Rowe’s Obituary
“Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.” ― W. Somerset Maugham