Jane Stewart: A life in music and arts in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, August 14, 2002

When she was a little girl in Tulsa, Okla., in the 1920s and '30s, Jane Stewart put on shows at home and at school, dancing, playing piano and directing her friends.

Stewart moved to Juneau in 1945 and brought her passion for the arts and her considerable talents as an organizer. In the decades that followed she created a profound and lasting legacy in the arts in Alaska.

Stewart died Friday at the Juneau Pioneers' Home at the age of 82.

A public service and tribute will be held on Alaska Day, Oct. 18, at Centennial Hall. The Juneau Symphony, Juneau Lyric Opera and other guests will perform to celebrate her accomplishments.

The mother of seven children, Stewart's talents were diverse. She administered state Sen. Chancy Croft's staff when he was Senate president in the mid-1970s. She and her husband, Tom Stewart, started the Unitarian Fellowship in Juneau. She helped found the Juneau-Douglas Little Theater in the 1950s, Juneau Lyric Opera in the 1970s, and Juneau Jazz and Classics in the 1980s.

"She had boundless energy and she was very efficient," said Croft, who practices law in Anchorage. "If she thought something might interest her, she had a enough confidence to try it."

George and Jean Rogers arrived in Juneau in January 1945, just a few months before Stewart. It was a real frontier town, said George, with fewer than 9,000 people, unpaved streets and wooden sidewalks. There were musicians and artists as well, and Stewart plunged right in.

"This town was always interested in the arts," said Rogers, 85. "There was always this ferment - you had the raw materials and she had drive and focus. Jane was a great one for focusing things.

"She was like a bolt of lightning coming in and setting the forest on fire."

As Jean Rogers worked to develop libraries and reading programs in Juneau schools, Stewart championed music in the schools. George Rogers called her a fierce fighter who led a long crusade for music in the schools.

Often working alongside peers such as Carol Beery Davis, Connie Boochever and Carol Eastaugh, Stewart launched, produced or directed hundreds of musical productions.

"She was involved in everything done with music," Rogers said. "There is no explaining women like that. They're born, they come on and you're lucky if you're attached to one of them."

She was teaching piano when Tom Stewart met her in 1953.

"I wanted to take some piano lessons and she was recommended as the best piano teacher in town. I got some piano lessons," he said chuckling, "and some other lessons as well. We married."

In the early 1960s the family moved to Anchorage for five years and Jane Stewart threw her energy into the arts there as wholeheartedly as she had in Juneau, playing cello with the symphony, teaching, accompanying on piano and directing productions.

She became the first paid executive director for the Alaska Festival of Music and brought the likes of jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and conductor Robert Shaw to Anchorage.

She opened and operated a bookstore, which was destroyed a few years later in the 1964 earthquake.

"Our daughters all worked there," Stewart said. "It was never a financial success but it was a good training ground for them."

Stewart also involved her sons and daughters in music, singing and theater. Ken DeRoux grew up in Juneau and went to school with Stewart's daughter Rebecca. He remembers Jane Stewart as an active parent who threw dance parties for the kids in the family's basement on Calhoun Avenue.

"We called them sock hops," he said. "They were small parties but it was a big deal to us in eighth grade."

Stewart founded a community chorus, the Juneau Singers, and served on the state arts council and the Juneau arts council in its early years. She and Connie Boochever successfully lobbied to create the One Percent for the Arts program, which has funded the installation of public art throughout Alaska.

After her youngest son died as a result of a skiing accident in 1986 in Oregon, her health began to decline, Tom Stewart said. Dementia took her focus but not her personality. She stayed at the Juneau Pioneers' Home for the past eight years. Croft recalled the last time her visited her.

"You could still see in her eyes this spirit that had made her so interesting and vibrant," he said.

"She always found something to laugh about," said Tom Stewart. "She was a happy, optimistic person all her life."

Riley Woodford can be reached at rileyw@juneauempire.com.

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