Jann Starr shines bright

March 2020

On a recent winter’s day, after digging my car out of the snow, I headed across town to meet up with Jan Starr. I had met Jan when she was part of a walking program but we hadn’t seen each other in years. Yet, when I stepped into the coffee shop, I recognized her immediately! She waved from across the room and as soon as she smiled, I knew it was Jan. If any smile can light up a room, it would be Jan’s.

Over a cup of hot chocolate we chatted and caught up. Jan has an ability to make people feel welcome and connected. She remains active and, as a recent retiree, I knew I could learn a lot from her. What were her secrets? How did she stay active? What did she like about winter? I wanted to learn more.

When I asked Jan about surviving winter storms in Thunder Bay, she said, “If you’re going to live in Thunder Bay, you better learn to drive in the snow!” And that’s true. If you can’t drive in the snow there will be many days you could be stuck at home. Having a fun destination helps, too. I knew that my drive across town in the snow would reward me with a delightful face-to-face reunion with Jan.

Jan Starr has been a life-long resident of Thunder Bay. She continues to connect regularly with her gals – a group of friends who formed in Kindergarten at Isabella Street School in Fort William. That group has remained connected for over 80 years. Although there are now only three remaining group members they still go out together every 2 weeks. One of the gang even lives in what used to be Isabella School, now a retirement residence.

“We have had so much fun over the years,” says Jan. “And we’d do whatever it took to get together. One time, a muffler fell off one of the gals’ car. She tied it up with some of her knitting yarn and continued on to meet the rest of us so we could knit and chat!” Now, that’s a true MacGyver fix.

Jan is an optimist. She says, “When you live this long, there are always funny stories to share!” The group has always supported each other through deaths, divorces, and tragedy and celebrated weddings, births, and birthdays together. As she nears her 90th birthday, Jan admits that there have been a lot of milestones shared with her girlfriends.

I was impressed with the effort it must take to keep the group connected. Jan admits that staying connected takes some work. “You need someone to be an organizer,” she says. “Someone has to make the phone calls to make dates.” Even when Jan is out of the country, she knows that when she returns she can rely on those old friends. “An old friend is someone that can end the other’s sentences. You can be away from each other but you can reconnect easily.”

She remembers being a Farmette with one of the other gals in her gang. “We went to Southern Ontario to pick fruit,” she says. “We got out of school early to go. We were about 15 years of age and 4 of us went. We were there from May to August. I came back a bit early on board the S.S. Noronic to spend part of the summer on Silver Harbour, where I live today.”

Jan feels she has aged with gusto because of her commitment to sports and activity. Jan attended the University of Minnesota, Duluth Branch enrolling in the first Physical Education course there. She returned and worked at Selkirk High School as a Phys Ed teacher. She has always been active. “When I was about fifteen, I decided to enter the long distance swim down the Kam River from the grain elevator in Westfort to the Rowing Club. I think I was the youngest and perhaps the only female entering.

I didn’t think much of it I just wanted to do it. A couple of days later Bert Badanai Sr. came to my house and, to my amazement, presented me with a gold compact. I remember that Bert swam every day at the Y and loved to encourage young swimmers.”  She still swims, golfs, walks and may take up Salsa dancing. At age 70, she walked 100 miles in the Camino in Spain. In 1998, Jan and a group of Silver Isleters organized what became an annual biking event called the Spoke ‘N’ Spoon, a 30 km trek along the Sibley Peninsula from Karen’s Kountry Kitchen to Silver Islet. This was an event, not a race. Everyone was welcome to participate and there were riders from toddlers age four to eighty seven year old seniors.  “What impressed me most,” Jan said, “was that riders who could have completed the distance in half the time waited patiently at the designated stop, checking tires, sharing snacks and encouraging riders while waiting for the last straggler to catch up.” The event was last held in 2018. Perhaps someone will pick up where Jan left off and take the lead in organizing the event once again. Jan loves looking through the photo albums she has amassed. “What a treat,” Jan says, “to see photos of babes in arms, 20 years later encouraging their children to an active lifestyle.”

As a single mother who raised four kids, Jan was determined that her kids would be able to do sports when they were young so she was appreciative to have hand-me-down equipment available. Her fifth child was born later in her life.

Jan is an activist. Her family had the first store in Fort William. The MacLaurin General Store, a 19th Century-built building, believed to be the oldest brick structure in Thunder Bay, was slated for demolition. But, it was not torn down because Jan went to bat to save it from the wrecking ball. The MacLaurin Store is on what was then the main street of Thunder Bay (New Vickers Street near the Jackknife Bridge on the Kaministiquia River). She believes that her family’s store is part of our City’s heritage that needs to be treasured and appreciated.

She continues to surround herself with “wonderful people I call friends who have shared these adventures with me.”

So, what’s next for this go-getter in her 9th decade? She says it’s all about putting one foot in front of the other. She’s grateful for her family, friends and those warm cups of hot chocolate on a winter’s afternoon.

Nancy Angus is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Bayview. Contact her at nangus@shaw.ca

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