The Olson kids went to school in nearby Kennett Square. Even today, the high-quality hamburger chain Five Guys boasts that its portabella mushrooms are grown at the Mushroom Capital of the World, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania!
She ranked first in her high school class. She also spent a summer in Japan as an American Field Service student.
In 1965, Jan and I met when we both enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio. I remember noticing her during our class outing at Findley Lake during Freshman Orientation. She was assigned to live in the Dascomb dormitory, and I was assigned to dine there. One evening she wore her kimono to dinner. Because of her outgoing personality, we became acquainted almost immediately.
Seven years later, I described our relationship as follows in a letter to another friend.
Ive documented our college days in many articles on this website. Youll find links to them in the next several paragraphs.
When we were freshmen, Jan confided that although she was interested in the space program, she would probably not get to be the first astronaut on the moon. But it was still her dream to be the first woman on Mars. That January, she showed me what she had busied herself with over the holidays: scientific sketches of surfaces, not of the moon but of cups of coffee. (Twenty-five years later, this would lead to poetry.) We marveled over the newfangled laser and its applications, such as making holograms.
We occasionally shared each others notes from lectures in math and physics classes. On the page below, Jan somehow stopped before specifying the obvious generalization.
However, that was the year that Jan began to have doubts whether she wanted to spend her life working on theory on the nature of matter, she explained to a reporter a decade later. I didnt want to come to the end and wonder what I had contributed, she said. I really wanted to serve people more directly. Being happier working as a waitress than in a biochemistry lab was another indicator that interaction with people was really the most appealing area for her.
She told the reporter that shed worked as a nurses aide during the summers of her college years. That proved very satisfying, she said. My curiosity about medicine was aroused. So she began to think seriously about becoming a doctor. (And I began to think seriously about going into broadcasting. We each finished getting our B.A. degrees in physics before changing to other careers that suited us better.)
Jan was on Social Board, and I was the station director of WOBC. (Incidentally, we often played records by The Doors. Jan took offense at the casual use of the word love in the Doors lyric Hello, I love you! Won't you tell me your name?)
Homecoming, or Big Weekend, was approaching, and Social Board wanted to promote a special event for October 18, 1968. Jan typed up an announcement for us to run on the radio station, beginning with the Byrds song Turn, Turn, Turn.
Oberlin College students have always wanted to change the world. Many also wanted to change the college itself and its social rules, such as its limitations on visits to the dorm rooms of members of the opposite sex. Not all of us participated in those protests, however. Jan said she liked Oberlin the way it was.
Somewhere around that time I added a fourth item to my private poetry files.
Here are two undated and unrelated notes that Miss Olson left for me at the South Hall bell desk, probably during our senior year. The symbol in the first one is formed from her initials, JE inside an O; in case I didnt recognize that, she added (JAN) in cursive Runic letters.
Several months after we graduated, I ventured to ask Jan what had led to that second note. She wrote in reply:
I honestly dont remember what brought on the particular ego crisis. Such crises occur periodically; I dont know why exactly. They are usually associated with guilt (real or imagined) or disappointment in myself for something done/said or not done/left unsaid. Fortunately ego crises are interspersed with elations and plateaus (often maintained through the most dogged determinism), so that I continue to exist despite.
It may not be surprising that later in life Jan was diagnosed with manic depression, now called bipolar disorder.
We graduated on June 2, 1969, and never saw each other again. But we definitely kept in touch via correspondence. A week later we exchanged these notes.
During the next 3½ years my friend embarked on new adventures, including med school and matrimony. Her first child was born in 1976. In a multi-part article called Letters from Jan, I've compiled edited versions of some of our correspondence during the decade of 1968 to 1978.
And I have more. Here's a link to a note I wrote to accompany an unusual present for my friends' fifth wedding anniversary. And below are some highlights from the nearly 40 years that followed.
It was in the summer of 1978 that the newspaper in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, about 12 miles from Madison, reported the following.
A second son, Kevin, would soon join the family.
Later Brian would write on the Internet: I grew up in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, a small Midwestern town not far from Madison. Here are a couple of fun facts about Sun Prairie: it is the birthplace of the artist Georgia O'Keefe, and it is one of the claimants to the title of Groundhog Capital of the World. (Punxsutawney, PA, gets better press, but their groundhog is less accurate than Sun Prairie's Jimmy!)
After high school I moved out to California to attend college at Stanford. After graduating, I went to work for a start-up company called E.piphany. He later returned to Stanford for his PhD, then joined another start-up company called M-Factor.
December 23, 1992: Today Bruce and I have been married twenty years. We think we deserve a medal! We agree we'll try for at least another twenty.
my Image of you was updated,
Three months later, she replied that had been well enough that summer to join in a family camping trip to California. Brian was enrolling at Stanford, but he was the only member of the family who had seen the campus.
September 1994: We had a wonderful vacation: 30 days of camping, with stays at or visits to seven national Parks. Its a long way from Wisconsin to California! We put more than 7,000 miles on our station wagon.
