Celebrating a modern renaissance woman

By Jessi Stone, Assistant editor | Jul 09, 2014

Jane Alexander of Cataloochee is a true renaissance woman.

Since moving to Haywood County more than 30 years ago with her late husband, Tom Alexander, she has made it her home and developed long-lasting friendships with many people in the community.

Alexander was diagnosed with aggressive pancreatic cancer just a few weeks ago, and it can't be treated with chemotherapy or radiation. Not knowing for sure how much time they have left with her, her friends and family are gathering together at her home this Friday to celebrate her and everything she has meant to them.

"I wake up in the morning now and remember Jane's illness with pancreatic cancer and I feel a black sheet envelop me, thinking of the great hole her departure will leave in my life," said her close friend, Grace Pless.

Never one to stop learning and growing as a person, Alexander has led a creative and fulfilling life in her 79 years. She’s a talented journalist, writer, painter, photographer and an avid reader. Outside of the artistic realm, she is a mother, community volunteer, gardener, world traveler and a wonderful cook.

When reading various chapters of her memoir before it was published, Jane’s son, Ames Alexander, said he was astonished at all of his mother’s accomplishments.

“But when I read the final product, I couldn’t put it down. I kept thinking — How could one woman do so much, travel so much, try so much and accomplish so much?” he said. “Having a mom like that has been a pretty lucky break, let me tell you.”

‘The View From Tom’s Stand’

One of Alexanders’s most recent accomplishments was finishing and publishing her memoir, “The View From Tom’s Stand.” The book tells the story of Jane, Tom and the children through various personal and professional writings.

Jane and Tom were editors for Time magazine and won numerous awards for their work. They lived in New York City and Washington, D.C., but each summer the couple came back to Cataloochee to their log cabin home on the family ranch. Camping outside with no amenities while the house was being built put the city girl out of her comfort zone at first, but now she couldn’t imagine her life any other way.

"There's something very spiritual about this place. It sings to the soul,” she wrote about Cataloochee in her memoir. “There in the wilderness of Tom's Stand, the log cabin complex we built together, I learned one of life's most important lessons: Man is not apart from or outside Nature but just a piece of the reciprocal web that is life on Earth."

Judy Alexander Coker, Jane’s sister-in-law, said Jane was one of the most interesting people she had ever met. While Alexander’s “Northern way” took some adjusting to, Coker said they have many fond members together, including digging for ramps together in the woods.

“I am constantly amazed at how well Jane adapted to this country life, having been born and bred in the city,” Coker said. “She immediately started to learn the ways of her husband's childhood. She started learning the flowers and trees of the area.”

What started out as a primitive cabin evolved into a magnificent home during their 44 years of marriage. As a collector of beautiful things, each piece in the cabin tells a story of the Alexanders' lives.

Coker said Alexander started collecting Appalachian antiques for the cabin when she moved in but kept her collection of fine art and effortlessly melded the two in the cabin. Her home and garden have been featured twice on the Haywood County Garden Tour.

The mother

Ames and Amanda Alexander have fond memories of their childhood growing up with their adventurous parents. Ames said he loved camping under tarps for a month each summer in Cataloochee and watching his mom cook just about anything on the campfire.

Even when their resources were limited in their cabin, Ames remembers Alexander going out of her way to make him is favorite dessert — carrot cake. The recipe called for a double boiler, something she lacked in her rudimentary set of cookware.

“But Mom improvised to create a precarious double boiler of our own. I was in charge of stirring the batter in that double boiler but got a little careless. Suddenly our carrot cake became carrot soup,” he said.

Amanda said Tom and Alexander weren’t the kind of parents to micro-manage everything they did.

“The best thing my parents gave Ames and me was the freedom to do what we thought was right. They trusted us, and we — usually — didn't abuse that trust,” Amanda said. “Mom wasn't the type of mother to dispense advice or remind us to do our homework. However, she did encourage my habit of reading. We found many books to love together, though I never could make it through her favorite series ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ by Anthony Powell.”

Ames, an investigative reporter for The Charlotte Observer, said his upbringing had a lot to do with his career choice.

“Thanks largely to their jobs and their inquisitive minds, Mom and Dad were often immersed in fascinating conversations, about everything from plate tectonics to artificial intelligence,” he said. “Getting paid to think and write about such things seemed like a pretty good deal.”

Amanda, who lives in Hendersonville and works as a hospice social worker for Transylvania Hospice and Home Care, said she and her mother have only grown closer as she has gotten older.

“She and I have always been close but it wasn't until I was in my 20s that our relationship began to fully bloom. Then we became friends, instead of just parent and child,” she said. “We are very different personalities. I tend to say 'no' too much to people, while she sometimes says 'yes' too quickly. Both of us have grown into better people by learning from each other.”

The artist

There aren't many artistic outlets that Alexander hasn't explored in her life — whether it is painting, honing her photography skills or making the jewelry that she often wore.

Alexander's paintings using primitive oils can be seen at Cedar Hill Studio in downtown Waynesville. While she is often dismissive of her own work, she continues to take painting classes and tries out new techniques. Her home is filled with original art from many Western North Carolina artists that she admires.

Painting is what brought Alexander and friend Margaret Roberts, of Waynesville, together. They have been painting together in Roberts' home art studio once a week for more than seven years.

"She collects friends from all walks of life. Every time I go to her house for dinner, I come away with an education by simply being entertained by her eclectic collection of friends," Roberts said.

Alexander also plays the piano and her baby grand will be used by Craig Summers, minister of music at Waynesville First Presbyterian, to entertain her guests at her home this Friday.