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Artist, retired executive, and World War II veteran Janet Lee continues at 96 to lead a remarkable and interesting life. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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How long ago is long ago? That depends on your vantage point. For most people, D-Day, June 6, 1944, is much too long ago for personal memories. But the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Nazi-held Europe on the beaches of Normandy, is not too long ago for 96-year-old Janet Lee’s memory. It is a part of her own past.
That is because Janet is a veteran of World War II. She was a 20-year-old student, finishing her first year at New York University, when she enlisted in the Navy.
“Everyone I knew as going away to the war. It seemed like the right thing to do at that time,” she recalls.
Because she was not yet 21, she had to get her parents’ permission to serve. Her father had one question: Janet, do you have to do this?
“I said ‘Yes’ and I remember I went down and got the papers notarized,” she says.
Janet did not want any of the secretarial jobs to which women in the service were often assigned.
“I wanted to do something totally different,” she says.
Instead, Janet became an aviation machinist’s mate.
“I guess I was women’s lib before my time,” she adds.
She completed her basic training at Hunter College in New York City, not a big move for a girl who had grown up in the Bronx.
“It was different then,” she says of her native borough.
From training, she was stationed in Norman, Oklahoma, a base with 1,000 women and 30,000 men. Despite those statistics, Janet felt no harassment.
“Not like I read about today,” she says. “We were accepted, never harassed; not dating people really, but just part of the group.
“It should still be like that,” she says.
Janet worked on a riggers’ crew for airplanes, getting them ready for the pilot to fly.
“We did everything but fly,” she says.
She didn’t think of it at the time, but now Janet describes herself as “pretty proud” of her service.
“I guess it was pretty unusual for a woman to be involved,” she says.
On the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, Janet went to France with a group of World War II veterans, visiting both the beaches where the landing had taken place and cemeteries where war dead were buried. The mayor of the French city of Caen presented all the visiting male veterans with medals. None was forthcoming for Janet until she told him she too had been in the armed services. Then she was presented with her own medal.
When she thinks back to World War II, she remembers a nation united in support of the conflict and she regrets that young people today no longer know much about the war.
“Everyone was involved; everyone had somebody connected; everyone did their part. It wasn’t like it is now,” she says. “That history is important. We did save civilization.”
By the end of the war in 1945, Janet was once again a civilian. She had married a naval aviator and her twin sons were born on a day with its own World War II association: VJ Day, celebrating the victory over Japan. In all, Janet has three sons, six grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren.
Her family lived in Connecticut and then moved to Atlanta for her husband’s job. When he died at the age of 49, Janet stayed in the city. Her family urged her to move home, but she was determined to remain in Atlanta.
“I didn’t want to go back so everybody could tell me what to do with my life,” she says.
Instead, she became an executive at a financial services firm, not retiring until she was 65. Then, after she came back to Connecticut, she lived in Madison for 14 years before moving to Essex Meadows six years ago.
She never contemplated remarrying.
“Oh, I might have fiddled around a bit,” she admits, but no marriage. “It wasn’t in my plan. I was set up to be an independent woman.”
Janet’s apartment today is divided between living space and her art studio. She never took any lessons, but she creates collages; small, scale-model rooms; and handmade books with elaborate designs that she calls altered books. She first learned about the altered books in a brochure from the Guilford Art Center. She was not quite sure what the brochure was describing but she had already made her decision.
“Whatever it was, I wanted to do it,” she says.
Her work is currently on display at the gallery in Essex Meadows until Sunday, July 7. She keeps a pile of material for collages in her studio, including not only various kinds of paper and cardboard, but also feathers, ribbon, and even flowers.
She always starts with an idea but never knows how that will evolve as she works.
“I never what is going to happen,” she says. “My brain just thinks of things. I love patterns, lines, and designs.”
As she looks forward, Janet says it is her art that sustains her.
“This is what I do and this is what I want to keep doing,” she says.
She has no explanation for her longevity—no special diets, no special exercises—but she thinks there is a state of mind that has something to do with it.
“I have always been very optimistic. I don’t know why, but I have the facility for being very happy,” she says.
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