The day after I got back, I discovered that my supervisor at ASB Meditest, where I had been doing two or three employment or insurance physicals a week, had been fired for taking time off from work for a back injury. In her stead they hired the newest employee, a 20-year-old with no medical or business background, who had worked as a receptionist at ASB Meditest for two months. (The fired supervisor was an RN, and very good.) This was just one in a long string of unethical maneuvers by middle management (a manager in Minneapolis). So I resigned from my association with ASB Meditest, not caring to be associated with such an outfit any longer.
The following day I got a job working 20 hours a week making subs at Subway in Sun Prairie. Making subs was fun, but apparently some parts of the job (such as lifting and dumping buckets of ice to refill the soft drink machine and lugging around 20-pound cartons of cookie dough) were too physically strenuous for my particular spinal column. Worsening numbness and tingling in my arms, hands, and feet and the return of the symptoms of daily headaches and aching in both arms scared me into quitting that job today, and making a doctors appointment.
I now consider myself to be retired from the practice of medicine, but I have no idea what my next career will be except that I am working on writing a book about some of my experiences as a patient. I am very burned out and dont feel like finding a new career as yet.
Brian leaves for his freshman year at Stanford University on September 22nd. Stanford took into account my tenuous health and uncertain job future and used our projected 1994 income, instead of our 1993 income, to compute Brians financial need. They offered him $25,000 in financial aid for this year! Because of Brians wonderful scholarships, my being underemployed/unemployed is not the catastrophe it might otherwise be financially.
I wrote on October 8, 1994:
I can understand how you feel burned out. This might be a good time to take a deep breath. Maybe work on that book.
I too have thought about writing. If I find myself at the end of my present career, I could always start using the literary form of my name, T. Buckingham Thomas, and start creating collections of essays. Or trying to. So far, however, I havent been able to crank up much ambition. Besides, there are very many books out there already.
November 1994: This week I found a job! (With no help from the state just saw an ad in the classifieds.) Ill be working as physician at the Badger Plasma Center. Ill do histories and physical exams on potential plasma donors. Ill be working 20-25 hours a week, and can set my own hours.
Most of the donors are University students, so of course after thirteen years at University Health Service, this patient population is familiar. So far, Ive found this job to be low stress and a lot of fun. And after a year of being under employed/unemployed, Im thrilled to be making money again!
February 1995: I am writing during a lull at work. I am now working about 23 hours a week, which is what Ill be doing indefinitely. (My spine specialist recommends that I not attempt to work more than 25 hours a week until after the summer, if then.) I am thrilled to be bringing in significant income. We figure my income for 1995 will go to pay off debt.
(work stopped lulling)
We got a modem for Christmas, and enjoy exchanging e-mail. Do you have an e-mail address?
Brian is quite happy at Stanford. He wrote us one letter during the first quarter, but has sent us twelve e-mail messages during the first month of the second quarter. We just have to communicate in his medium!
May 1995: I started about three letters to you around the time of your birthday, but did not mail any of them because they were dull. (I was depressed at the time.) I cant guarantee that this letter wont be dull, but I am feeling better on twice the dose of antidepressant medicine.
The most interesting thing going on with me is that I have decided to go back to school and get a bachelor of music degree (probably in oboe performance). I have applied to the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music for spring semester, 1996. My audition will take place November 18th.
Meanwhile, I have to learn to play the oboe. My mother will loan me her oboe (she took up oboe at about age 65, but has not played it in 7 or 8 years). For my birthday, she offered me some oboe lessons, to get me started.
If I can, Ill audition in oboe. If not, Ill audition in clarinet. The Sun Prairie Community Band director assures me that I am college proficient in clarinet. Ill have to practice piano, too, so that I can pass a proficiency test in piano rather than take piano lessons in college.
December 1995 (holiday letter): Jan has now retired from medicine, and is beginning her second adulthood. Jan is quite excited about exploring music which she has always loved and developing a new career.
August 1998 (postcard): Bruce, Kevin, Douglas, and I [below] are staying in a mostly completed guest log cabin that my mother built near her cottage on Lake George, New York. Except for being awakened each morning by new sounds a builder putting in a shower, a backhoe digging a hole for a lantern, and an electrician installing a dining room chandelier its restful.
December 1999: We do have some E.piphany stock. Brian gave us some shares at the initial offering ($16 a share). We sold some this year (before the price went really high, unfortunately, but still we made a huge profit) and paid off some credit card debts that were strangling us. We have 100 shares left, and will probably sell them early in 2000.
January 2001: Of the five medicines I have to take for the rest of my life, four of them had not been invented when I was in medical school!
August 2001: In the middle of May I came out of retirement. I got a letter describing a part-time position for Center Medical Director of Aventis Bioservices, Inc., a plasmapheresis center. Within one week I did 30 hours of continuing medical education credit, renewed my medical license, submitted my CV and had interviews, and was hired. I am to work between 4 and 8 hours a week, at an exorbitant rate of pay per hour.
Eventually the last of the boys left the nest.
June 2004: We are extremely busy here, because after 26 years, we plan to move! In the past several months we have remodeled the entire house and yard. It has been a lot of work, and the Crankiness Quotient in the household has been quite high. We just put our house on the market June 1st.
