Photo by Chris Rogers
Janet Seabern won a Jefferson Award for Public Service last month. The American Institute for Public Service presents the awards to recognize the "unsung heroes" who volunteer their time for their communities. Seabern volunteers with the Lions Club, Winona Health, Immanuel Methodist Church, and the Minnesota City Historical Association.
"I thought all of this to-do was over," sighed Janet Seabern when asked about being presented with the Jefferson Award for Public Service last month.
Seabern saw the news truck pull up outside her door. "I didn't know what was going on. I thought the neighbors were having some trouble," she said. She asked her renter, Diane Laurence, what was happening. Laurence, who secretly nominated Seabern for the American Institute for Public Service's highest honor, said she did not know. "But she had this smile on her face," Seabern recalls.
Seabern answered her door to find a news anchorwoman and camera team from WXOW in La Crosse wishing her "Congratulations!" "For what?" Seabern asked.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, U.S. Senator Robert Taft Jr. and Sam Beard founded the American Institute for Public Service in 1972. The institute partners with news media around the country to solicit nominations and present the Jefferson Awards, which recognize community service and volunteerism.
The news crew presented Seabern with the award, which is given to a handful of community service volunteers around the country each year. "I was just a nervous wreck," Seabern said of the big surprise and following interview. Seabern was so nervous she told the news crew, "I'll never talk to you again," after the big surprise and the subsequent interview.
The seemingly disgruntled remark is comical to those who know Seabern, who acts as a sort of surrogate grandmother for international students at Winona State University, treats her renters like family, and invites the whole neighborhood over for potlucks regularly. "She is one of the most mild-mannered, sweet-natured people I know," said Lions' Club member Mary Singer.
Laurence nominated Seabern because she volunteers many hours for all sorts of groups. Seabern volunteers with the Sunset Lions Club, the hospital, her church, and the Minnesota City Historical Association, and makes frequent visits to the residents at Lake Winona Manor. She can often be found preparing and serving food at benefit meals, like the Lion's Club Support Our Troops benefit in September. Seabern runs the event's dessert table and bakes many of the desserts, as well. She loves cooking, talking to people, and seeing her food make people happy.
"I can't think of a better person to win an award than Janet," said Singer. "She is just a naturally warm, generous person."
Laurence discovered Seabern's extraordinary community involvement through conversations with her landlord. "She has done a lot of things with the community and in her life, and I don't think she really realized what she had done till we went through and listed it all."
Her late husband, Cliff, told Seabern she needed to "keep busy" after he died. "So I keep busy," she said. When asked why she gives so much of her time, Seabern said, "I love being around people. I just have to be with people." Maybe it comes from growing up around all the people who would visit her parents' fishing resort north of Minnesota City, she speculated. "My mom always liked to give, and that's how it is with me. I like to give to people," she added.
Seabern made 18 Easter baskets last year and gave them to her neighbors, people at the nursing home, and her renters — Laurence and her roommate. They both cried, Seabern recalls, "They said they hadn't had an Easter basket for years."
"Often I'll come home — I live upstairs and we have a little shared area — and she'll leave little gifts," Laurence said. "It's so sweet —stuff that most people wouldn't think of." After getting to know Seabern, Laurence said, "I feel like I want to take more time and think about the little things."