Jessica J. Hoagland, 81, of Middlebury
MIDDLEBURY — Jessica J. Hoagland, who served many years as parish administrator of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Middlebury and played key roles in community and civic organizations, died Feb. 16, 2021, at the hospice unit at the Helen Porter Rehabilitation and Nursing Center. She was 81.
An avid reader and collector of mystery novels, and a lightening-quick master of crossword puzzles, she was revered by a large circle of friends, some of whom she’d grown up with, others who were relative newcomers and all of whom cherished her humor, compassion and loyalty.
Jessica was diagnosed last Nov. 20 with glioblastoma, a fast-growing and often fatal form of brain cancer, which in her case was inoperable and defied attempts to control it through chemotherapy at her home, until her transfer Feb. 11 to the Addison Respite Care Home (ARCH) hospice suites at Helen Porter.
Her father, the Rev. Harry H. Jones, was rector of St. Stephen’s Church for 13 years when she was growing up in the picturesque college town, and Jessica put the lie to the bromide that “you can’t go home again.” After a three-decade absence, during which she lived in New York City and a suburb, where she raised two daughters, Suzanne Sommer and Christine Rathan, she returned in 1993 to the nostalgic venue of her youth, with her then-husband, Marshall Hoagland.
She was hired that same year as administrator of the St. Stephen’s parish, a job she held until her retirement in 2006. The Rev. Catherine Nichols, who was then rector at St. Stephen’s, recalled that they developed a respectful and warm working and personal relationship, and she said Jessica was “the right person for the job,” because she was a “people person, who believed life was about relationships.” Her sense of humor put callers at ease, and she fielded angry inquiries with calm respect, the Reverend Nichols said, adding that Jessica told her that “it was her best job ever.”
Jessica nurtured life-long friendships, including those with her childhood neighbor, Sophia Healy, who lived next door and Louise (Eddy) Rossmann, who lived three houses away. “Jess and I had a tin can phone line between our two houses, 5 and 7 South St.,” Healy recalled. “We actually talked on it – it worked.” As adults, Healy and Rossmann had moved from Middlebury, but the three friends arranged many reunions, which Healy called “the great treasure of my adult life.” “Jess has the most compassion of any person I ever met,” Healy wrote in an email. “Whenever I was in distress, she comforted me and UNDERSTOOD.”
Newer friends felt the same. Dorie Bechtel, who moved into Jessica’s Middlebury East Condominium complex with her husband, Tom, said that Jessica had “a very caring heart for those in some kind of pain. While Tom was sick and after he died, she was a sympathetic listener to my grief.” Another friend, Mary Louise Bright, said “I think she was always a good friend to so many people. She had so many close friends, and was always reaching out to them, listening. I’m going to miss all of that.”
If Jessica was a comfort to friends in distress, she also endured personal tragedies. Shortly after she and Marshall moved to Middlebury, her husband developed Parkinsons Disease and died in 2002 on his 77th birthday after a long struggle with the progressively disabling illness. Her oldest daughter, Christine Rathan, was diagnosed with spino-cellular ataxia, type 2, a rare neurological disorder. Jessica cared for her at home, before she went to the Helen Porter nursing center, where she died in 2009. After Marshall Hoagland died, Jessica married James Ten Broeck, an educator; he developed dementia and died in 2011, also at Helen Porter.
Each time, Jessica rebounded, fashioning a full and rewarding life in which she contributed to and was nourished by the virtues of a Vermont small town: close friendships, caring organizations and a shared commitment to community.
Jessica Hoagland was born Aug. 19, 1939, in Windsor, Vt., the daughter of Jessie Harris Jones and the Rev. Harry H. Jones. They moved to Middlebury in 1942, where she attended the town’s schools, graduating from Middlebury High School in 1956. She attended North Adams State Teachers’ College in Massachusetts, City College of New York and Rockland Community College in New York.
From 1961 to 1967, she was an administrative assistant in the college and university division at the National Episcopal Church headquarters in New York City, where she met and later married, James Rathan. They moved to Suffern, N.Y., where they raised their daughters and where she worked several years at the Suffern Free Library. Later divorced, Jessica was serving as the membership secretary and administrative assistant in the development office of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Nyack, N.Y., when she met Marshall Hoagland, a retired teacher who also worked for the international peace organization. After they married, they moved to Middlebury, and she plunged into her “old-new” life.
