Like a potluck, it seemed everybody brought a story to June Jewett’s memorial service.
But then she was the kind who, at age 90 and with snow blocking her driveway, used a rope slung through the pine woods to get down from her house on the hill to meet the deadline for her newspaper column. So those who knew her didn’t have to work all that hard to come up with stories.
They gathered Sunday in an arts center that used to be a lumberyard. Old songs played to a slide show of June, who wrote her weekly newspaper column right up to the end before dying May 9 at age 96.
Big crowd, cookies, cheese, crackers and drinks. June would have liked the service.
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Then she would have pointed out ways it would have been better had she been calling the shots.
June Jewett was outspoken, stubborn, unfiltered, at times difficult, always fiercely independent and much beloved. She also had to be one of the oldest newspaper columnists in the country.
She kept going through colon cancer, heart attacks, a broken hip and several strokes.
“At the end, she taught herself to type with a single finger,” said Tricia Spencer, Jewett’s daughter who lives in Lexington, Ky. “She never wanted to quit. She wouldn’t give up.”
When the Rev. Kirby Hayes opened the service by describing June as “unique,” the crowd chuckled.
She came from New Jersey and lived alone well into her 90s on a wooded bluff overlooking Douglas State Fishing Lake, long resisting her children’s pleas that she move to town.
She skinny-dipped in the lake. She was known to wear a gorilla mask into the bank. She kept a canoe in the back of her van. Just in case. Not because she feared the unexpected — but because she went looking for it.
Infinitely curious, she would take out driving to the unknown, sleeping in her van on roadsides.
She would lose her way, but she was never lost. She found friends on the other side of strangers’ doors.
And she wrote about it all in “Musings from the Hill,” the column in which she shared her take on life, history and her love of nature. Often touching on poetry, she once wrote of the turkey buzzard, “So ugly on land, yet beautiful in flight — like a ballet.”
She never missed a deadline until January 2014, when snow and ice covered the drive up the bluff to her house. That’s when The Star went to visit.
A knock brought her to the door that frigid day. She was 94. Her first words — delivered with a pinch of Jersey spice: “How the hell did you get up the hill?”
Hummingbirds on her shoulder
June asked that Hayes, a Methodist minister, do the memorial service even though he’d retired years ago. These two had talked — and argued — often about religion over the years.
“I would try to talk about theology, but we always got away from that,” Hayes said. “Nature was her religion.”
He remembered her saying: “I live on that hill and I get up and look into the sunrise over the lake. That’s my heaven.”
At the service, Hayes shared a Thoreau quote June loved and lived: “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
She grew up during the Great Depression in New Jersey. 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 for that earlier story.
Her husband, Gale, a businessman and violinist, died in 1994 after 51 years of marriage. They had six children, seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
June started writing her column, and fighting with editors, in 1986. Musings appeared in the Baldwin City Signal.
She helped lead the “old Baldwin biddy club” that meets every Wednesday morning. And she frequently could be found doing research at Baker University. Staffers there often transported her around campus in a golf cart because, well, she was June Jewett and she thought that a fine way to travel. She was also a regular at the Baldwin City Library, which has arranged to preserve her columns.
June didn’t come down from the hill easy. She didn’t want to leave her flower beds, the view of the lake, and the bald eagles and trumpeter swans.
“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.”
But as her health worsened, people told Spencer she had to get her mother to town.
Just tell her she has to, they told her.
So with new determination, Spencer went out to the house one day and found June on the deck.
“She … had hummingbirds on her shoulder and she’s looking up, talking about the harvest moon,” Spencer remembered. “So that was that.”
But June eventually gave in. During that time of transition, Spencer would drive her mother to the lake and they would sit beside the water.
One day a car stopped.
“Are you June Jewett?” the driver hollered.
June told Spencer to take her cane. She stood and took a step toward the car.
“Yes, I am,” she answered in a tone both proud and defiant.
The man told her she was why he’d come. He’d read her column about the bald eagles.
That pleased her.
Another time, Spencer and June had worked a day getting the house in town ready when Spencer, tired and weary of the whole ordeal, jumped in the lake. It was October.
June probably loved the sight and sound of her daughter’s splash in the cold water. She had made a few splashes of her own in this life and fought like hell to make more all the way to the end.
From a poem she wrote at age 95:
“Treasure dreams that lie ahead.
Hopeful in the wakeful dawn, Arise!
No need to stay abed,
Hear the birds’ morning song.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182