An English teacher and, later, school administrator, Janice McNelly spent much of her life as an early riser. But her deep love for a good mystery often kept her up until the wee hours of the morning.
Even after grading an 8-inch-thick stack of papers late into the night, sleep was of no consequence when she could get lost in the worlds of Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Stephen King and the other greats stacked up around her home. But she didn’t just enjoy reading: She analyzed, studied and wrote so much that by the time she ended her three-decade-long career, Janice had racked up some 150 continuing education credits, most in composition and literature.
And Janice used all that knowledge she spent years collecting to animate her classroom, creating young readers who no doubt blew through bedtime, flashlight in hand, getting lost in their own worlds.
“She just lived her life for others,” said her son, Trent McNelly. “She was not a selfish person, and whenever she could, she gave her time and money so that others would benefit.”
Janice died of COVID-19 at age 79 on May 8 in Cedar Falls. Battling Alzheimer’s disease for eight years, Janice lived in a care home where an outbreak struck quickly, Trent said.
Born in Ackley in 1941, Janice and her parents soon moved into town, where she graduated from Cedar Falls High School. She met and married her husband, Chester, in 1965 as she was studying teaching at the University of Northern Iowa.
After a few years raising her two children, Janice rejoined the workforce as a high school and special-education teacher in Minnesota. In 1978, the family moved to Alaska, where Janice continued to climb the educational ladder for 20 years, becoming vice president of North Pole Middle School and then the school district’s director of curriculum. Somehow, she also found time to be a cheerleading adviser and chaperone school sports trips.
"She managed my whole childhood, from second grade on,” Trent said. “She was always teaching in the same building where I was a student. I never had her as a teacher, but she was always right there keeping an eye on things.”
When Janice retired, she moved back to Iowa and searched for opportunities that would allow her to keep making a difference in her community.
A "staunch Democrat," according to her son, Janice became involved with the League of Women Voters and was passionate about returning voting rights to felons, among other causes.
When Trent had a child, his mom "latched right on to being a grandma,” he said.
"She was a genuine, warm person that cared about other people,” Trent said. She “went out of her way to help her friends whenever they needed anything.”