Jane Dean bustles into the kitchen of her 1970’s inspired house to fetch a glass of Sprite. “Never having any children and not being a grandmother, I don’t have any cookies,” she says with a pleasantly warm tone that mimics the best of maternal benevolence. Clad in a pale yellow pantsuit with identically colored sandals and matching socks, Jane Dean looks like a ray of sunshine amongst the dark walls of her mountain-top home, and her blue eyes still sparkle even at 89. “I’ll be 90 in December,” she says.
Dean gingerly places antique glass tumblers on a wooden end table and eases into her yellow, orange, and green floral armchair. “Now where were we?” she asks.
It is a rare moment to see Dean sitting still. Her days are packed with work, luncheons, meetings, bridge and friends, so it’s little wonder she lacks the time to bake cookies, grandmother or not. “I called her the other morning and left her a message, and I called in the evening and left a message then, too,” says Vicki Moore, 61, a friend of Jane’s and piano player for the church where Jane plays the organ. “I didn’t get a call until late that night, and I said, ‘Jane, where have you been?’ ‘Oh, just committee meetings,’ she said.”
With a social life and work life that rivals even the busiest of thriving socialites, Dean balances it all with a demeanor that can come only from experience. “I always try to find things to participate in, but sometimes I have to miss one meeting to go to another,” she says with a shrug. “That’s why I can’t have pets. They would slow me down.” Dean was President of the Gatlinburg Garden Club from 1977 to1979 and a Sunday School teacher at her current church Webb’s Creek United Methodist for nearly a decade. She’s served as chairman for the Wildflower Pilgrimage for 15 years and treasurer of Webb’s Creek United Methodist for about 30 years. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you I’m also in a quilting club at the First Baptist Church downtown and the Retired Citizens of the Smokies,” she adds as an afterthought.
Committees, chairman responsibilities, and a full time job may sound like the agenda of a austere individual, but Dean tries not to take herself too seriously. She opens a conversation with a story about a raccoon sneaking into a an open car window to snack on some garbage. “He found things I didn’t even know I had. I guess the joke’s on me this time because I always try to impress people not to leave their garbage outside, but it’s not even safe in the car,” she says with a chuckle.
Born in Shenandoah, Iowa, Dean moved to Stanton, Iowa at 4. “It’s just a little spot on the map, but it is the only city that has a water tower that’s shaped like coffee pot,” Dean says. So does she like coffee? “Well, they did,” she says.
But as a natural go-getter, Dean doesn’t need or drink a cup of java to get her riled up in the morning. “I always say, ‘when you wake up, get up, and do something.’” Dean begins most days at 8:00 a.m., working at the Cobbly Nob Property Owner’s Association where she’s been employed for the last 35 years. In the evening, she plays bridge in one of her many bridge clubs or relaxes at her mountaintop getaway watching Jeopardy. “Sometimes I have a half day of work and half day of pleasure. That’s one thing nice about this job I have, as long as I get the work done, it’s really a part-time job,” she says.
Growing up, Dean says she always wanted to be a teacher or work in an office. Her first job was in the administration office at the Board of Education in Rockford, Ill. for 21 years, then she worked as a bookkeeper at Auburn High School for five years, and then earned a living at Rock Valley Community College as the bursar for 10 years before moving to her current job here with the Cobbly Nob Property Owner’s Association, the mountaintop community where Dean lives, works, and plays. “I used to play golf here. The girls and I would play every Tuesday, and we had a little league. I was the treasurer of that,” she says.
From leagues to clubs, Dean is no stranger to organized friendships. “I’ve always had some sort of group I’ve been with,” she says. Jane even met her now-deceased husband in 1947 through one of her many groups, a hiking club in Rockford. “We had dances occasionally, and about four or five of us girls got together to go to the dance. Ray ended up taking us home, and he worked it out so I was the last one to take home,” she says laughing. “We ended up dating after that.” Less than a year later, Dean and Ray got married at a Methodist church in Rockford. “I always said I’d be engaged for more than a year, but I always have felt that guardian angels have been guiding me and and when things happen, I know they’re looking over me and trying to tell me “This is what you should do.’ And I don’t know,” she says quietly. “There was just a right feeling.”
After living in Rockford, Illinois for 27 years, Dean and Ray moved to Gatlinburg, their original honeymoon spot, determined to “not have a home on a block.” While they originally planned to buy a motor home and live in Florida, Dean is thankful they changed their mind and moved to the towering top of Cobbly Nob with its beautiful view. Plus, it was an ideal place to further foster their relationship. “Everything up in Illinois, it seemed that I had my girl things and Ray had his boy things, and we didn’t do too much in couples, and down here, we did everything in couples,” she says.
Married for 49 and a half years, Dean and Ray missed their 50th anniversary by 5 months when Ray passed away in 1998. “When I got married at 26, I thought, ‘I’ll never see 50 years,’ but when you find someone you just know, and there’s just no one who could have replaced Ray. I never could have remarried.”
A tinny tinkling sound chimes over her words, as Dean fingers the silver pendant necklace that she wears day and night. “There’s an emptiness you can’t explain, such a void. And I remember when Ray died, I had to play for a wedding, and then I was invited to the reception and when it was over, I came back home, and I just had the funniest feeling from being alone. But you just pick one foot up and put one foot ahead of the other and keep going.”
The bell necklace reminds her to keep looking forward and symbolizes Dean’s guardian angel. “There’s two angels with their arms outstretched and two with praying hands. Every time the bell rings, an angel is getting her wings, and she is watching over me.”
Mirroring the angel watching over her, Dean has built her life on love and kindness, a rare combination in today’s chaotic complexities. “I like to be a congenial person, and warm and friendly. I don’t want to appear to be aloof. Some people are kind of bossy these days,” she says. She says she tries to enjoy the simple things in life like music and friends, and tries not to take anything for granted, as she learned to be appreciative at a young age. At age seven, Dean began piano lessons but she had to give them up during Great Depression. “My folks said we’ll try and find the money somewhere if you want to continue, but I made the mistake and said no. After that, I just never took any more lessons.” But that didn’t hamper her musical career. She took up the cello in junior high and played in the symphony for 25 years, even becoming a cello teacher during the first years of her marriage.
Today, Dean shares her musical gifts in church every week using a different form: a Civil War-era organ. “When it comes to playing music in the church, Jane puts me under the table,” says church pianist Vicki Moore. “She has no qualms about picking out the most complicated piece of music, and handing it to me and saying, ‘Here practice this, we’re going to play it on Sunday.’” It’s a running joke throughout the congregation that Dean has the strongest legs in East Tennessee from pumping the organ. “Jane’s so active in so many things, plus she plays the organ in our church, which takes a lot of energy because you have to pedal this thing all during the service,” says church member Kat LaFevre, 56. “It’s just awesome. She’s just a total inspiration. And I hope I can be like that when I’m 89. Actually, I just hope I can be like that when I’m 69!”
But Dean values exercising her mind too. “I believe in keeping up with the times, if you can keep up with it,” she says. Anyone needing evidence can look to her Facebook page, although she admits she didn’t know what to do with it at first. “A friend came up and helped me get started on it again,” she says. “But I’ve figured it out now.”
Such elements of Dean’s demeanor fascinate those in her circle. “There’s no slowing her down. She’s ageless,” says Moore. “She looks like she did when we first came here 30 years ago. I don’t think she’ll ever be old. She’ll always be young. She’s not afraid of the future; she’s not afraid of getting out and doing things. She’s a person who doesn’t live in fear, and I love doing things with her. If Mrs. Jane says do it, I’ll do it.”