Eulogy for Janet Meehan

delivered by Jane Keegan, RDC

Having lived with Sister Janet Meehan for 22 years, I am flooded with memories. I never dreamed I’d have the honor of delivering her eulogy. As I sat at my desk pondering how to eulogize Janet, Robert Browning’s famous work, “How Do I Love Thee?” popped into my mind. So, borrowing a line from Browning, “Let me count the ways…”

Sister Janet Meehan was a force to be reckoned with. She was a multi-talented woman who never shied away from anything. No challenge was too great for her. Hers was a brilliant mind, a feisty, creative spirit, and a heart so generous, it knew no bounds to its giving.

From her earliest days in high school at Good Counsel Academy, Sr. Janet was a take charge person. As one of her high school classmates remarked, Janet was never a teenager, she was always an adult. When her peers were wearing sneakers and jeans, Janet was dressed to the nines. Her penchant for being a well-coordinated dresser, and usually in high heels and pearls, became a lifelong trend with Janet. In our later years, when many of us had succumbed to canes and walkers, Janet clung to her high heels, even if now and then she teetered in them.

After graduating from Good Counsel College, Janet went on to earn a Masters degree in Fine Arts at the University of Notre Dame. Sent to the Bronx, Janet cut her teeth at teaching art and math for two years at Preston High School. Then in 1967, Janet was assigned to teach at John F. Kennedy High School, which was then still a fledgling school, having replaced St. Mary’s in Katonah, just a few years before. There she remained for the next 48 years, eventually chairing the Art Department while also teaching Math and Mechanical Drawing.

Janet’s Art Room, like Janet herself, had a style all its own. It was unlike any other classroom in the school. An unstructured, creative atmosphere prevailed, but the art work produced by her students was truly remarkable. Let me share what some of Janet’s students said-- they speak more powerfully than I ever could:

“Walking into that art room was a transformative experience—how blessed we were for our paths to have crossed hers.”

“So many life memories happened in that art room. I will always remember the great life chats, and taking us to work at Letchworth Village and other places way outside of our comfort zone to really help us learn about life.”

“Sr. Janet’s Art Room was my home away from home.”

“As an underclassman, I remember walking by the Art Room, everyone relaxed and concentrating on their work, music playing in the background, smiles and laughter and friendship. I couldn’t wait to get into her class.”

“What a beautiful soul and a fantastic teacher! I felt so grateful to be in Sr. Janet’s class. It was both a sanctuary and a joy!”

 Janet’s own artistic ability was one that she fostered in her students. She had high expectations; what she demanded of others—her students, her friends, she first demanded of herself. Seeing Janet’s art show each year was like visiting a high class gallery. Here’s what another young man, a former student, said:

“I remember my mad dash to graduate from her class, I think I turned in 22 paintings in two weeks, and we had a lot of laughs in the process. Sr. Janet was a great mentor in art and in life. It was such a safe environment there in her studio.”

More than one of her students went on to major in art education in college and in post graduate studies. Many a young man who took Janet’s mechanical drawing class said he had become a successful engineer because of her.

Oh, and one more thing happened in Janet’s art room, as one student put it, “She also gave fabulous free haircuts!”

After a few years at JFK, it didn’t take Janet long to recognize the unfulfilled potential of young women in the male dominated world of track. Our take-charge sister would soon change that. She initiated an all- girls’ track team and began to coach it. Coaching girls’ track then became Janet’s second career for the next 40 years at the school.

After hearing about Sr. Janet’s death, our local paper, The Journal News, did a special feature about her yesterday. Many of you may have read it, but for those who haven’t, let me share these few significant quotes:

“It’s hard to imagine today, but at the beginning of Sister Janet Meehan's coaching career in 1971, there was no girls’ track or cross-country program at Kennedy Catholic. Across the section and the state, only the boys’ teams were recognized and there weren't many girls’ teams, if any.

Meehan changed that. Not only did she found the girls’ track and cross country teams at Kennedy Catholic, she became a passionate advocate for female runners and throwers in Section 1 and throughout New York.

Although she was a nun, Meehan was far from shy. She wasn't much of a screamer, but had the ability to instantly command her team's attention. Those outside of the program or unfamiliar with Meehan were often intimidated at first. She had high expectations for her athletes. With her record of success, it didn't take much for them to buy in.

