Where Past Meets Present

Peg Vechinsky

Peg Vechinsky

Peg Vechinsky is a retired Registered Nurse and JPAC volunteer, and a supporter of the arts.

Tell me about growing up in Rock County:

I’m “homegrown”. My folks lived on a farm in Milton when I was born, so that’s my birthplace. We lived there until I was about 6, and then moved to Janesville when I was in 2nd grade.

Like my mother, I went to a one-room schoolhouse. I started school at the Six Corners School, a country school outside of Milton toward Johnstown, with outdoor facilities. It was grades 1st through 8th, and every row of desks represented a grade. We didn’t have kids in every grade, but I think there were two or three kids in my grade and one 8th grader that year.

The older kids would wait for the school bus to come on the first day of school and meet all the little kids getting off and tell them there was no Santa Claus! That was the routine. I didn’t ride the bus because I had a ride from home.

The teacher would give a lesson to one grade, and then you’d have stuff to work on while she went on to another grade. In the back of the room was a huge furnace, there was no basement to the place. So the teacher would have to come in early every day to light the furnace.

We had to bring our own lunches back then, there was no such thing as school hot lunch. If we wanted to, we could bring a potato from home and she’d carve your initials in it, and put it inside the ledge of the furnace so at lunch time we’d have a hot baked potato. Everyone would have recess at the same time, probably for the teacher’s sake.

When recess was over, she would ring the old fashioned bell for everyone to come in. One day, she was out there ringing the bell and we weren’t paying any attention because something strange was going on. There was this strange white streak moving across the sky, and we were all fascinated watching this thing move.

We didn’t know what it was and couldn’t hear anything, except for the teacher still ringing the bell. Finally, she came down to the yard to tell us to come in. And she didn’t know what was going on in the sky, either. We discovered years later that it was a jet trail, something we’d never seen before. New technology!

In the spring of my 2nd grade I moved to Janesville. I went to Washington Elementary, and in those days, elementary went through 7th grade. Then I went to the high school, which was down on Main Street where JPAC is now and was 8th through 12th. I was a very shy kid, wouldn’t raise my hand and always had “needs to contribute” marked on my report cards.

High school was overwhelming at first, but I finally caught on. In the meantime, they built what is now Craig, so we switched to that building and we were the second class to graduate from Janesville Senior High School. We always said, “But we had the first Prom.” I graduated from High School in 1957.

What led you to your nursing career?

I was telling my first grade teacher that I wanted to be a teacher. I think I felt that way because I liked her a lot, and when we played “School” as kids, I was always the teacher. When I told my teacher my plans she said, “Oh, no you don’t. Don’t do that.” She took off in the spring of my 1st grade, ran off with someone, and obviously wasn’t happy with her job. But, she told me to be a nurse. So, I always considered that.

When we moved into Janesville, we moved to a house that was right across the street from the hospital, so that piqued my interest. I had a front bedroom upstairs and could look out the window at night and watch the nurses running around and started thinking about becoming a nurse. I wanted to do something to help people. I joined the Future Nurses Club where we learned more about the profession

So, when it came time to really decide in high school, I was deciding between nursing and chemistry, since I liked chemistry. When I was in high school, I took bookkeeping and secretarial subjects, so if I didn’t like nursing, I’d have a fall back. But, after one year of bookkeeping, typing and shorthand, I knew I’d better like being a nurse because I was never going to make it as a secretary!

Our family was not wealthy at all, and it was much cheaper to go to a hospital nursing school than into a college chemistry program. There was a 3 year diploma program at Mercy Hospital which had been there for many years. The tuition for the whole 3 years which included uniforms, books, room and board and education was $500.

Although my parents had moved back to the farm, I finished high school in Janesville. I had been a good student in high school, and got a scholarship from the Elks Club for $300. So, I enrolled in the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing. We had to live in the on-site dormitory and took academic classes as well as clinical experience in the hospital. The program went year-round for 3 years.

After graduation, I took a job at Mercy Hospital and was there for about a year and a half. Then I met Dennis, and got married. He was in the National Guard which was called up when they started building the Berlin Wall. He was being sent to Tacoma, WA, so I went with him. We lived there almost a year while he was in the Army and I worked at a general hospital in Tacoma. It was a really great experience.

After he was deactivated, we came back and I returned to work at Mercy. I was there for a few years and when I had my first baby, I quit to stay home with my kids. Two years later I had my second child. I became a bit stir crazy. We had built a new house on the south side of town. The street wasn’t paved, so it was muddy, and we only had one car. So, basically, I was in this house with two toddlers.

