Spotlight on Seniors

by Leta Marshall

Jan O’Bryant, Lopez Island

It’s not too hard to figure out what’s high on Jan O’Bryant’s list of priorities. She pours me tea in a mug that says, “To Mother with Love,” and we sit down in her rhubarb-pink kitchen at a long table painted school-bus yellow and bordered with the handprints of kids in bright primary colors. Behind her is a large bulletin board thickly covered with photos of her five children, 17 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren, plus other kids and friends around the world.

Janet O’Bryant, née Lyon, was born in Grangeville, Ohio, one of three children. Her father was the only baker for thirty miles around. When his doctor told him he needed to find something less strenuous to do for a living, Mr. Lyon packed up his family and moved to San Jose, California in 1948.

Jan started dancing at the age of seven, and at 16 began teaching as an apprentice to her teacher. Soon she was offering classes in her own home studio, which allowed her to continue teaching through marriage and the births of her children. Her neighbors in San Jose owned property on Lopez Island and praised its merits so highly to Jan and her first husband, Rich, that they visited the island in April of 1973 and moved here in August of that year. The kids – Ben, Jeff, Andrea, Marisa, and Inge – adjusted well to their new one-building schoolhouse and were treated “like royalty,” according to Jan. They got involved in sports, which she feels they might never have done if the family had stayed in San Jose. “Here, they’re needed, they’re counted, they’re important,” she says. All five kids graduated from Lopez High School.

Undeterred by the fact that neither had experience in the restaurant business, Jan and her husband bought the Tralnes house at MacKaye Harbor and turned it into the MacKaye Harbor Restaurant with an upstairs lounge.

“This was when fishing was really big,” Jan says. “We did breakfast for the fishermen.” Tourists and wealthy islanders were scarcer in those days, and north-enders seemed to feel like the restaurant was “three hundred miles away,” Jan says. Nevertheless, all their kids, who were mostly a couple of years apart in age, worked in the restaurant and everyone in the family learned a lot. Jan’s two “California girls” were put to work cleaning “thousands and thousands of smelt,” she recalls.

Jan and Rich sold the business in 1979, but she’d enjoyed the work and over the years she cooked and waitressed at most of the island’s other restaurants. “I think it’s the challenge I like,” she says. But she never lost her love of dancing, especially tap and jazz, and she loves teaching: “I learned a long, long time ago that when I teach something, I learn how to do it.” In the first class she ever taught on Lopez, her adult stretch students had to get down on “that filthy carpet” at the Tralnes place. Then she added tap dance classes, and was glad she’d brought a supply of secondhand costumes and tap shoes with her from California. “When I moved here, everybody was poor,” she says. “Nobody had money for classes, shoes, or costumes.”

Jan remembers that the island’s best-known potter at the time, Jean Bartholomew, warned her that islanders would want dance lessons for free and ordered her to insist on being paid. She taught in her own home, the Legion Hall (now the Woodmen Hall), the pool room at the Islander, the Community Church Fellowship Hall, and the Grange Hall.

Middle daughter Andrea started dancing at age two and followed in her mother’s fancy footsteps. “She never realized how talented she was,” says Andrea’s proud mother, who eventually convinced her daughter to take over the teaching. The annual tap recitals are now an island institution, and indeed a large percentage of present and former Lopez gals (and a few guys) are alumni of Jan and Andrea’s classes.

After Jan’s first marriage unraveled, she met Lopez teacher Larry O’Bryant and they were wed in 1980. Jan loves her big family and does her best to keep them close. Her sister lives in Kent; their brother passed away too young, many years ago. Every year Jan organizes a “cousins’ camp” for all her grandkids and great-grandkids at the sunny home near Lopez Village that she shares with Larry. Even the parents get into the act, camping out, cooking, and doing crafts alongside the kids.

“I can’t believe I’m a great-grandmother,” says Jan. “But I love every minute of it!”

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