Juanita's PathJanuary 31, 2020
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Story by Candy Neal
Photos by Marlena Sloss
In the Pfaffenweiler Room at Jasper City Hall, a group of people gathered to honor a longtime employee and friend.
Juanita Boehm had been a fixture around city hall, and her retirement in December was met with sadness.
But Juanita knew it was time.
“It was the age. I was going to be 66, almost 67,” she said. “And with my condition worsening, I knew it was time.”
Juanita has rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects joints. Over the years, it has affected her ability to walk and do other things.
But it has not stopped her.
As she stood in front of her colleagues, family and friends in the Pfaffenweiler Room, she joked, laughed and talked about how she would miss the job. She also opened gifts with Mayor Dean Vonderheide. Some of them were sweet, and some funny.
That’s Juanita’s personality — very joyous, very outgoing. And she’s always been that way.
As a kid growing up in Jasper, she was very athletic. “I grew up in a neighborhood where you included everybody,” she said. “Boys, girls, you included everybody.”
Juanita loved playing sports, especially tennis. She was good at it.
But then in high school, problems started to surface. She came home after playing tennis one day and she was stiff. Her ankles and wrists were sore and swollen.
She was taken to the doctor, and then to Memorial Hospital and then to a hospital in Evansville. But it took a while before the reason for the stiffness was found.
“It’s a crippling of the joints,” Juanita said of rheumatoid arthritis. “And it was enough that I couldn’t play [tennis] again.”
Juanita graduated from Jasper High School in 1971 and went to a business college in Louisville to get a business accounting management degree, a two-year program she finished in one year.
While she was working on the degree, her mother cleaned at several local businesses, and Juanita helped her when she was home. Hilary Blessinger, an accountant who worked at one of the businesses, offered her a job at his firm.
“He needed someone,” Juanita said. “So one night when I was out there cleaning, he asked me if I was still looking for a job. And I said yes. He asked, ‘Can you start tomorrow?’”
In those early years, the arthritis was very aggressive. By the time she was 26, she wasn’t able to walk. But her job was accommodating.
“I remember that it was tax season,” she said. “And I had surgery scheduled in May for joint replacement of both hips. It became too much. It was like the joints were bone on bone. So I stayed home, and worked from home until it was time for the surgeries.”
At that time, a person was in the hospital for three weeks for each surgery. “I felt lazy,” she recalled. “But I had to lay around to recover.”
Throughout her life, Juanita would get the sense that people thought she should go on disability. “They thought it would be easier for me if I didn’t work,” Juanita said. “But work has allowed me to keep going.
“You have the choice. I got to choose how I lived my life with this. If I didn’t think I could do my job, I would have stepped aside. But I knew I could do it.”
When she was 39, both of her knees needed to be replaced. Those were done at the same time and the recovery time was about eight weeks. Although she had to be careful, she was able to walk OK after that.
Last May, she had her hips replaced again. “Now I call May my New Body Part Month,” she joked.
Juanita got involved with volunteer work after her first hip replacement surgeries. She also joined a bunco group that she still plays with now.
She stayed with Blessinger’s firm from 1972 until she took office as Jasper’s clerk-treasurer in 1996. In 1994, she helped on someone’s political campaign for a state office, which got her interested in government. In 1995, the Democrats were looking for candidates. And Juanita was looking to change jobs.
The clerk-treasurer position was open, and the Democratic Party was looking for a candidate. A friend asked her to run.
“At the time, my mother was ill, and on that day, she was going to find out what she had,” Juanita said.
The family learned she had pancreatic cancer.
“So I wasn’t going to run,” Juanita said. “But my mom and dad said that they’ve done a lot of things in their lives, but politics wasn’t one of them. So why not?
“They said to do it.”
Running for public office brought her into the public eye. “As much as I was all private with my life and my illness, now I was gonna have to come forward,” she said. “People would ask, ‘What do you have?’ Now, I was going to get analyzed. It would take the people who knew me and knew my capabilities to help sell me, to get elected.”
And although she was challenged in both the primary and general elections, she won. But the races were emotional for Juanita. She didn’t know how long her mother would be with her.
Her mom, Dorothy Boehm, died on Dec. 31, the day before Juanita took office.
“She hung in there that whole time,” Juanita said. “She had to know that I was taken care of, that each child was taken care of.”
She got to see Juanita win. And she got to hear her practice her oath. Juanita and her father, Edward Boehm, went to her mother’s bedside on that New Year’s Eve with the family and did the oath there, with her family cheering at the end.
“Fifteen minutes later she passed away,” Juanita said. “She was waiting.”
Her dad officially gave Juanita the oath the next day.
The job of clerk-treasurer is like two jobs in one, Juanita said.
“There’s the treasurer part — taking care of the budget, taking care of the money that comes in, tracking all the equipment and assets, taking care of payroll. They call you the financial officer. The clerk part is like you’re secretary to the council and board of public works and safety. You take care of the official records, like the ordinances. It’s more clerical.
“There’s pretty much a law, rule or policy for everything.”
She liked the job a lot, especially the projects and behind-the-scenes work that would come along. “And I liked that this was ever-changing,” she said. “The laws were changing, and it improved the job. The technology was changing. It was good that it all didn’t stay the same.”
