EAST GULL LAKE — Dorothy Wick stood fearlessly 20 feet above the water.
The slender diver with the white cap on her head brought her feet to the edge of the platform and gracefully took to the air. A black and white snapshot captured the moment. But it couldn’t provide a glimmer of the young woman who would become a champion of social justice and a tireless volunteer.
Her beautiful diving and swimming stroke became legendary at Macalester College where she was president of the Aquatic League.
Now as Dorothy nears the century mark, what may stand out most about a life well-lived is an inexhaustible capacity to help others.
Dorothy Wick Janes turns 100 on Feb. 12.
She shared the birthday with her twin brother Tom and Abraham Lincoln. Her devotion to civics, the privileges and obligations of citizenship began early. She was born in an era when women weren’t even allowed to vote much less be part of the process. She excelled as a student and an athlete participating in track and swimming. Her brother starred in sports, acted in school plays and sang with the Glee Club.
Dorothy’s twin brother Tom used say his sister got all the looks and all the brains and he got the outgoing personality. They were named the best all-around girl and boy citizens of Jackson High School on Minnesota’s southern edge. As valedictorian, Dorothy was offered free tuition to college. She picked Macalester College in St. Paul, majoring in economics. She worked for room and board and was active on the debate team.
She had dreams of going into business with a large company. But in those days women had two main career choices outside the home — teaching or nursing. When her professor sent out letters to major companies testifying of the young talent in his charge, it apparently fell on deaf ears.
“She should have been a CEO somewhere, that’s why she was president of every volunteer organization she was ever a part of,” her daughter Cynthia said. “She’s just organized and gets things done.”
Dorothy graduated cum laude in 1935. She took a teaching job at Cambridge High School and felt lucky to be employed. Just three graduates from her class got teaching jobs that difficult economic year.
Dorothy put her energy into teaching business training and debate and bookkeeping. She also began another life-long endeavor by serving as leader of the Cambridge Girl Scout Troop.
In 1938, she married Bob Janes on June 14, sharing an anniversary day with her mother and grandmother. She met her husband at Macalester. He went on to a scholarship and to graduate from Cal Tech. The married couple made a home in Fresno, Calif. Bob taught engineering and worked in research. Getting married ended Dorothy’s teaching career.
“The minute you got married you lost your job,” Dorothy said. “I enjoyed teaching. I liked young people.”
As one door closed, Dorothy opened another. She was in a family used to juggling many responsibilities. She raised five children, managed moves from California to Chicago to Oklahoma.
By the 1950s, Dorothy’s family noted the foundation of her life was set. “She would work hard at keeping up and improving her home, cleaning, repainting, wallpapering inside, and gardening outside; she would work hard for her community in many capacities; she would continue a path of life-long learning about nature, history and politics; and she would enrich her life and those of her family by sharing her passion for art, music and the natural world.”
Cynthia noted her mother could have had a superficial community activism. Far from it. Dorothy was president of every school parent teacher association where her children were enrolled. She was president of the Evanston, Ill. Girl Scout Council and a committee chairwoman and office holder with the Evanston League of Women Voters.
When the family moved to Oklahoma, the Civil Rights movement was more a thought than a practice. Dorothy remembers traveling to a segregated part of Stillwater, Okla., to meet with a black school teacher to talk about Girl Scouts.
“The teacher couldn’t look me in the eye,” Dorothy remembered. Just because she was white.
When she found white-only kindergarten, Dorothy and another professor’s wife established a neighborhood preschool in the black section of the city in South Stillwater. A street there was named in her honor. Dorothy was invited by Stillwater’s mayor to serve on the city’s housing commission. She said they worked to build decent homes to replace awful living conditions.
From witnessing the Civil Rights battles and beatings of Democratic convention goers in Chicago to seeing the election of a black president, Dorothy said it’s all been quite remarkable.
On the diving platform and in the pool, she distanced herself from her peers. In life, she stood out for her service to others. Throughout it all, her love affair with water endured.
“I was fortunate to live in a town that had free swimming lessons,” Dorothy said of Dell Rapids, S.D. She remembers getting into the water and swimming with her fingers on her father’s shoulders. “I’ve always lived near water.”
Her father Peter was born in Norway. Her mother Maude grew up in the Brainerd lakes area. Her parents lost two sons before they were 2 years old before a third son and then Dorothy and her twin brother Tom were born.
Still active — she exercises every day at noon — she remains bright and thoughtful in conversation. Her memories are strong. Her ability to read was stolen by macular degeneration, but she still listens to the TV news and her daughter now reads the newspaper to her. She continues to live on her own with the assistance of a home aide and the support of her family. Her twin brother died in 2000. Her husband Bob passed away in 2006.
What’s the secret to aging so gracefully?
Her daughter, Cynthia, thinks it may be related to her affinity for peanut butter. Dorothy laughs at the thought.
Dorothy credits walking a mile a day, staying active, avoiding over eating and being involved. At age 80, she became a Kinship Partner.
“I think it’s very important to be interested in politics, to vote every time and keep up with the daily news,” Dorothy said. “Friendships are very important. I just have younger friends now.”
This week, Dorothy sat in her living room in the renovated cabin she and her husband bought sight unseen in 1978. The slip of land has water on three sides — Sylvan Lake, a marsh and Dade Lake. Dorothy always had a passion for the natural world. Red apples awaited nibblers in the snow outside her back door. Birds flocked to a variety of feeders. Water in front of the house. Water behind.
Dorothy shared that love of water, the lakes, nature and animals with her five children.
Dorothy’s uncle Fred Wieland owned the Brainerd Dispatch, buying the newspaper in 1883. Wieland turned it into a daily newspaper in 1901.
A dozen birthday cards arrived in the mail one afternoon.
“Boy, they are coming in now Mother,” Cynthia said. Others emblazoned with 100 were already displayed on the mantle. Nestled amongst them were birthday wishes from Gov. Mark Dayton and President Barack Obama.
Growing up, Cynthia said her mother had a refrain everywhere they went. “Leave it a little better than you found it.”
Dorothy continues to do just that.