The Star published this story in January 2014.
BALDWIN CITY, Kan. — June Jewett, 93, a smiling Holstein cow on her apron, opened her front door on a frigid morning last week.
“How the hell did you get up the hill?” she asked straight off.
Never miss a local story.
Right, the hill. She loves her house in the pine woods up there, but that hill caused some personal agony last week. For the first time in nearly 30 years of writing a weekly column for the local paper, the Baldwin City Signal, June missed her deadline.
Snow and ice on the steep gravel road leading to her place meant she couldn’t drive down to the blacktop and get her copy to town. She used to run a rope through the thick trees and get down that way, but those days are past. She’s also been known to go down the snowy road on a piece of heavy cardboard.
At 93, she has to be one of the oldest columnists in the country.
“Through colon cancer, two heart attacks, a broken hip and five editors, I always got my column in,” she said. “I feel I have an obligation, and I didn’t live up to it.”
June got her start in 1986 when one of her daughters slipped a proposed column under the newspaper’s front door. An editor called the next day, and she’s been writing “Musings from the Hill” ever since.
She writes about history, growing up in the Great Depression, wildlife and what life is like for a New Jersey girl who ended up living alone on a Kansas bluff. Not everybody reads it — like any newspaper column. But people do send letters telling her how much they like her pieces.
“June invites our readers to share a worldview forged in a time most can only know from history books,” Signal editor Elvyn Jones said Friday. “She is constantly reminding us to get out from in front of our TVs, look up from our cellphones and embrace Baldwin’s wonderful natural environment.”
Last summer, June wrote about heading out in her red minivan on back roads toward Wyoming and sleeping in her van at a campsite beside a lake. Her closest neighbors were four young men on motorbikes.
“I thought perhaps there would be a hot time in the old town tonight,” she wrote. “Not so. I sat on the shore and watched the moon rise.”
She is, townsfolk agree, a feisty gal. She leads the “old biddy” club that meets every Wednesday morning at the Baldwin Diner. Get her going about bosses making changes to her writing and she starts to sound like Jimmy Cagney.
When power to her house goes out on a cold night, she jumps in bed and pulls the covers over her head.
No matter how cold the wind blows, she’s not about to quit writing or come down from that hill.
Her children have known that for years.
“If she wants to end her life up there, that’s what she’s going to do,” daughter Tricia Spencer said by phone from her home in Lexington, Ky. “It’s challenging for us, yes, but that’s where she’s happy.
“And she writes about it all.”
At the Baldwin City Library, staffers Sandra Johnson and Richard Wellman smile at the mention of June Jewett.
“She’s the reason some people take the paper,” Johnson said. “She tells it like it is.”
Wellman nodded: “At 93, she probably figures she’s entitled.”
June is at the library or at Baker University many days, weather permitting, doing research. By now, readers know her story. She grew up during the Great Depression in New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Her dad lost his job. She remembers bread lines. All the kids worked. The large family had to move in with an aunt and uncle.
In 1943, a soldier heading off to war proposed after only two dates.
“Yeah, we kind of hit it off,” she said.
She had been engaged twice before.
“My mother said she wasn’t going to put this one in the paper until she sees how things work out,” June said.
That soldier, Gale Jewett, didn’t go to war. June said he had bad eyes and out of concern he might shoot the guy next to him, he got sent to radar school.
They did marry, had six children and at one point lived briefly in Prairie Village. But she didn’t like suburbia. She wanted to live in the country, near a lake, like where her aunt and uncle took her when she was a child to get away from a city in the midst of the Depression.
So she and Gale built the house on the hill outside Baldwin City. Gale died in 1984, and June took to writing.
When those first columns were well received, the editor of the Signal at the time wanted her to write a second column, one focusing on social events around town.
June waved her hand in disgust during last week’s visit.
“I don’t care about any of that stuff,” she said. “I wanted to write what I wanted to write about.”
Much of that is what she sees from her hilltop, looking out over the woods, hay fields and Douglas State Fishing Lake.
She’s written about the turkey buzzard. So ugly on land, yet beautiful in flight — “like a ballet.”
Her politics: “I’m a free thinker.”
Religion: “I commune with nature. That is my church.”
Last August, she wrote about getting lost after an eye appointment in Lawrence. A doctor had dilated her eyes and told her to wear dark glasses. It was raining when she headed home to Baldwin City.
Always the writer, she turned the meandering trip into a column about the decline of small towns.
“I drove and drove and drove and was amazed at the desolate countryside,” she wrote. “There were no homes, no lights or gas stations for miles.”
She did not use her cellphone.
“I did not want to advertise that a 93-year-old lady was wandering the back roads on a dark and stormy night. I keep a blanket and pillow in my car just in case.”
She finally came across a store where folks got her back on track by drawing a map and telling her, “Turn right at the orange water tower.”
They later called her house to make sure she had arrived safely.
“Wonderful rural Kansas,” she wrote. “Always ready to lend a hand to those in need.”
Despite wishes of friends, June has no plans to leave her house on the hill.
It’s warm in there. Plants fill the windows and her kitchen cabinets are sky blue, with painted sunflowers. Downstairs is her research room, where books, magazines and Louis L’Amour books lie scattered about.
Cell reception is lousy and she has no cable or Internet access, but that’s not where her stories come from.
They come through the windows, or wildlife bring them to her door. Some come from long ago, from a young girl’s heart.
It’s not like she needs the money. She recently sold another house she owned nearby, “when I thought I was going to kick the bucket.” Besides, she’s an unpaid columnist; free subscription only.
“I honestly believe that she writes because she has a story to tell, and she’s not done yet,” daughter Tricia said. “There are five of us kids, but who are we to tell her how to live the end of her life?”
June acknowledges she can no longer shove her canoe into the back of the minivan, but she shook her head when asked about moving to town.
“I don’t like people elbowing me,” she said.
On Friday, snow melted from the trees. Spring will come, she knows. The road will clear and the iris will bloom and the birds will gather on her deck. Maybe the trumpeter swans will return to the lake.
“I cannot live in town,” she once wrote. “I remain on the hill where nature sings, and around me rings the music of the spheres.”
And, as her daughter said, June writes about it all.
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182