Janet McCaa ’64, who died on June 5, considered her life a gift—especially after surviving a commercial airplane crash on June 7, 1971. She was one of three survivors; 28 people, including the pilot, were killed. In an article for Wellesley magazine marking the 25th anniversary of what Janet later termed her “re-birthday,” she wrote, “Before the crash, I was single-mindedly focused on success and doing whatever I had to do to be like everyone else who had it.” But after a long physical and emotional recovery, Janet found a new path, one of spiritual awakening and an approach to her professional life that was grounded in feeling, as well as thinking.
Janet’s extraordinary life began in Providence, R.I., in January 1943. Her father, Nelson McCaa, was killed in World War II when Janet was just 2. Her mother later married an Air Force lawyer, and Janet grew up on military bases around the United States, as well as in the Philippines and Spain.
At Wellesley, she majored in economics, won the ’64 Hooprolling race, and nurtured what became her lifelong love of the College. She went on to earn her J.D. from Cornell as one of only four women in a class of 150. She practiced law with the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., for 12 years. At age 38, she returned to school, earning her L.L.M. in taxation from the New York University School of Law, and joined the business/tax group at a large D.C. law firm. But New England was calling her home, and in 1987, Janet moved to Cape Elizabeth, Maine, joining a Portland law firm. In 2001, she founded her own firm, Johnson & McCaa LLC, focusing on estate planning and investment.
In January of this year, Janet wound down her practice and retired, ready to lend her talents to the many nonprofit boards on which she served—including as a director on the Wellesley College Alumnae Association board. She was an indefatigable member of the Western Maine Wellesley Club, serving as president (twice, once overseeing the club’s centennial celebration) and vice president, and of the Washington Wellesley Club, where she was similarly active. For her class, she served as president; vice president; planned-giving chair; special-gifts chair; mini-reunion chair; and record-book chair. At her 50th reunion in 2014, the Alumnae Association recognized her lifetime of service to the College with the Syrena Stackpole Award.
Janet’s passion for action was undiminished in her retirement. In 2015, she joined Women Who Sail for an adventurous journey in the British Virgin Islands. She hiked, did tai chi, and drove stick-shift sports cars, usually too fast. In a note to this magazine when she was nominated to the WCAA board, she reported that she kept her motorcycle license current, “just in case.”
Janet’s September memorial service at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, overflowed with Wellesley alumnae. Hope Creal Campbell ’90, who sought out Janet after reading her article in Wellesley, was a eulogist.
“[The article] was a candid exposé on some of Janet’s questions on faith, her career, and her values, and how she had changed her approach to life to rely more and more on her inner wisdom and her intuition,” Hope said. “I was very moved…. I wrote Janet a letter [and] that was the beginning of a long friendship. One of the most important lessons she taught me was how to use the left side of my brain, as we lawyers are all taught to process information, evaluate it, scrutinize it, and come to a logical conclusion. [Janet taught me] to interweave throughout the process the use of the right brain, which would require a ‘checking in’ with my inner wisdom … to make sure that justice and fairness were the guiding principles in those decisions. … She used the shorthand ‘paying attention’ for this process.”
On June 4—the last day of her life, spent at Wellesley—Janet was paying attention. She participated in a full day of WCAA board and reunion activities with her characteristic critical intelligence, zest, and attention to detail.
Missy Siner Shea ’86, executive director of the WCAA, says, “In board meetings, Janet was a wonderful mix of enthusiasm, support, and constructive criticism. She brought such an interesting freshness and energy and vitality to the board—but she brought wisdom and a long-haul view, as well. She was a tremendous asset. I can’t imagine human capital more valuable than Janet McCaa’s.”
Georgia Murphy Johnson ’75, president of the WCAA, adds, “There was nothing that escaped Janet’s notice. Nothing. She could be a really good critic, but once you made a decision, she was all in. She said to me multiple times that she felt so privileged and honored to be on the board at this particular time, to be a part of Paula Johnson’s introduction to the community. It’s heartbreaking that she didn’t get to see Paula taking the helm. But Janet died doing something she was so happy doing. She was full of joy, that whole day in June.”
Janet leaves her two sisters and a brother, a niece and nephew, two great-nephews, and a multitude of friends. Her intelligence, humor, dedication to Wellesley—and her sharp eye for the errant typo—will be sorely missed.
By Catherine O’Neill Grace