Sister Janet Corcoran, one of most passionate and effective voices for the dispossessed throughout Santa Barbara County, was gently roasted Saturday night at a standing-room-only farewell in Santa Maria attended by political activists and elected officials who typically would not be caught dead in the same room.
Sister Janet moved to Santa Maria in 1984 to work for Marian Regional Medical Center and used her position of administrative authority as a bully pulpit to advocate on behalf of the poor. From 1998-2009, she attended every county supervisors’ meeting, always urging the board to do more for the homeless and mentally ill. The exhortation for which she became most famous was — and remains — “Give them everything they ask for and more.”
For much of that time, Sister Janet served as the political yin to the yang provided by arch-conservative Andy Caldwell, chief spokesperson for the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business (COLAB). While many activists from Santa Barbara’s environmental-progressive movement have been inclined to demonize the ever combative Caldwell, Sister Janet never did, referring to him always as “Brother Caldwell.” As she explained in a recent interview, “You can disagree with someone on their ideas, but you never reject them as people. That’s very important.” Caldwell returned the favor Saturday night, showing up and sharing the podium one more time. He joked that Sister Janet was worthy of canonization that she could draw such an ideologically polarized crowd.
Sharing emcee duties, for example, was State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson — prototypical liberal feminist Democrat — and County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, a moderate Republican with multi-generational ties deep into the Santa Maria political establishment. Both proved quick of wit and light on their feet. Jackson would reveal that Sister Janet was described in her high school year book as “a really swell chick.” She was also an ace basketball player. When asked how Sister Janet’s outspoken views squared with Marian Medical’s more staid board of directors, Lavagnino replied, “Apparently, Sister Janet had only one boss and he/she didn’t work at Marian.”
Sister Janet didn’t just talk a loud game; she got things done. She helped Santa Maria secure its coveted designation as an “All American City.” As a city parks and recreation commissioner, she helped plant hundreds of trees. As hospital administrator, she was involved in creating the power plant at Marian that uses methane piped in from the city’s landfill. She worked in front of and behind the scenes to make the hospital’s Mission Hope Cancer Center a reality a few years ago. And Sister Janet’s participation proved pivotal in Santa Maria’s annual Peace Week celebration, now 17 years old.
In person, Sister Janet is concrete tough but endowed with just enough twinkle to pass as spritely. In other words, she’s a force to be reckoned with. “You don’t say no to Sister Janet,” said State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson. “You don’t want to mess with her.” Sister Janet’s secret weapon, it turns out, is the late night phone call. Jackson said she’s received many a phone call from her at a time of night “when good middle-aged elected officials should be in bed.” And when Jackson wasn’t available, Sister Janet would get Congressmember Lois Capps on the horn. “She was incredibly smart to start with,” said former Lompoc mayor Joyce Howerton.
The heart and soul of Sister Janet’s agenda has always been caring for the poor. Her real gift, said Howerton, was not merely to raise these issues in the public consciousness but to get something done about it. Little wonder that during Sister Janet’s tenure, Marian medical center would take a politically risky leadership role to create desperately needed mental health beds in the abandoned shell of the old hospital. “We need to do more to keep people well,” she said. “If we don’t take some action, we’ll have the mentally ill stacking up in our emergency rooms for hours and hours on end, taking up space and getting sicker.” This project, still getting off the ground, emerged out of intense collaboration between Marina medical, County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, and the county administrator’s office. “Sister Janet doesn’t let you just walk away from an issue and ignore it,” Howerton said.
Sister Janet has constantly hounded the county supervisors to spend more money on housing the homeless. She recalled attending a meeting in which a homeless woman stood up and spoke movingly about her situation. Despite the woman’s eloquence, Sister Janet recalled how she recoiled at her unsanitary appearance. Afterward, she hugged the woman, despite her fear of the woman’s “fleas and cooties.” What struck her most? “’I can’t remember the last time someone gave me a hug,’” she recounted the woman saying.
Sister Janet grew up in Long Beach, but attended high school in Downey. Her mother died at age 39 when Janet was only 15. Her father would die at age 66 after a long struggle with emphysema. Tending to her ailing parents, Sister Janet would get her first taste of nursing. In high school, she was approached by Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity about attending nursing school. She joined the order in 1960 and quickly became a nurse. For years, she worked in Lynnwood, where she earned a master’s degree writing about the lack of preparation for death and dying in the United States. “We’re a very death denying society,” she said. The title of her thesis? “Don’t be Caught Dead, Plan Ahead.”
In 1984, Sister Janet would be assigned to Santa Maria. For her, it was not a happy day. “I remember horses being tied up outside buildings,” she said. “It was a small town.” Mostly, she was heartsick and homesick. She’d drive around for an hour, crying and alone, before going to work.
Over time, that would change. She would immerse herself into her new community, becoming — in her words — “a voice for all of creation.” Although she’s now officially retired, no one expects the late night phone calls to end or the voice on the other end to grow silent. On her telephone answering machine, Sister Janet reminds callers how they’ve been “gifted” 86,440 seconds a day — 24 hours — to do something meaningful. “You can’t recycle wasted time,” she says. Or, as she would explain later, “It’s all about the ‘heartitude,’” a phrase of her own making, “which means we never retire.”