Janet Gayle Len-Ríos, 83, died on Jan. 18, 2018, in Athens, Georgia. She retired to her hometown of Osceola, Wisconsin, in 1998 after many years of distinguished service at the Panama Canal Commission where she concluded her career as the Associate Director, International Media and Publications, Office of Public Affairs.
She was born to Ashbel and Mary (Uecker) Ingerson in January1935 in the remote and sparsely populated town of Flaxton, North Dakota, just miles from Canada’s border. Her family raised sheep. She attended grade school in a one-room school house, which required her and her older brother Ralph to walk three miles across the prairie avoiding thick honeysuckle bushes to reach school, sometimes in extremely cold conditions. Growing up during the Great Depression, she and her brother became entrepreneurs. They built a business of trapping and selling muskrat pelts that they sold to Montgomery Ward and Sears. This job required them to know how to skin and dry the pelts—being very careful not to break the skin.
After the loss of her little sister Mary Ellen in April 1946, who died of an acute appendicitis, they left North Dakota traveling to several locations and finally settling on a 120-acre plot in Osceola. Janet started middle school in Osceola and attended Osceola High School until her senior year, when she moved temporarily to St. Paul, Minnesota. She was a talented student and at 17 graduated in 1952 from John A. Johnson High School.
After graduation and before college, she worked two years for the American Optical Company. She began college at Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls, Iowa, but after a semester transferred to the University of Minnesota to be closer to home. She graduated from Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and minors in history, sociology and psychology. Upon graduation, she worked for The Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene at the University of Minnesota for Dr. Ancel Keys, who researched diet and coronary heart disease. One of her jobs was to type the manuscript for Dr. Keys’ book, “Eat Well and Stay Well.” It was while working there she met her future husband Felipe Antonio Len-Ríos, who was studying engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but was taking summer courses at the U of M. After a long-distance courtship, they married on Aug. 24, 1963. The couple lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Bellevue, Washington, where their first child Antonio Gabriel was born. From Washington state, she and Felipe moved to the Republic of Panama where Felipe was offered a job as an engineer working for the Panama Canal Company. There, they had their second child María Elizabeth. Janet was a stay-at-home mom for many years, and enjoyed taking the kids to swimming, visiting the library, and beachcombing. She loved reading, sewing, birdwatching, art, macramé, and baking Midwestern delights—and was famous for her pies.
Janet found a job as a writer for the Panama Canal Commission, Office of Public Affairs through a story submission she made to a magazine produced by the Panama Canal College in 1978. It was a story about a boy, his father, and his dog, set in the North Dakota farming community that Janet knew so well. The story contained terse but heartrending dialogue between father and son about the need to put the dog down. Janet’s colleague recalls, “The professor who taught creative writing at the college was asked to read Janet’s submission. He came running into the journalism classroom, where the magazine was being assembled, with Janet’s story in his hands. He wanted to meet the writer. He believed he had just discovered the next Willa Cather.”
In her role as a writer for the Panama Canal, she crafted nonfiction stories about the lives and work of the people who kept the “path between the seas” open and operational 24/7. Janet’s writing appeared in the weekly newspaper, the Panama Canal Spillway and the quarterly magazine, The Panama Canal Review. She was well-known for documenting the contributions that the Chinese made during Canal construction.
After working for the Canal, she took a job as the Command historian for the U.S. Army South, keeping the history of U.S. Army’s classified and unclassified operations in the Latin American hemisphere. She showed her mettle in handling herself as a professional woman in a largely male environment. Although known for her soft-spoken and gentle nature, it was not to be mistaken for weakness. A colleague recalls Janet sharing a story about her new boss, a U.S. Army colonel, stopping by to make a request. He explained that his secretary was overwhelmed with her workload, and he asked Janet to step up and take on clerical work whenever she observed that his secretary was busy. Janet’s reply was respectful but firm: She would not do that, as she was hired as the Command historian, not as the colonel’s secretary. Janet said his angry response was, “Wrong answer, woman.” Janet’s reply was, “No, sir, wrong question.” Janet said the colonel stomped out of the room, and she wondered whether her career with the U.S. Army would be short-lived. The next day, she said, he returned and apologized for what had indeed been “the wrong question.” They maintained a strong, mutually respectful and friendly professional relationship until she was lured back to the Panama Canal Commission to serve as associate director in the Office of Public Affairs.
Janet got joy from being involved in the arts. In Panama, she was a member of the Sweet Adelines, an international group of female singers doing barbershop harmony. They wore costumes and performed at official American Embassy events, private parties, residences and in U.S. military and civilian housing areas. She was also a member of the National League of American Pen Women, an organization promoting writing, music and the arts.
When she returned to Osceola, she helped ignite participation in The Osceola Senior Citizens Club, holding several leadership positions including publicity and program chairman. She advocated for a place for Osceola’s seniors to gather in a senior center. She also co-founded Osceola’s Friends of the Library. She regularly played cards on Tuesdays at an area church and belonged to a local book club.
No role was more fulfilling to Janet than that of mother and grandmother. Her pride in her two children, Tony and María, and grandchildren, Andrew and Francesca, was evident to all who knew her. They gave joy and meaning to her life. Since the birth of her first grandchild in 2007, Janet lived between her daughter’s home and her farm house in Wisconsin. Her grandson, Andrew, was once introduced to a close friend of Janet’s, and it was explained to him that the friend was also a “grandmother.” Thinking he was being asked to choose, Andrew considered for a moment, then looked up at his mother and said, “I like my grandmother the best.” The love that flowed between Janet and her grandchildren will be remembered. She took particular delight in the fact that her granddaughter, Francesca, asked if they could be co-owners of Janet’s beloved cat, Dusty. The answer was, of course, yes.
While in Georgia, she joined the Oconee County Senior Center, was a pen pal to a student at Oconee High School, and attended Athens Church with her family.
Janet is survived by her husband Felipe Antonio Len-Ríos, Panama; son Antonio Gabriel Len-Ríos, St. Paul, Minnesota; and her daughter, María E. Len-Ríos, son-in-law, John L. Phillips, and grandchildren, Andrew A. Phillips and Francesca E. Phillips of Bishop, Georgia. She is also survived by her sister-in-law Kirsten Ingerson of St. Paul, Minnesota, cousin Carol Wahi of Arden Hills, Minnesota, and nieces Sally Perovich and Susanne Ingerson, along with many other cousins and family in the U.S. and Panama. She was preceded in death by her brother Ralph, sister Mary Ellen, and parents Mary and Ashbel.
A memorial is planned for the Spring in Janet’s hometown of Osceola.