Jane Jacobs, Publisher of The Madison Courier, passes away


Publisher’s Note: By all accounts this should be a straight news story. The passing of Jane Wallis Jacobs, longtime Publisher of The Madison Courier, is indeed news in this area of the state.

But this also has to be more than a news story, so bear with me.


The obituary on page A-2 of today’s edition will tell you that Jane Wallis Jacobs, 69, the owner and Publisher of The Madison Courier newspaper, passed away early Monday morning at Hosparus Care Center in Louisville. She had been ill for more than a year.

What that obituary won’t tell you, at least not in great detail, is the magnitude of the character and compassion of this woman. She is in a family line of ‘newspaper people’, dating all the way back to her great great-grandfather, Michael C. Garber, who took ownership of the paper in 1849. It passed to her great-grandfather, Michael Garber, Jr., then to her grandfather, Michael E. Garber; to her father, Don R. Wallis, Sr., and her uncle, Lloyd G. Neal; and then to her.

Her sons: Curt Jacobs and Will Jacobs now carry on that tradition at the Madison office; with daughter Sally serving on the newspaper’s board from her home in Massachusetts.

But, in many ways, Jane Jacobs is the reason that you’re reading this article and this newspaper right now.

I first came to know her when I was a student at Hanover College in 1980. The campus newspaper was restarting, and I met with Jane and her father about having it printed in Madison. She was open and encouraging, never too busy to stop and offer advice on everything from headline fonts to photo placement.

She took us all under her wing, and she was always there when we had some mishap or problem. She never ‘talked down’ to us college kids; but instead saw the nurturing aspect of preparing another generation of ‘newspaper people’.

As a senior at Hanover, I was honored to receive the Michael Garber Scholarship, created by Jane’s family, yet another way that I was encouraged to follow my dreams.

It sounds funny, but upon graduation from college I didn’t think I was qualified to apply for a job at The Courier, so I headed home to Centerville, Indiana, got married, and took a job at the daily newspaper in Richmond – with about six times the circulation as Madison.

It was May of 1984, and I came back to our apartment one afternoon to find a note taped to the handset of the phone.

“Call Jane Jacobs”, it said.

So I did.

“I know you’re up there working at that big daily paper,” she said. “But we’ve got this little weekly paper in Vevay, not far from Madison, and we’d love to talk to you about coming down here and running it for us.”

We set an interview for Monday, and I was here on Wednesday.

And, the rest, they say, is history.

Jane’s brother, Don Wallis, Jr., had been such an influence on the Vevay paper, and even though he was then living in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Jane felt that we should meet and talk and talk about the importance of the “local paper”.

That began a special friendship, a pseudo ‘family’, really; where Jane and Don took me in and allowed me to not only give opinion; but also to help establish policy. We had discussions, and even though they didn’t need to; they listened carefully to what I had to say and implemented things that they also found value in.

A favorite phrase was, “That’s using your head for something besides a hat rack”, noting that we all needed to do more thinking and less talking. That’s a value that many of us can learn from.

Through three decades, I also spent a time working in Madison; and there I got to work with Jane on a daily basis. I saw a woman who was strong and tough when she needed to be; but also so compassionate towards others because of the nature of her character.

Someone once referred to her as the ‘Dragon Lady’, and laughingly she took it in stride. In fact, someday in the future when someone peels away the wallpaper in the main office area of the Courier, they’ll find written on the wall in marker: “Jane ‘The Dragon Lady’ Jacobs”. It’s a secret that few knew, until now, obviously, but it shows that she didn’t take things personally all the time, and found humor in the insensitivity of others.

One snowy December evening, she came out into the office area right before we closed, and asked if I could drive her around on a motor route to deliver papers, because one of the carriers hadn’t shown up. I said I would, and we headed to the car.

What I discovered was that her van wasn’t filled with papers, but instead with Christmas gifts and bags of food. We wouldn’t be delivery newspapers that night, but instead would drive all around the area dropping off presents and food to people who were having a rough time during the holiday season.

I was the one who took the things to the door, because it wasn’t in Jane’s makeup to stand there and receive thanks and praise for what she was doing. She preferred to stay in the car, in the shadows, and remain anonymous – because the most important thing to her was that people got the help, not that she got the praise.

You’ll see a long list of boards that she served on and programs that she helped found in her obituary, and you may be amazed at all of the different aspects of people of Madison and the surrounding area that benefited from her generosity. That was her. That is just one of her legacies.

Over the years I have been blessed to achieve many honors through the state’s newspaper association; and each time, in the midst of a room filled with people, I would always find her, standing near the back, out of the limelight, smiling with pride at what others felt I had done. On more than one occasion, I wished I’d stopped everything and brought her up front and handed her those awards, because she truly deserved them.

She would have hated that, but somehow it seems like it would have been the proper thing to do.

She was too ill in September of last year to be in Indianapolis for the last award, but I still got a phone call and a hand written note (she got her note writing skills from her mother, Mary Goode). She wanted to know all about the event; and she made sure that she took the time to tell me that she was proud of me.

I saw her stand strong when Don passed away suddenly a couple of years ago; and I saw her care for her ailing mother in her advancing years. What I never once saw was someone who felt like it was someone else’s responsibility to do the work, to put in the time.

When I made the decision to purchase this newspaper just over a year ago, she was supportive and helpful and ready to do whatever was needed to make sure the transition was smooth and the future held success.

I will miss her, terribly. I know that she would be greatly uncomfortable knowing that she was on the front page of this newspaper, and she’d be even more uncomfortable knowing that her photo was included. Her legacy in the newspaper business will continue; but her legacy of service to her fellow man must continue.

Because a woman of character and honor such as Jane Jacobs deserves this and so much more.

- Pat Lanman