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By: Patricia Ann Chaffee

Grma and Gillian Hawaii LaisJane Allen Eiffel TowerIt was the alphabet that brought Dick and Jane together. Back in the mid 1950’s, it wasn’t uncommon for freshman at Penn State to have assigned seats in their classroom in alphabetical order. Dick Allen sat next to Jane Bergdoll and to this day, Jane can’t explain the attraction.

“He was skinny as a toothpick and very tall,” says Jane. “He liked playing baseball and I don’t really know what attracted me to him. He was just a nice guy. He seemed very independent and confident, self-assured. He was working and had a car.”

They married right after graduation in 1957 and had two children. Dick worked as an accountant for General Motors in the Detroit, Michigan area. Jane worked with mental health agencies working on early programs for people with special needs. This led her to an appreciation for the work she saw social workers do. She decided to get her Masters in social work from Wayne State University in Detroit, and became a school social worker in the early 1970’s enjoying summers off and the opportunity to work closely with families doing preventative work.

CIMG1214 copyThey moved to Pennsylvania in 1981 and Jane was active in the First Presbyterian Church of Morrisville in Yardley. She was involved in the growth of the Food Center, a food pantry program, which enabled her to make use of her social work background. It began small until the church staff could no longer manage it and Jane took over. She did fundraising and food-raising but it was difficult. “Ninety percent of the people we were feeding were from just across the (Delaware) river in Trenton, New Jersey.” But the food pantry was in Pennsylvania creating a challenge to secure grant funding from either state. Pennsylvania didn’t want to support the program because it was serving people in New Jersey. And New Jersey didn’t offer support because the program was located in Pennsylvania.

Other churches got involved and it became an ecumenical effort. A program called Philabundance, the Philadelphia region’s largest hunger relief organization, donated restaurant and grocery store leftovers, among other things, and the Trenton Food Bank was generous where they could be. The forty plus hours the volunteer position entailed, had grown to 90+ volunteers serving 900 people each month by the time Jane left her position to care for Dick.

Melanoma ran in both sides of their families and he’d had it in 2001 but didn’t get good follow up according to Jane. Dick was diagnosed with Melanoma again in September 2005 and by January 2006 he was gone, just before their 49th anniversary.

Cold in Africa“We had even planned a service. He wanted a service while he was still alive. He wanted to be there. He wanted to say, “thank you.” He died the Thursday before the Saturday service. We had it anyway. They say funeral services are for the people left anyway.”

She stayed in Pennsylvania four more years before moving to Niantic, Connecticut in 2010 to be near her daughter Betsy Farrugia.

“I’m glad I waited,” says Jane. “It gave me time to think about what I needed at that point. I realized I didn’t want to invest as much of myself into one project.

It could take over my life. I wanted to do something different.”

She started working at the Homeless Hospitality Center in New London one day a week. Her inclination to help people as a social worker continues even there.

She does mail distribution and sorting, helps guests on the computer doing job searches and securing forms they need for employment and social services.

“I began as a receptionist answering phones and came in contact with all the guests. I was always amazed at how cheerful and positive they would be in their circumstances,” says Jane. “They have good attitudes and help each other, often sharing their resources. There is camaraderie, a mutual support.”

As an accountant Dick was always very frugal leaving her financially comfortable in his absence. Jane decided to take some trips with her granddaughters and their first was in 2006. She liked the idea of Intergenerational travel adventures through Road Scholar. Emilie was 10 and Gillian was 6 at the time and the three headed to the Adirondacks in upstate New York where they stayed for a week in a log cabin and toured the Vanderbilt Estate. That was the only trip they took together. Since then she realized each granddaughter, Emilie, Gillian and Melanie needed their own experience and time with her. So each summer since, Jane takes three separate educational trips, each destination chosen by the girls.

“When you live with your grandchild for a week or two you learn a lot about their habits and what they value, how they put on make-up and how important the proper outfit is to them - even in the jungle! At bed time you learn how they feel about the other kids on the trip, the issues that come up within the group and how they decide which kids to hang with. You are gratified to see the interest and excitement they show, even though, especially in their teens, they may be trying to hide it from you. And they enjoy helping their grandma during the times when things can get confusing.”

She thinks they have learned a lot about handling unfamiliar situations, making decisions, and when the trip is over, “you and your grandchild have special memories that you share and there is often, 'do you remember when ---'.”

Jane prefers not to take any repeat trips, insisting on new adventures and she enjoys that the trips are educational. Emilie is in college now so Jane just has two travel partners left. The trips are always planned with activities for the kids who are only a few years apart, and other activities for the adults. To date, she has taken 20 trips to various countries and continents. They have been to Australia, Hawaii, Greece, Italy, France, England, Africa, Spain, and several throughout the United States. They all stand out for some reason but riding a donkey down into the Grand Canyon on a two foot wide path, while in her mid 70’s really stands out in her mind. This summer she plans to see Rome, Venice and Florence.

Asked why she enjoys travel, Jane says she’s not sure she does. “I like being with my grandchildren and being around different cultures and seeing what the rest of the world looks like. It gives a better understanding of the world. When we went to Barcelona, we heard lectures on Picasso. Emilie is an art major so she wrote a paper on what she learned, which complimented her studies.”

“I’m grateful that I had the money to do it. After he (Dick) died I felt a certain amount of freedom to do things I hadn’t time to do before. It’s important for widows to develop their own dreams, kind of a self-exploration of what they want life to look like. It’s important to take advantage of support from family and friends and not isolate yourself, even though it can be tempting to do that. For me, getting involved in my community was important.”

Early in 2014, Jane learned about The Giving Garden at The Coogan Farm Nature and Heritage Center in Mystic, Connecticut. The garden is a combined effort between the Nature Center, United Way of Southeastern Connecticut and the Robert G. Youngs Family Foundation, aimed at providing fresh produce for the Gemma E. Moran, United Way Labor Food Center.

“I was discouraged by the lack of nutritious fresh foods distributed through the food pantries,” says Jane. “I was excited about being able to grow produce for the food pantry.”

Jane sponsored a 7,000 square foot plot within the garden that required $3600 and volunteers to farm it. She was just about to join All Souls New London, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation so she donated the plot to the church. They named it the Soul Food Plot, and its volunteers came together to grow what turned out to be one ton of farm fresh produce for the Gemma E. Moran Center.

Jane joined the Cappella Cantorum in Deep River and also has enjoyed playing the keyboard with a small group in the community where she lives. She has made friends in her new community after more than 20 years in Pennsylvania which was a bit difficult. And although Jane misses Dick’s companionship most, at the age of 80, she doesn’t plan to re-marry.

“I like the freedom I have now. I went on a date once. That was enough.”

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