Jan Provost's efforts for peace continue in her absence

by Jim Lundstrom

Jan Provost in her wheelchair with some of her friends and fellow activists.
Jan Provost in her wheelchair with some of her friends and fellow activists.

"While you are proclaiming peace with your lips,

be careful to have it even more fully in your heart." 

That quote from St. Francis of Assisi seems to sum up the work of Jan Provost, the founder of the local chapter of Grandmothers for Peace who died on April 6 at the age of 86. 

Talking with friends of hers in the peace movement, you soon realize that she was an extraordinary woman of faith. 

"I met her down at the ELF Navy base, protesting the nuclear weapon compound that was there," said longtime peace activist Donna Howard. " She was always there, she was faithfully there. She founded the local Grandmothers for peace chapter, which was founded on the hope of eliminating nuclear weapons. She brought so much. She brought spirit and a loving fierceness. There was almost a perfect contrast in her – sweet faithfulness and opposition to violence and military aggression." 

Jan's peace activism began at the behest of her sister, Barbara Wiedner, who in 1982 – during the Reagan-era nuclear freeze movement – started what is now an international organization, Grandmothers for Peace, by protesting about nuclear arms kept at a nearby Air Force base. 

When Barbara suggested that Jan start a chapter of the peace group in their hometown of Superior, Jan balked, according to her friend Karen Barschdorf. 

"When she was asked by her sister, if she would start a chapter up here, she was very nervous about doing anything like that. She figured in California it’s one thing but in Superior, Wisconsin it’s quite another thing to be pushing on this," she said.  

Karen laughs as she recalls a story from the early days of Jan's involvement in the peace movement. 

"In the first stages, there was a black car that would park about a block or so away from her house and it would come day after day," she said. "There were a couple of fellows in the car. Jan, being the Jan she was, went down and rapped on their window and said, 'I just baked something. Would you like some?' That was so her. I chuckle every time I think about it. And they politely said, 'No, thanks,' and they never came back after that."  Jan Conley, Jan Provost's friend of almost four decades, recalls that it all began with Superior's 4th of July parade.  

Jan Provost about to ride in the 2019 July 4th Parade in Superior.
Jan Provost about to ride in the 2019 July 4th Parade in Superior.

"Jan had never participated in that way, marching down the street, so she was a little bit anxious and didn’t know how she would be received. But she sat in the back of the truck with the kids and waved and showed signs, and she always considered that the start of becoming an activist." 

Decades after starting the local chapter of Grandmothers for Peace, Jan had become a fixture in the local peace movement. 

“I met her before the Iraqi war broke out under Bush." said Karen Barschdorf. "People were gathering in Duluth to pray for peace. I was by myself and her daughter Clarice said, 'You should meet my mother,' and that was Jan. So I met her there. Then was invited to join Grandmothers for Peace. I had objected to the war for a long time, so I was delighted to become involved. We started doing different things, standing on corners together, protesting the war. She was in not too good health for some of the time, but if she could do anything, she was going to do it." 

"I met her moving in the same wonderful circles," said Dorothy Wolden. "I met her after 9/11 when the community was starting to really explore ideas about peace as opposed to revenge. After 9/11 I started seeing her at more events and she recruited me to join Grandmothers for Peace, even though I'm not a grandma." 

When Dorothy told Jan she's not much of a joiner, Jan said, "‘You can do whatever you want," and that was all she needed to hear.  "She let in the organization anybody who had good ideas. Nobody ever abused that privilege. It led to a lot of really creative work," Dorothy said. "We never had to get a stamp of approval from a committee. Jan was super-enthusiastic about anything someone wanted to do that would promote ideas of peace and work for the cause of social justice." 

She added that Jan's inspirational work for peace will continue. 

“The work will continue," she said.  There’s a core group of members who have been involved. Jan's been ill for some time and she helped us organize eight or nine of us. We often would meet at her house because she was still very involved, but she gave some of the decisions making and idea generating to this core group, which I am proud to serve on. That’s her legacy. I don’t think we'll ever know exactly how many people she has influenced. She often told her children, you can catch more flies with honey then you can with vinegar. She used that. She was always the sweetest and kindest person. There's always been serious political disagreements in this country. People don't always respond positively to people who question military ventures. But I never saw her return any rude gestures or make remarks about people’s judgments. She would just smile and say, 'Well, they don’t know'."