The land behind us was farmland, it still is. And there were cows grazing in the field behind us. MacFarlane’s Pheasant Farm wasn’t too far down the road, and sometimes the pheasants would escape and come into our back yard. One day, the farmer’s fence came down and the cows were strolling through our back yard!

So, it was a rather isolated life, and I was ready to have some adult contact. Because I loved my nursing career, when my second son was a year, I went back to work at Mercy. When the kids were in elementary school, their dad went back to school to get his degree in education, so I went on full time at the hospital. Then, I stayed for 32 years until I retired.

I’ve seen quite a change in the healthcare industry over the years. I am still grateful to the Elks Club who helped make my nursing career possible, and I think they got their money’s worth in my long-term services to the local community.

Tell me about your community volunteer work:

I had done a lot of different things with my career including bedside nursing and administration. And when I retired from nursing, I had let my license go, because I know organizations are always trying to find retired nurses to do things for them. I wanted to do something totally different, and totally different was in theater. They were working on starting JPAC and I thought, “Hmm”.

So, I was the first volunteer for the Janesville Performing Arts Center (JPAC). I volunteered there before it was even open. They had an office downtown that was their fundraising office, and I volunteered there. I was not the planner, but the worker bee and did office work and such.

When we opened in the old Marshall building, I was the only volunteer for quite a while. I worked 5 days a week for 8 hours a day! Finally, I told Laurel Canan, the first JPAC director, that I couldn’t keep up the pace. We got some more volunteers, I cut my hours down, and I continued to work the box office. In those days, people had to come down to get their tickets or order them over the phone – no internet tickets.

When JPAC first opened, Laurel Canan was a member and the secretary of the United Arts Alliance. JPAC was also a member of the organization, and she talked me into joining the UAA. I became the secretary and did that for a couple of years, and I served on the Scholarship Committee as well as the Arts Hall of Fame Committee for several years.

The UAA was a lot more active in those days. I met a whole new genre of people, arts people, whom I had never met before, so it was a lot of fun. Laurel and Connie Glowacki started “Arts Fest” because they were very interested in bringing art to the children. I continued at JPAC and UAA for probably 10 or 11 years. I am currently not at JPAC but continue to be an enthusiastic supporter. We are very fortunate to have such a facility in Janesville.

What are some changes you’ve seen over the years in Janesville?

When we moved to Janesville, it was probably 20 – 25, 000 people, so a much smaller community.

When I was a kid, we lived near the hospital. The Tallman House was abandoned. No one had lived there for years. The neighborhood boys would try to break in and look around, or try to climb up to the belfry. Now, I never did that kind of thing, because I was not that adventurous. But, it was well known, and the kids always thought it was spooky or haunted.

Then it was donated to the community, and they proceeded to renovate and preserve it. After all the things they’ve done with it, it’s really a gorgeous facility now and I’m very happy to see it being developed into a historical campus.

When I was a youngster, many mothers were stay-at-home moms, as was mine. We were required to go home for lunch and I think we had an hour or so to walk home, eat and get back to school. There were many neighborhood grocery stores which stocked everything including bread, dry goods, dairy and even a fresh meat counter! As the city grew, supermarkets grew and the small, family-owned groceries disappeared.

Milton Avenue was the highway out of town, so there wasn’t a mall there or anything. I think the city limits were somewhere near Mt. Zion Avenue or maybe a little more north. I remember we had mail delivery twice a day, morning and afternoon.

When I was growing up, the downtown was “it”. Everything was downtown; JC Penney and Sears, two Woolworth stores and Kresge, which later became K-Mart. Woolworth’s had a soda fountain bar that was huge; you could go in and sit down with friends and have a sandwich or ice cream sundae. We had lots of little shops, locally owned stores with everything; clothing, or whatever you’d need.

We had banks downtown and basically did all our shopping downtown. My folks had only one car, so my mother and I would walk downtown to go shopping and walk home. It was just the way of life. When they started to build the mall, it was like, “We finally made the big time!” And now, malls are closing all over because of online shopping.

I’ve seen quite a lot of changes over the years. Janesville was and is a great community to grow up in, work and raise a family in. I am very excited to see our community leaders working on re-vitalizing our downtown and working to bring in diverse businesses and industry. I am very optimistic about our future.

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