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Random meeting in the cemetery

Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Small United States flags at soldier graves.A cemetery is an unlikely place to meet new people.

Yet there we were—my husband and I—at Jefferson Memorial Cemetery in Pleasant Hills, on a brisk, sunny March afternoon, paying our respects to his dearly departed family members, when we struck up a conversation with another visitor to the graveyard, an amiable woman named Janet Thomas.

As we chatted and delved further into her background, we became intrigued by her life story. Turns out we had a lot in common.

Like us, Janet is a long-time Mt. Lebanon resident. As a child, she lived for several years on Berkshire Avenue in Brookline, the same street where I grew up. Her late husband, John, lived on Parker Drive in Mt. Lebanon, in a house right around the corner from ours on Arden Road.

She and John both attended Mt. Lebanon High School, just like our son Mark. John graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. Ditto our son. For a time, they lived in Philadelphia where Janet attended the University of Pennsylvania and worked as a nurse in the university’s hospital system.

“Guess what!” I exclaimed. “Mark just moved to Philadelphia and lives directly across the river from Penn and his girlfriend is a nurse at Children’s Hospital on the college campus.”

After learning she has family in Asheville, North Carolina—so do we—we exchanged phone numbers so we could hear more about her past.

Born in 1936, the former Janet Wissinger was 5 years old and living in Brookline when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Of course, she didn’t fully comprehend war’s atrocities, but she knew something significant had happened. Coincidentally, on that day which would “live in infamy” per President Franklin Roosevelt, her parents closed on a house on Fieldbrook Drive in Mt. Lebanon.

Janet’s mother, Dorothy, was a nurse at Passavant Hospital and her father, Edson, worked for Bell Telephone Company and had a tax business. She remembers happy times growing up in Mt. Lebanon.

“There were few houses on Fieldbrook back then,” Janet recollected. “It was surrounded by woods. As children, we always played in the woods and were very close. So close, we’ve had reunions over the years. People in the neighborhood were wonderful.”

Janet attended Howe Elementary School and what was then Mellon Junior High—but it was at Mt. Lebanon High School that things got interesting. That’s where she met her future husband, John Thomas, who made an awful first impression.

“I was a cheerleader in high school,” she explained. “At a basketball game, a boy jumped up in the stands, pointed at me, and shouted, ‘See that girl—I’m going to marry her!’ I was appalled, but our kids still laugh about the day their dad made fools of us both.”

Ironically, a friend of Janet’s had a gigantic crush on John, and she and Janet used to drive to John’s house on Parker, hide behind a bush, and sneak a peek in the window so her friend could catch a glimpse of him.

“John’s father would never have approved of that,” she chuckled.

Ultimately, Janet agreed to a double date with John and another couple, after initially resisting his advances. She was finally won over by his charm and persuaded by her mother who told her, “You’ll never find anyone who will love you as much as him.”

bride and groom holding handsStill, she never imagined she would marry an Episcopal priest, John’s calling. But in 1957, they were wed at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Washington Road. John’s father, William Thomas, a bishop in the Episcopal Church, handled the details and invited a ton of guests.

“There were so many people, my hands became swollen from shaking their hands in the receiving line,” she remembered, laughing.

After attending Shadyside Hospital School of Nursing, Janet became a registered nurse, but then moved to Philadelphia where John attended the Philadelphia Divinity School for three years, becoming a clergyman like his dad. During that time, Janet obtained a B.S. at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, having received a full scholarship in 1959.

Thereafter, John’s ministerial work dictated where they resided for the next decades—Somerset Township, Pittsburgh, and Ashtabula, Ohio. John was instrumental in building St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Somerset. Then he worked for 10 years at St. James Episcopal Church in Penn Hills and was a minister for 20 years at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ashtabula, dutifully carrying out each church’s mission and tending to parishioners’ needs.

Among her husband’s accomplishments, Janet is most proud of the tremendous work he did as a director and staff member at the Sheldon Calvary Camp on Lake Erie in Conneaut, Ohio, which is run by the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. John’s father founded the Calvary Camp in 1936 when he was the Associate Rector of Calvary Church in Pittsburgh.

Upon receiving a generous contribution from Mae Sheldon who wanted the camp to be a memorial to her deceased husband, Harry E. Sheldon, William established the camp to offer young people opportunities for personal and spiritual growth by participating in sports and other activities in a lakeside setting. For more than 80 years, thousands of campers have enjoyed the thrills of swimming, basketball, tennis, horseback riding, hiking, canoeing, and crafts, along with the camaraderie of interacting with new friends, thanks to the diligent efforts of John and William.

Janet noted that John helped raise a million dollars in 1996 in a campaign to finance necessary renovations at the camp which has considerably expanded its programs and facilities since the 1930s. In an article dated July 29, 1996, the Ashtabula Star Beacon recognized John’s fund-raising success and the camp’s benefits.

John once said he considered Calvary Camp his lifelong part-time vocation. The magnitude of his influence on the camp was evident in a recent letter Janet produced, penned by a former camper and staff member at Calvary Camp who wrote, “The impact Father John had on people’s lives was vast and the number and variety of people he touched was staggering.”

While John was busy shaping young people’s lives, Janet was helping to shape medical care.

Throughout her life, Janet worked as a nurse in various capacities and in numerous places, including St. Clair Hospital and community hospitals in Somerset Township and Ohio. She wrote policies and procedures for hospital manuals covering guidelines for disease management. As the Director of Home Health Care at an Ashtabula hospital, Janet taught doctors about hospice care and established a home health care program. She has also been both a school nurse and a visiting nurse. And when then First Lady Hillary Clinton chaired a committee on health insurance in the 1990s, Janet advocated for a health care provider to be on the panel.

Janet is no stranger to publicity. The Wall Street Journal wrote an article about her on March 10, 2000, when she was cleaning out her parents’ house on Fieldbrook Drive after her father moved and she discovered sentimental items among their belongings which she never knew about. She found her mom’s old journals and picture postcards of hospitals from around the country and her dad’s keepsakes from his younger brother Glen who died at age 9, including a toy boat he carved from wood. These mementoes were touching and revealing to Janet.

The Thomases had moved back to Pittsburgh in 1999 to assist her father who was alone after her mother’s death. They didn’t intend to stay, but John became a staff member at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church—their wedding venue—in essence completing the circle where they began years before.

John died a decade ago and is buried in Allegheny Cemetery. Janet’s parents are buried in Jefferson Memorial Cemetery where we encountered her that early spring day.

Janet’s tidy ranch house on Somerville Drive is filled with countless photographs and memorabilia from her colorful life, a life that included meeting Maria Von Trapp of “Sound of Music” fame in Stowe, Vermont; meeting folksingers Peter, Paul, and Mary in Quebec in 1996; and taking an unforgettable six-week journey around Europe in 1965, sailing across the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth and sitting at the captain’s table for dinner.

Janet’s daughter, Julie, also a nurse, lives with her husband, Terry Michelitch, and their children, Ana and Thomas, in Atlanta, Georgia. Her other daughter, Jennifer, lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and teaches chemistry at Asheville High School.

Besides keeping in touch with her family regularly, Janet swims three times a week for 45 minutes at the Jewish Community Center and solves jigsaw puzzles. For an octogenarian, she stays active.

Her advice to folks in today’s troubling times? “Faith is important,” she says. “And love your neighbor.” Simple and direct words Janet and John lived by their entire lives, that’s for sure.