In the early fall well be moving to a 14-unit condominium on a ridge overlooking Lake Wisconsin. We had the first pre-sale, so of course we picked the unit with the very best view. On the first floor, there is a screened porch that overlooks the lake. On the loft floor, there is a balcony that overlooks the back of the condominium, where there is a nature conservancy (woods).
We are quite excited about this move. Well be out in the country but just four miles from the Interstate, so we can commute to Madison easily.
June 2006: I am doing fine, except for being hypomanic at the moment. That means I am in a continuously wonderful mood, am not bothered by anything (including spending money we don't have), and have lots of energy and plans. I am in touch with my psychiatrist every day or two, and he keeps increasing my medicine.
I am still Center Medical Director at Interstate Blood & Plasma, Inc. in Madison, and work there between 10 and 20 hours a week. And I am enjoying playing clarinet in the Sun Prairie Community Band.
December 2007: For Christmas Kevin gave me a large, illustrated book about the National Parks. Then Bruce asked me which parks were closest to us. Now I am excited about the idea of taking a week's houseboat trip in Voyageurs National Park the last week of May.
All of my sons could come that week. Douglas only has one relatively long stretch of time that he is free from his duties as a teaching assistant at Purdue, and it encompasses that week. Brian, Jennifer (Brian's girlfriend), and Kevin will be flying in to International Falls on Sunday morning to join us.
We will be houseboating and canoeing for a week. I am very excited about the trip.
December 2011: In July we had the vacation of a lifetime National Geographic Expeditions Alaska Wildlife Adventure. Our 10-day trip included exploring Denali National Park, flightseeing around Mount McKinley, riding the Alaska Railroad, traveling by floatplane into Redoubt Bay to watch the black bears fishing for salmon, and taking a cruise of Prince William Sound. We saw lots of wildlife, ate magnificently, and had an unbelievable time.
December 2013 (Happy Holidays letter to everyone): We had lots of snow this past winter and enjoyed going snowshoeing right outside of our back door.
One was to California to visit Brian, Jennifer, and Noah; Kevin and his girlfriend Christina; and Jennifers parents.
The other trek was to witness Douglass graduation from Purdue with a graduate degree in Mathematics. Brian and Kevin joined us for Douglass graduation.
Kevin and Christina visited for a week at Lake George. Douglas came for several months, staying on after we had left, deciding what he might want to do with his life, and looking for a job.
At Halloween we celebrated Jans mothers 99th birthday, at the assisted living center near Denver where she lives. We flew on to California to visit. On Thanksgiving Day, our second grandson arrived: Owen Chang Babcock. His big brother Noah, now two, thinks Owen is very interesting, and enjoys touching him.
Jan, fully retired, enjoys playing in the Sun Prairie Community Band and iPad video games.
February 2014: We are tired of "polar vortices." We had four days with the actual temperature being minus 22 to minus 24 degrees and the wind-chill being minus 45 to minus 60 degrees. We are going to escape soon, by going to Florida and from there to Central America. We are going on a National Geographic Expedition to Panama and Costa Rica from March 15 - 22. We'll be traveling on the National Geographic Sea Lion, a small cruise/expedition ship that holds 62 passengers.
But then last fall came the bad news.
October 26, 2015: I was recently diagnosed with metastatic cancer. My lungs are full of cancer and it has spread to my brain as well. Friday I had a bronchoscopy and they did biopsies, so in a day or two I may know where the primary tumor originated.
The prognosis for metastatic cancer in the lungs is poor, and I have decided just to have palliative care.
There is a lot of cancer in my father's side of the family. He died at age 67.
I made it to my fiftieth high school reunion (October 3) and our middle son Kevin's wedding in Oakland, CA (October 17). We'll see what other experiences I can fit in.
I would appreciate e-mail!
Of course, Im very sorry to hear the news, Jan.
I think its good that youve decided to go with palliative care rather than struggle with a difficult and probably unwinnable battle. You have the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed ... and the wisdom to know the difference.
Enjoy each moment you have left, and Ill be thinking about you each day.
December 3, 2015: My cancer turned out to be adenocarcinoma of the lung, Stage 4. I am on oxygen almost all the time because I feel short of breath with any movement.
Kevin and Christina and Douglas came for Thanksgiving and we had a good time.
As I did every year, I sent her a card for December 23, her wedding anniversary. Usually I designed these notes and included news from me, but this time I went with a Hallmark sentiment:
Three weeks later, as I was preparing a Martin Luther King Day article about a 1965 speech at Oberlin, I remembered that Jans sister Lynn had been in the audience as a member of the graduating class. Had the whole family attended? Did Jan remember the speech? I asked her via e-mail on January 17.
That same afternoon I got this reply.
Uh-oh, I thought. She must be gone. A quick Google search located this obituary.
I phoned Bruce and he confirmed it. Jan had been with her family on Christmas but died on Sunday evening, December 27.
Bruce and I shared our sadness, but what else was there to say? The end must come for all of us.