With plenty of good schools in New England, a bright New Hampshire girl could easily have found a fine college close to home. But as a high-school sophomore, Jane Kirk visited Duke on a trip to Florida, and was instantly smitten.
She also liked the notion of discovering a different part of the country.
"My roommate was from Tennessee," she recalls. "I went home with her for a holiday, and her mother said, ‘I like her fine, but I can't understand a word she says.'" The memory prompts a hearty laugh.
At seventy-eight, Kirk is back home in New Hampshire, but only after a career that took full advantage of her solid managerial skills, an adventurous spirit, and a liberal-arts education that fed her intellectual curiosity. "I was interested in many things," she says. "I still am."
Technically, she's retired, if you can call a late-blooming career in town politics retirement. She returned to New Hampshire after a career with the Red Cross and, later, the YMCA, jobs that took her to numerous postings around the world and in the U.S.
Kirk signed on with the Red Cross after graduation, answering a call for workers to support programs for U.S. military personnel who were then fighting in the Korean War. She was among sixty new recruits chosen to go to Korea, but they ended up in Japan so they could be evacuated more easily.
Other foreign postings followed, including Korea, France, and Morocco, before the Red Cross began to wind down its overseas work with military personnel. Kirk then accepted a job with the YMCA; after serving on regional staffs, she joined the national headquarters in Chicago.
In that role, she moved into fund raising, eventually leading thirteen capital campaigns.
She retired in 1993 and bought a house on New Hampshire's Granite Lake with "a million-dollar view." Before long, she was busy attending church suppers and ice-cream socials and generally getting acquainted with life in the little town of Nelson, population 634.
A couple of years later, she was asked to fill a vacancy on the town's three-person Board of Selectmen. Then, in 2002, one of the other selectmen was defeated in the annual election. The board's chair quit in protest, leaving Kirk and "this new guy." She took on the job as chair, and has since led the board through three annual town meetings. "This is my last year," she says—"unless I decide to run again."
Kirk deals with a range of attitudes among her constituents, from those who want to avoid all semblance of change to newcomers and others who clamor for amenities like better cable television and Internet connections. When all citizens eighteen years and older can participate in town meetings, it takes a deft hand and a lot of planning to keep these gatherings running smoothly. Meanwhile, there have been plenty of other projects to see to, such as instituting personnel policies, emergency procedures, and resource guides for various issues or problems.
Kirk's volunteer work is not limited to elected office. A project she remains proud of is her 2004 campaign to pay for a new roof for a local church. After only four months, the campaign raised some $14,000—enough for the new roof, as well as a new coat of paint for the church's exterior.
Clearly, Kirk's long experience in helping organizations run smoothly gives her a strong advantage—as do her upbeat attitude and zest for life. And, while the work is constant, it also brings rewards. "There's a good feeling in town," she says. "People want to live in Nelson."
Jane Kirk '50
Retired and working hard
November 30, 2006