By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News
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She’d grown up in a house full of books, with a father who taught English at then-young Peninsula College. The first musical performance she attended as a girl was “Carmen” at the Seattle Opera, and Maya Angelou was one of her “sheroes,” as the late poet and phenomenal woman would have said.
This dream was to be an English professor like her dad and a writer like Maya. When a fifth-grader, Janet would read her stories aloud to her classmates at Jefferson School, and they would opt to stay in from recess to hear more.
But by the time she was a teen, things didn’t come easy anymore.
“I was just a troubled kid,” Janet Lucas recalls.
At Port Angeles High School, she’d lost interest in her studies, even earning a D in American literature.
She did graduate, though, in 1980. And at 17, Lucas got married. Her father, Professor William Lucas, figured she’d go next to college, with her husband helping with tuition.
Not possible, Lucas remembered. Her spouse was earning little more than minimum wage.
So she waitressed at Port Angeles’ C Street Grill, Birney’s, the Greenery, Cafe Garden and The 3 Crabs in Sequim.
A few years hence, Lucas became a mother to two children: April and Christopher. She raised them while working — until late 1995, when she was laid off from her restaurant job.
This was about the same time the Rayonier mill shut down, so when Lucas applied for unemployment, she learned of something called the Timber Retraining Benefits program, available to laid-off workers in timber-dependent counties like this one.
A Diane Urbani de la Paz Professor Janet Lucas lectures on film, literature and the apocalypse. door suddenly opened. That money paid for courses at Peninsula College, in the winter of 1996: courses in business, economics and Lucas’ beloved English.
“A whole world opened up that I had always wanted to be part of,” she said in a recent Sunday conversation on her front porch in Port Angeles.
College, she found, was not about knowing all the answers.
Instead, it’s as poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”
As Lucas worked her way toward her associate degree, then-professor Libby Wagner became a mentor, encouraging her to look into Eastern Washington University’s program in English composition and rhetoric.
“What’s composition and rhetoric?” Lucas remembers asking.
She learned that EWU had a master’s program that was designed for scholars who wanted to teach at the college level — exactly as Lucas had hoped to do, before she married, before she got her first waitressing job.
To pursue a graduate degree, though, Lucas needed confidence, something she had sorely lacked for much of her life.
A few things changed everything.
First, Lucas became friends with Camille Frazier, another young mother in Port Angeles. While their kids played together, Lucas and Frazier went running on the Port Angeles High School track. When Frazier got pregnant and curtailed her running, Lucas kept going.
She reveled in the physical benefits, but even more, she noticed the mental uplift.
Second, Lucas’ father invited her on a trip to London and Northern Ireland, where their heritage awaited.
They laid plans, her dad bought the airline tickets — but when Lucas and her husband hit marital trouble, she decided she couldn’t go.
Crushed, she told a friend of the decision, and the friend wouldn’t hear of it. You cannot miss this, she told Lucas.
So, late one night shortly before the date of departure, she called her father: Can I still …?
“Of course, you can,” Bill Lucas said.
Off they went on the adventure of a lifetime. Despite the barbed wire in Belfast, and despite the way Bill’s emphysema prevented him from taking long walks, Lucas lived that trip to the hilt.
The third thing to strengthen her will, Lucas said, was just going to school and being successful in her own right.
In college, she said, “I found myself.”
Lucas graduated from Peninsula College in June 1998 and started at EWU that September, bringing her husband and children with her to Cheney.
But the marriage didn’t survive. After 19 years together, Lucas and her husband split. She went on, as a single mother, to graduate in June 2003, summa cum laude.
Her kids are raised: April, 28, lives in Salem, Ore., where she hopes to enroll in a college nursing program, and Christopher, 24, is serving with the U.S. Army in Germany.
After finishing her degrees in 2003, however, Lucas didn’t take the summer off. She returned to Port Angeles, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in hand, to find that Peninsula College needed an instructor for summer English 101.
“My stomach hurt every single day,” she remembers, “until I realized that every day, I was going to say something stupid. So I had to just laugh with it.”
As she began her teaching career, she knew the master’s wouldn’t be enough.
“I knew the way PC was going,” she recalls.
The college was hiring people with doctoral degrees, and without one, tenure would probably be out of reach.
So Lucas began applying for Ph.D. programs. She was prepared to move again. And then she did, back East, where she would pursue yet another degree at the Indiana University campus in Indiana, Pa.
Lucas became Dr. Janet Lucas in 2011, at age 49.
She wrote her doctoral dissertation about empathy, and especially how it affects the teacher-student relationship.
“There are so many ways to empathy, and the lack thereof, affects the feedback we give students,” she said.
In her classrooms and office at Peninsula College today, Lucas lives that question.
“The students in my classes humble me every day,” she said.
They come to college despite the financial odds against them, despite households that did not nurture their hopes, despite lacking the books and art Lucas grew up with.
This school year, Lucas’ courses include English 101, Survey of American Literature, technical writing and English 90, aka pre-college English. This spring, she offered the first course in Literature and Film of the Apocalypse.
Drs. Janet Lucas and Helen Lovejoy teach this highly modern class together, integrating books and movies such as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Blade Runner” and even “Planet of the Apes.”
The students also are working on their own films, as part of their exploration of apocalyptic tales and their place in society.
In her lecture hall on a recent Thursday morning, Lucas greeted incoming students with enthusiasm. “Thomas!” she says to one latecomer, and “Hey,” to another. Then she invited everybody down to the front two rows and carried on a conversation with them about the latest movie, “Children of Men.”
Lovejoy, who came to Peninsula College in 2011, is a Lucas admirer.
She’s attuned to the students, Lovejoy said, and meets them where they are. “I’ve tried to adopt that in my teaching: Taking things slowly, and letting the process unfold organically.”
Lucas is plain-spoken and warm toward her students, Lovejoy added. And to see the professor’s face light up while she chats with them is to see a woman who’s found her right place.
School let out for the summer Friday, with Peninsula College’s 52nd Commencement set for Saturday. As she reads students’ papers and gives final grades, Lucas thinks about her father, who retired in 1982 after 17 years as an English professor.
Alice Derry was his successor; a poet as well as an educator, she taught at Peninsula College until her retirement in 2009.
Janet Lucas, completing a circle, succeeded Derry. Besides teaching her many English courses, Lucas has worked in the college’s writing lab, on the Foothills Writers Series program, on the annual Reading for Hunger Relief held at the Port Angeles Library and on the 2013 Raymond Carver Festival in Port Angeles.
And last year, she was granted tenure.
Lucas will teach a couple of courses this summer at Peninsula College, but she has additional plans, to develop the other part of her dream. She’s already a writer, having authored a doctoral dissertation and published poetry and scholarly articles, but now she’s wanting to focus on creative writing.
“I can’t take the summer off,” she said, “but I’m going to make time.”
Lucas has no shortage of ideas: for a play, a novel, short stories. Inspiration is also in good supply among a new group of friends. Her partner Jeff Tocher is an artist known for his performance painting and for works such as “Otter Road,” and “Port Townsend State of Mind.”
“Jeff makes a meager living,” Lucas acknowledged. “But he is so passionate about art.”
In this, Tocher has renewed her belief in following her heart.
Teaching and writing are her twin passions still, and Lucas would not choose to be anywhere but here in Port Angeles, at Peninsula College.
On this Father’s Day, she thinks back to a day at Crestwood Convalescent Center, where her father, who had slipped into dementia, lived his final months. One fall day in 2001, seven months before Bill’s death, his daughter sat at his bedside to give him some news.
“Dad, I’m teaching now,” she told him.
He looked into her eyes.
“You’re going to love it,” he said.