But as time progressed, so did Juanita’s arthritis. Her balance has worsened, she struggles navigating doors, and, thus, is no longer able to drive.
So, after serving 24 years as clerk-treasurer, she decided not to run for another term.
Her last official duty was giving the next round of officers — the mayor, council members and new clerk-treasurer — the oath of office.
“She’s so great to work with,” Sharon Sander said as she watched Juanita move into place for the start of the ceremony. Sharon worked in the four-person clerk-treasurer office with Juanita for more than 15 years.
“We all work so well together,” Sharon said, “and Juanita was a big part of the reason. She supported us. I’m going to miss her a lot.”
Juanita said later that she will miss the ladies in her office. “We worked together for so long,” she said. “We got to know each other’s personal lives. We became close. I will miss being there with them.”
After swearing in the officers, Juanita was surprised with a special honor: a key to the city from Mayor Dean Vonderheide.
The mayor and council members told her that the work she’s done for the city is immeasurable.
“I knew that I could come to you with my questions and you would make things more clear and help me understand,” Councilman Kevin Manley said. The other council members gave similar praises.
“We really appreciate having you here,” the mayor said, “and we wish you the best in your retirement.”
The key and three standing ovations by the audience, many members coming specifically to honor her, moved Juanita to a few tears.
“I’m at a loss for words,” she said.
The glass key sits on her table at home. It’s been a month since Juanita has been out of office. And she’s adjusting to retirement.
“I can stay up later, though I still fall asleep,” she said. “But like the other night, when there was the LSU/Clemson [football] game, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can stay up and watch this.’”
She tends to get up around 7 a.m. now — a lot later than the 5:30 a.m. alarm while she was working — eats breakfast and watches the morning news. After that, she gets dressed for the day’s activities, whatever they turn out to be.
She wanted to make sure she stayed on a routine. “Otherwise you can get too lazy, and that’s what you don’t want to do,” she said.
Her days consist of different activities, depending on the day. There are chores around the house, doctor appointments, lunch or dinner with family or close friends, taking care of tasks like grocery shopping, game nights and going on rides around the countryside.
Her siblings and friends help out. They’ve always been supportive of Juanita. Her sisters LaVerne Lechner and Beth Waltz take turns setting her hair. They help her wash clothes and do other self care things, like washing her back, or chores at the house that Juanita has not yet completed or can’t do. Her brothers Lee and Don help take care of tasks as well. Two of her brothers passed of rare diseases: Larry, from a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease called inclusion body myositis in 2015, and Allen, from Parkinson’s disease in 2017.
“It’s kind of odd that three of us ended up with these really rare conditions,” Juanita said.
She has family and friends who cook and freeze meals for her, and Juanita is more rested now, which helps with the arthritis.
Juanita’s big sister, LaVerne, said the siblings are close-knit and have always supported each other.
“We all do different things for her,” LaVerne said. “And she does what she can for us. That’s what family does. We help each other.”
LaVerne praised her sister, saying that Juanita has always had a lot of spunk.
“Nita has never let this stop her. She’s always been determined,” LaVerne said. “We go out together, we’ve gone on trips. She lives life. And she has so many people who love her.”
She talked about a European trip they took together years ago. “I had a chance to go, but I had to find my own roommate because I snore. So I asked Nita, because Nita does, too,” LaVerne said, laughing. “That was such a fun trip. Nita and I had a great time.”
One thing Juanita plans to do is read more “to keep the mind going.”
She also plans to get back into active volunteering.
“I definitely will, because that’s where you’re around the people, which is a big social thing,” she said.
Juanita has been an active volunteer for many organizations: Jasper Jaycees, Women of the Moose, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, Memorial Hospital Palliative Care’s advisory board, Memorial Hospital Auxiliary and Dubois County Community Meals.
She’s served as treasurer for the Northwood Condominium Homeowners Association, has been a member of St. Joseph Catholic Church’s finance commission, and is vice committee person in her Bainbridge Township precinct.
Jasper High School recognized Juanita as an outstanding alumnus in 2000. And in 2014, she was finalist for the Athena Award, which recognizes women for their service to the community.
“After volunteering for so many years,” she said, “you just know how important that is.”
But as time moved on, Juanita stepped down from most of those activities.
“A lot of what I did, I just got out of it. It’s almost ironic,” she said. “It’s like, now I would have time to do it. I just have to find what’s right for me.”
What it won’t be is in the area of finance.
“Too often I did finance, because that’s what I did for a living,” Juanita said. “But now, that’s what I don’t want to do. For the most part, it will be other things. I just don’t know what that is yet.”
Juanita does ponder her future.
“Now I wonder, what’s it going to be like 10 years from now? Will I live that long? Will we be able to deal with [the arthritis] then? Because [friends and family are] aging, too,” she said.
She’s also had time to sit back and reflect on her life and career.
“When you look back, you look at how a lot of things fell into place,” she said. “There’s a path for you. There’s a path in life.”
Whatever may come next for her, opportunities and challenges, Juanita knows she will not give up and throw in any towel.
“We will deal with it somehow,” she said.
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