What It’s Like Now: JoAnn Dwigans Lesh, family genealogist and former Alaskan innkeeper

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re shifting our Shawnee Mission Faces to focus on folks in roles that have been profoundly effected by the virus and response: What life is like now with social distancing, a stay-at-home mandate and the need for essential workers.

Three thousand miles and a novel virus separate JoAnn Dwigans Lesh from her husband, Dave Lesh, who is staying in Alaska while the couple tries to sell their innkeeping business of 40 years in Glacier Bay National Park. A Southwest High grad, Dwigans Lesh is in Overland Park, where she and her husband raised their four children and sent them to SM East. Now in retirement, and isolated from her husband of 48 years, she enjoys watercolor painting, photography and spending time with family, including her parents, Joe and Betty Dwigans, of Kansas City, Mo. Before the pandemic, she also enjoyed Sunday blueberry pancakes by Chef John at Hy-Vee in Prairie Village. Now, she sews masks for neighbors and just created gender-reveal masks for the whole family to celebrate her grandbaby on the way (reversible with pink on one side and blue on the other). But her main new interest is genealogy, which led to a recent discovery about her ancestors’ history with the pandemic of their own time.

I’ve been working with my mother on genealogy during the pandemic because I have extra time. It’s something that we were finally able to get to.

We were looking through my father’s mother’s photographs. When my grandmother, Gladys James, was 17, she lost her mother and went to live with her older brother in Ord, Neb., who had nine children, and the youngest was just months old, so I’m sure they were very happy to get a 17-year-old girl to come live with them. She’s the youngest — get this — also out of nine.

Her brother, Ernest James, was a station agent for the Burlington Northern Railroad, and he got her a job at the station somehow. And that’s when this picture was taken of her, my grandmother in front of the station in Ord, Neb. They all must have been working and wearing masks at work. It was a transportation business; the railroad went through there. It was the hub of the community.

We think she’s on the far right. We’ve been going back and forth about who is with her. Some people thought it was her brother and the other family members. We tried to write to Ernest’s son, but we aren’t able to get anybody to help us.

Gladys James (right), JoAnn Dwigans Lesh’s grandmother, went through the flu epidemic in 1918. Photo submitted by Joann Dwigans Lesh.

It’s interesting, one of his daughters’ child lives in Mission Hills, and I’m kind of hoping this picture might get them to contact us. We just don’t have their current address.

The sign that they’re in front of in the picture is Adams Express Company. It was like the Western Auto of the days. I looked up this Adams Express; they were the paymasters for both the Confederate and the Union armies.

It was just such a surprise to see that. It was a tiny little 2×3 photograph, and I just looked at it again again and said well they’re wearing masks! I was amazed that they wore masks at work. And they’re obviously dressed for work and they’re trying to protect themselves from the traveling public.

There was a little bit of a story written about the picture. I’m reading from the James family history that was given to us in 1980 by one of the James family.

“Aunt Gladys lived with her brother and sister-in-law, Ernest and Cora James, about 1918… We were fascinated with her because she wore sheer Georgette blouses and fixed her hair with rats (rats were snarled hair combings, placed on each side of the head over the ears, the long hair was combed over the rats and a strand brought from front to back on top of the rat; this arrangement made puffs on each side of the head over the ears). Gladys was with us during the 1918 flu epidemic, when everyone had to wear gauze masks. We all got the ‘flu anyway.’”

This is all the things I learned from my mom going through these photographs and trying to document: So Gladys was the youngest of nine siblings. She was born in 1900, and when she lost her mother and I guess father too, she had to go out and find somewhere to live. Family was everything then. That’s what you had to rely on. Over the years, you look back and that’s what people did. When they had a problem, they went to family.

It’s been very interesting to study genealogy and to look through all the different branches of my family and see the same thing. The theme that I’ve really realized is that family relies on each other.

I don’t think it’s changed. My dad here has a value of taking care of family at the highest order. My husband and I have dedicated our lives to taking care of our disabled daughter. My three sons are doing the same.

I just think that optimism is the way to get through the pandemic. Think about what you have to look forward to, and work towards that. What you have right in front of you is what you have, so you might as well decide to think of it as a good thing.

I’m separated from my husband for what, three months? OK, well this is just a good thing. I still talk to him three times a day. And I’ve just been taking over all the places in the house; it’s like I have the whole house to myself.