Meehan coached for nearly four decades at Kennedy Catholic... For a majority of her career, she also served as the Section 1 indoor track coordinator. She was named Coach of the Year seven times by The Journal News and its predecessors.

Thousands of female runners have gotten to cross the finish line or compete in throwing events because of her, and many more will continue to do so in the future.”

Another student said something similar about Janet:

“She was an advocate for women in a world dominated by men—a great role model.”

Now, I’ve talked about Janet the teacher and Janet the coach. What was Janet the person like? Besides being a take-charge person, Janet was kind, generous and compassionate. There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for you, in a heartbeat. When we first stopped wearing the habit and began dressing in regular clothes, we thought we were the “cat’s meow.” It didn’t take long for Janet to notice our straggly hair and arrive with her scissors in hand to give you a haircut or if she thought you needed a trim, Janet would whip out her scissors. She soon became the community hair dresser, traveling from convent to convent with her scissors. In our convent at JFK, she was also the expert on all things medical, often accompanying one of us to the doctor or the ER.

At Christmastime, Janet the artist decorated our Christmas tree to perfection each year; each strand of tinsel had to be put on one strand at a time. Sr. Annette, Ellen Curry and I were the “go-fers”--we were very happy to lug the Christmas decoration boxes up and down to the basement, lest we interfere with the creative process! Janet not only taught art, she was a gifted artist in her own right, creating beautiful scenes in a variety of mediums. Most of her paintings she gave away. When Sr. Pat Halloran and I shared an Advancement Office at Good Counsel, we filled one entire wall with Janet’s paintings. The notecards depicting different aspects of this chapel (brought up in the Offertory Procession today) were created from sketches of Janet’s--she whipped them up while watching Jeopardy. Some of us are wearing a black and silver community pin today—also designed by Janet. In addition to all this, Janet found time to maintain the convent’s in-ground pool, sew anything that needed mending, raise and nurture Persian cats, and run the girls’ track team very successfully, as I mentioned before. There wasn’t anything she couldn’t do. Where there was a challenge, she would find a way. Let me share two more stories to illustrate this.

Some years ago, when as a community we were discussing how to best utilize our living space at Good Counsel, Janet suggested a plan for building apartments in some unused space on the third floor of the convent. When I say plan, I mean Janet arrived with a full-blown architecturally drawn design for them. Bingo! Our genius at work again! Her plan didn’t go anywhere at the time, naysayers that we are thought it couldn’t possibly work. But guess what, a few years later, we built three apartments in the old third floor wing of the convent.

Next story: Each Christmas in this Chapel, right in this very space (gesture) stands a huge Christmas crib, filled with life-size figures. This manger was given to us by Walter Starr, the son of Mother Mary Veronica, so you can imagine it had fallen into a very sad state.  Janet literally brought these statues back to life. She refinished all of the manger’s statues. She drove these giant statues home to the convent. Then she worked on them for almost a year, hand painting the faces of each figure and reinvigorating a manger that now graces our Chapel each Christmas.

During her career, Janet received a number of awards– The Educational Art Teachers Award from Rhode Island School of Design, the Lacey Award from Westchester Coaches and Officials Association and being named Coach of the Year, not once, but seven times by the Gannett newspapers, as the newspaper was proud of mentioning. In 2010, Sr. Janet was also honored by John F. Kennedy High School for her 50 years of service to the community. Many of us sisters, Kennedy faculty, former alumni, past and present track stars that Janet had coached, and over a hundred students were on hand to salute her. This event simply further established her as the living legend that she was.

I began this eulogy with a line from Robert Browning, “How do I Love Thee...?” Hopefully, I have shared some of the ways we knew and loved Janet—there are far too many for one eulogy!  But in thinking about Janet, one of the songs from The Sound of Music also came to mind— “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”

Some lines in the song struck me as especially applicable: “How do you keep a wave upon the sand…” and “…how do you hold a moon beam in your hand?” You can’t. A larger-than-life person like Janet can never be kept in a box. Thank you, dear Janet, for being our moon beam—for always reaching for the stars, for showing us how to live life as fully as possible and to give as generously as you did. We rejoice and give thanks knowing that you, our very own moon beam, rest now in God’s loving hand.