By Joe Chuman
It was a privilege to have known Janet and to be her friend. Few people I have known have lived out their values as authentically, honestly, and passionately as Janet did. Her life was a gift and an inspiration.
Janet was probably known to most through her professional and public achievements. To say that Janet was a teacher does not accurately cover the depth and range of her professional dedications. Janet was an educator in the richest meaning of the term. Early in her career, she taught in the South Bronx. But the mainstay of her work was with the Dwight Englewood School, first in the upper grades and then later working with younger children.
Spanish was her field–and her love. In addition to teaching at Dwight, Janet had founded and managed a language school in Bergen County. She also founded an educational project in Mexico and traveled there frequently to collaborate with Mexican colleagues. She translated books, mostly for children. Janet taught for years at Rutgers University, educating educators to deepen their pedagogical skills. She taught generations of students, some of whom followed her into the teaching profession. It was about a dozen years ago that Janet’s special talents and devotions became nationally recognized. Janet was named by the Foreign Language Teachers’ Association of America as the best foreign language teacher in the United States. It was her profession’s highest honor. Just recently, she was further recognized with a scholarship set up in her name to assist young foreign language teachers.
Ardent and dedicated environmentalist
Janet’s interests and work extended far beyond the classroom. She was a true humanist whose devotions ranged very widely. As many know, Janet was an ardent and dedicated environmentalist who collaborated with several organizations committed to reversing climate change. In recent years she worked with Green Faith in Bergen County, a faith-based environmental coalition, and was especially dedicated to halting the construction of fossil-based power plants. This involved advocacy work with the New Jersey Legislature and brought her face-to-face with the governor.
Janet was an ardent folk dancer and traveled with groups to Romania and Bulgaria, having mastered the dances of those cultures. She was a serious reader who avidly read fiction and non-fiction as well as several newspapers. She actively participated in book groups and various social and educational forums. She was always kept informed about the issues of the day as a basis for her progressive activism. Janet was never superficial. She engaged all things to which she was committed with informed intelligence, sophistication, and depth. She was a person of remarkable substance
It was several decades ago that Janet found her way to the Ethical Society, and we were honored that she chose our community as a vehicle through which to live out her values and commitments. She served on our board and held several positions, including finance chair. In 2015, Janet had the opportunity to serve several organizations in a leadership position but opted to serve the Ethical Society as its president.
As president, no issue or problem, large and small, was outside of her concern, whether it be the Society’s finances (I need mention that on several occasions Janet most generously bestowed very large gifts on the Society while eschewing recognition or fanfare) or coping with raccoons that were eating away at our roof.
Always sensitive to the needs of others
Janet also cared about the well-being of our members, and here my recognition of Janet veers toward her personal side. Jane was a very caring and kind person who was always sensitive to the needs of others. Among other things, as president, she took leadership in setting up ways to bring recognition and gratitude for the accomplishments of her fellow members and do so in ways that would not leave anyone left out or slighted.
I cannot reflect on Janet’s personal side without citing how she was exceptionally supportive of me in the most difficult circumstances. She intervened in my life in a way that leaves me eternally grateful and ensures that I think of her very often.
Janet became president of the Society in June 2015. That July, Linda and I traveled on vacation to London. About ten days after we arrived, Linda fell very ill. She experienced a stroke and as she was recovering, suffered cardiac arrest, leaving her aphasic, paralyzed, barely conscious, and on life support at Charing Cross Hospital, a large public facility in that city. I stayed with three of my children in a nearby hotel.
It was a time of great personal anguish. I was on the phone with Janet almost every evening, explaining Linda’s condition and receiving Janet’s good support. After three weeks we were able to bring Linda home to Hackensack Hospital, and she spent her last four days at the Marie Claire Hospice in Saddle River, where she died on August 31. The underlying cause was pancreatic cancer.
During this time, Janet, with the assistance of member Linda Bennett, set up a GoFundMe site, which fielded donations to offset the expenses we incurred during this emergency. It was an initiative of great foresight and caring.
Devoted to the community
In light of Linda’s death, I was too overwhelmed by grief to return to work. Janet concurred that it would be appropriate for me to take a leave from my work as leader of the Society that fall. This required that in her volunteer position as president, she picked up many of my responsibilities and labored overtime to ensure the successful functioning of the Society. It was not only an expression of Janet’s devotion to the community, but I believe an extraordinary expression of her personal kindness.
In January 2020, Janet herself was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Janet confronted her illness and her mortality with equanimity I have seen with no one else. The values that she summoned in the face of her death were, I believe, totally consistent with the way in which she lived.
Janet was a warm rationalist and a realist. Pancreatic cancer is an insidious disease and the most fatal of all cancers. The treatment is most often chemotherapy, which is highly toxic. As Janet said to me, one is either killed first by the disease or the treatment, and she observed that once one begins the treatment, one can’t expect that one will come out as before; enduring its side effects would comprise the rest of her life.
Janet had enormous love for her three grandchildren. At first, she considered foregoing treatment and dying relatively quickly. She decided to stay alive to have more time with her grandchildren, and as her daughter Jessie has confirmed, to ensure that her grandchildren would vividly remember her, which may not have been the case if she had succumbed two years sooner.
Maximized positive experiences
At each step of the way, Janet planned and organized her life in order to maximize her positive life-affirming experiences. She paced herself in accordance with her strength and the limitations brought by the treatment. She schooled herself about her disease and did not hold back from asserting herself with her oncologist if she thought her recommendations were ill-advised. She enrolled herself in advance with a hospice program. Toward the end, she completed the paperwork that would enable physician aid in dying if it were to become necessary. (It didn’t.) In accordance with her environmental values, Janet chose as her final resting place a forest in Connecticut set aside for that purpose. Janet’s remains lie at the foot of a majestic tree in that forest.
Through her measured approach, Janet was able to continue her environmental activism, mostly via Zoom, folk dancing (sessions were held in a parking lot because of the pandemic), attending book groups, and staying active with the Ethical Society. She also had many friends and visitors to her home and was able to visit others. On several occasions, she drove to my home, where we met on the deck for a meal and good conversations.
Most important were Janet’s abuela days. Her grandchildren would visit and sleep over weekly, and following their interests, she would take them on excursions to bookstores, parks, and for strolls on the waterfront.
She made a deep and lasting impression
Janet entered my life at a very significant time, with caring and support, which made a deep and lasting impression. After she received her diagnosis, I made sure to call her every week. I could do no less. We had extensive conversations that went far beyond usual pleasantries. I inquired about how she was feeling, the side effects wrought by her treatment, and how she was coping with them. I sensed she found some relief in discussing the details.
Janet confronted her demise, as mentioned, with extraordinary equanimity and realism. There were no illusions. In the way in which Janet Glass confronted her death, but even more, by how she lived, she served as a modest yet towering example of humanity at its best. She has given to her daughters, Jessie and Lara, her grandchildren, her loved ones, her students and friends, indeed all of us, a precious gift, which we will remember with joy and gratitude.
I know that Janet has for me, and I will never forget her.
Joe Chuman is the retired leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.
Members remember Janet Glass.