A beacon of hope

When Janet Williamson, MEd, BSOT ’71, OTR, passed away in October 2016, she left unfulfilled her lifelong dream of visiting the African Congo. The daughter of a preacher in rural Kansas during the Great Depression, Janet was raised in a family that often hosted visiting missionaries and nationals in their home. The travelers would share stories about life in the Congo, and young Janet decided she wanted to be a mission doctor.

After high school, she attended pre-med classes at Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma. It was in the comparative anatomy class where she met fellow student Joseph Williamson. He eventually proposed, and the newly married couple drove their Rambler to St. Louis, where Joe had been accepted into Washington University School of Medicine. They had two daughters – Catherine and Sherry – soon after the move.

“Dad served in the U.S. military in Korea and used the G.I. Bill to pay for his tuition. Mom was a very fast typist and supported our family as a secretary at Washington University while he was in medical school,” says Catherine. “She was very practical, and soon realized she couldn’t be a missionary doctor and travel internationally with young children to care for.”

Joe earned his medical degree in 1958 and completed residency training in pathology in 1961, both at Washington University. He joined the School of Medicine faculty in 1962. Janet continued to work and raise her family, but still yearned to help people live their lives to their full potential. She learned about occupational therapy, and enrolled in the bachelor’s degree program at Washington University. “I remember Mom practicing her OT skills on me and my sister. One night we learned how to crack and separate an egg with one hand, and then Mom had to come up with a recipe to use all the eggs,” remembers Catherine. “At that time, the occupational therapy curriculum included crafts such as woodworking, ceramics and sewing, which spoke to Mom’s interests as she enjoyed doing all of those activities.”

After earning her degree in 1971, Janet worked as an OT in several acute care settings in St. Louis. Her three-month rotation in the burn unit at St. John’s Mercy Hospital profoundly impacted her own perceptions about pain. “She would always look back on the level of pain her patients suffered and never complained about her own pain at all. She had the utmost respect and compassion for people who experienced serious burns,”
says Catherine.

Following that experience, Janet accepted a position as the coordinator of occupational therapy at Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. There, she influenced countless OT students, patients and colleagues until her retirement in 1988. “My work as an occupational therapist consisted of assessment and treatment of patients with a wide range of physical diagnosis, including spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, stroke, upper extremity amputation and burns. Goals of treatment were primarily to increase the level of function, involving strength and coordination, daily living skills, vocational potential, home modifications and driving evaluations,” Janet noted in a biographical statement.

Kathy Kniepmann, OTD, MPH, EdM, OTR/L, one of the many OT students mentored by Janet, is now assistant professor of occupational therapy and neurology in the Program of Occupational Therapy. “My first OT fieldwork was at Jewish Hospital with Janet. During that time, the biomedical model predominated the profession, but Janet encouraged me to look beyond symptoms, with a more expansive emphasis that included meaningful occupations, client-centeredness and attention to environmental factors. Janet's guiding principle, personally and professionally, was to provide opportunities for people to live full, meaningful lives,” shares Kniepmann.

Janet’s guiding principle extended into her personal life and into her community. Her passion was gardening, and she enjoyed teaching young people about native wild flowers, trees and prairies. Both she and Joe were actively involved in gardening clubs, and donated thousands of plants to local residents to start their own gardens. Janet also volunteered at local organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the International Institute and English as a Second Language.

“Mom’s heart was full of compassion, especially for refugees and those adjusting to life in America. She always regretted not being a missionary in the Congo, but she was a missionary here in St. Louis. She welcomed so many people to our community, and helped them learn life skills so they could support themselves and their families,” says Catherine. “She was a beacon of hope for so many because she never gave up on anyone no matter what their situation was. If she could help someone, she would do it.”

As a distinguished diabetes researcher, Joe was invited to speak all over the world. The couple traveled extensively throughout the years, and they often opted to stay in small communities in South America and Asia to learn about the people and the culture. They became supporters of Heifer International, an organization whose mission is to work with communities to end world hunger and poverty, and to care for the earth.

Joe and Janet were also longtime supporters of Washington University and their respective programs. They were deeply committed to giving back to the school that provided their training and to supporting the next generation of medical researchers and OT clinicians.

“Janet was relentlessly optimistic. Her love of life was infectious, and she enjoyed meeting people from different backgrounds. She had a heart of gold and found wonderful ways to connect with everyone,” says Kniepmann.

If you would like to give online in honor or memory of Janet, please visit our website at ot.wustl.edu/alumni. You can also contact Patrick Delhougne in Medical Alumni and Development at 314-935-9680 or [email protected] to make a gift.

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