WOODSTOCK – Making the world a better place has been one of Jane Pitkin Curtis’ constants throughout her 103 years of life. As an artist, farmer, world traveler, book author, and proud political activist, Curtis filled her days with meaningful experiences and interactions with others with whom she crossed paths.
“She never slowed down until it was time to go,” said Deborah Luquer, Curtis’ girlfriend.
Curtis has been an informed and engaged citizen throughout her life, taking part in political protests and marches, including – until last October – attending Black Lives Matter vigils in Woodstock.
Her knowledge of the world was fueled by her intense interest in people, their stories, thoughts and dreams.
“She had eagle eyes,” said Luquer, an 82-year-old Hartland resident. “What sets her apart is her curiosity about others.”
Curtis became hard of hearing as she got older, but she always asked to hear a story again because she’d always been such an engaged listener, Luquer said.
“She was full of character,” Luquer said. “She had a modesty that doesn’t come around that often anymore.”
Even on her deathbed earlier this year, Curtis kept up with visitors, planning her own funeral, writing her obituary in advance and remarking, “Who knew dying could be so much fun?”
Curtis was born in Boston in 1918 and grew up in Massachusetts until young adulthood.
While attending Smith College, where Curtis studied art history and European history, she became a passionate artist and left behind a collection of beautiful watercolors.
In 1953 she moved to West Hartford with her husband Will Curtis, where they became dairy farmers together.
Four years later they moved to Hartland where they ran a dairy farm called Sugar Brook Farm. The Curtises also bought and ran the Yankee Bookshop in downtown Woodstock for 10 years in the 1960s, which led to them publishing a two-volume series of books, the nature of things.
The inspiration for the books came from a radio show where Will was promoting the bookstore on Vermont Public Radio; He shared short and amusing facts from nature, like how many eyes a bee has or how high a smallmouth bass can jump out of the water.
They saved the broadcasts that Curtis later collected and made into a book.
In 1997, they moved from Hartland to Woodstock, where Curtis lived for the rest of her life, including after her husband’s death in 2011.
The couple wrote and published several other books together on subjects such as nature, birds, and Calvin Coolidge, and they traveled the world to buy new books and experience new things.
“They had very itchy feet,” said Curtis’ daughter, Kate Donahue, a 77-year-old Hartland resident.
At the airport, her mother would “look at the planes and think about where she was going to go next,” Donahue added.
Anthropology was another of Curtis’ interests, and it meshed well with her love of travel.
Curtis “showed me the way,” said Donahue, who is a professor of anthropology at Plymouth (NH) State University.
In addition to her husband, Curtis also took trips with her friend Ann Debevoise, a 96-year-old Woodstock resident.
They traveled to Italy and England together and explored how things work in different parts of the world.
“We were there to get a feel for the country and what people are doing and thinking,” said Debevoise.
Understanding the workings of society and diverse communities was something Curtis achieved in part by engaging in her own.
“She was such a dedicated person and a good citizen,” Debevoise said.
Curtis was involved in a number of local clubs and organizations, including the Green Mountain Club, the Hartland Planning Commission, the New Century Club at Woodstock, and the Connecticut River Conservancy.
She loved reading political literature to educate herself and took Learning Lab courses at Woodstock to explore historical issues and discuss current events.
For many years, Debevoise and Curtis attended the New Century Club together—a women’s group that met to discuss and write essays on history and politics. Debevoise served as the club’s president from 2018 to 2020.
The group members received suggestions such as the quote from the artist Henri Matisse “Creativity takes courage” and were asked to reflect in writing. The group’s monthly meetings have been informative and interesting, Debevoise said.
“(Jane) and I exchanged ideas about (education) very strongly,” she added.
When they were together, the friends would talk about the importance of subjects young children learn in their early years at school, such as history and geography.
Despite having some strong opinions, Curtis maintained an open-mindedness that allowed her to connect with people from all walks of life, even when they opposed some of her viewpoints.
“She was always nice to fools,” Luquer recalled.
For someone of her generation, Curtis is a modern-day patriot, Luquer said.
“She was a great patriot,” Luquer said. “She listened, and then quietly walked on and did what she thought was right.”
Throughout her life, Curtis took her citizenship as a political activist, attending demonstrations against the use of nuclear weapons in Washington, DC, protesting the Vietnam War in Montpelier, and more recently protesting the separation of immigrant families at the US-Mexico border and participation in the 2017 Women’s March in Montpelier.
In 2016, in her late 90s, Curtis helped start a community group she called “Women for a Change,” which she led for a number of years to encourage voters to speak out and get actively involved in their country’s politics to participate.
She followed a big tent philosophy and was careful to include a wide range of political perspectives in Women for a Change meetings. She worried about the state of the country and its government. However, she knew that valuing and embracing the diversity of thought in our society is a crucial step in achieving a well-functioning democracy.
Through Women for a Change, around 25 members often “got together to ask what we could do for our country,” Luquer said. The group has hosted speakers such as Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, held sham elections and advocated for the inclusion of civics education and emphasized the curriculum in local schools.
She is “a doer, a doer and an activist,” said her daughter Donahue.
Her energy, self-sufficiency, sense of honor, integrity and fearlessness were some elements of Curtis’ personality.
“She felt guilty about being privileged,” said Bill Donahue, Curtis’ son-in-law.
Curtis’ activism gave her a chance to fulfill her purpose, make change, and inspire others to do the same.
“One of her last worries was, ‘Why am I so lucky?’ ‘ Luquer said.
In her hometown, she walked the streets of Woodstock alone, sometimes on walks for her health, sometimes as an activist.
To honor her memory, the funeral guests walked through the village of Woodstock, as Curtis had done for so many years.
Rose Terami can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.