She was treasurer of the two condominium associations where she lived in Middlebury, the Woodbridge Condominium Association and the Middlebury East Condominium, Inc., where she expanded her bookkeeping duties to extra services, such as helping new owners fill out paperwork. She was president of the Interfaith Housing Association, a hospice volunteer and a volunteer at the Sheldon Museum. She was a member of two book clubs, one of which was happily described by a 95-year-old participant as “rowdy.”
Jessica served many roles at Saint Stephen’s — as a member of the vestry, as part of the cadre that annually organized its “Peasant Market” fair held on the village green that is the backdrop to church, and as a coordinator of the Pastoral Care Lay Team.
Because she had grown up in Middlebury and her later residency, she was considered a reliable local historian, as well as a modern town crier, who kept current with the latest national news, as well as that which came via the back fence. “She was an encyclopedia of facts, remembering what she read in books, and was so involved in her position on the condo board — and for years — so that it will be hard to replace her,” said Dorie Bechtel, her neighbor.
She was unflinching in some of her views. For example, she was no fan of Middlebury’s new town hall, which replaced a building that had been the high school, which was partially rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1954. Jessica acknowledged that she was most troubled by losing the remnants of her beloved school; but she never changed her mind about the building’s stylish replacement.
Overall, she enjoyed her ordinary routines, such as sitting on her living room couch after supper, accompanied by Fozzie, her devoted long-haired, orange and white cat, watching “Jeopardy,” the TV quiz show to which Jessica got many of the “questions” right.
Three months ago, Ellen Barbera, a friend who took her shopping once a week, noticed that Jessica seemed uncharacteristically forgetful and insisted she seek the medical exam that led to discovery of a large tumor. When she returned from the hospital, Jessica was cared for at home by family members, who were helped by frequent visits by the compassionate and skilled staff at Addison County Home Health and Hospice.
Calls, cards and emails flooded in, some from Monica Wood, another childhood friend, now of Seattle. Others were from church friends like Sandy Ketcham, who ignored Jessica’s orders not to inform distant relatives “just yet” of the illness; and from her Canadian cousin, Pamela Harris.
“I am thinking of 1945, of a curly headed little girl (to me a big girl, my big cousin),” Harris emailed her. “We are at a beautiful house in Middlebury — your family home — and you have decided we should run away. We pick raspberries to eat on our adventure, though we eat them as we pick. Then, we are in the garden behind the house,” Harris continued, ‘where we can see all the way to the river and the far hills beyond. I am wondering where we will go when we run away. But I know it will be okay, because I’ll be with you.”
Jessica is survived by her daughter, Suzanne Sommer, of Charlotte, N.C., administrator for a law firm, her husband, Fred Sommer, and their children, Angelena, Will and Grace; a grandson, Scott J. Bray Jr., of New York state; her former husband, James Rathan and his wife, Stephanie, of Hilton Head, S.C.; her brother, Brian C. Jones, a reporter, and his wife, Judy Jones, of Newport, R.I., and their children, Sarah, of Medford, Mass., Jonathan, of Wakefield, R.I. and Christopher, of Newport; her great niece, Alexandra Benjamin, and her husband, Oscar Benjamin, of London, United Kingdom, and their daughter, Maya; cousins, Pamela Harris, of Toronto; Craig Harris of Drexel Hill, Pa., and Cynthia Schlegel, of Mauldin, S.C.; and stepchildren, Diane Hulburt, of Mocksville, N.C.; Katrina McIntyre, of Fort Worth, Texas; and Hunter Ten Broeck of Albuquerque, N.M.
A memorial service is planned for a date to be announced this spring or summer in Middlebury. Her ashes will be interred in the columbarium at St. Stephen’s.
Gifts in her memory may be made to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 3 Main St., Middlebury, VT 05753; End of Life Services PO Box 772, Middlebury 05753; and Addison County Home Health & Hospice, PO Box 754, Middlebury, VT 05753.◊