When I first met Janet Hedke in a church choir in Burbank, she was a wife and a mother with a full-time job. I thought the woman sitting next to me was like the three-on-the-tree Ford Falcon I drove in high school – a sensible, reliable machine – but it didn’t take long to see that Janet’s features weren’t contained in any one make and model.
I learned that what looked to me like reserve was really resolve, and what I may have deemed inflexible was actually unflappable. You can kick her tires all you want – she just keeps going, thanks to a head for details and a razor-sharp wit.
The road Janet’s traveled hasn’t always been easy. Her second daughter, Allison, was born with Williams Syndrome, a condition occurring in one of 10,000 births, which led to 16 surgeries.
Janet and her husband of 40 years, Steve, and Allison’s big sister, Chrissy, leaned heavily on their church family for support.
“My priorities are my family and my faith, and everything else falls in after that,” Janet says.
On top of the emotional challenges, Janet had responsibilities to work around such as a career with The Walt Disney Co., where she’s worked in the employee benefits department for 25 years. She’s part of the communications team administering all the health, wellness and retirement programs for more than 100,000 of Disney’s employees and cast members, both domestic and international.
“The company has grown with the additions of ABC, ESPN, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Marvel and now Fox, and I’ve been able to take advantage of some very special opportunities as an employee,” Janet says. “For example, to be part of the Disney Employee Choir for the Candlelight Processional program at Disneyland, and part of the opening team for Disney’s California Adventure park in 2001. I’m looking forward to being part of the magic with the opening of Star Wars – Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland next month.”
I would never have the fuel for that level of responsibility, but she does, and then some.
“I like to be active, whether it’s being involved in an organization, volunteering, or participating in physical or outdoor activity,” Janet says. “During the year, most evenings are filled and it’s rare to have a weekend with nothing scheduled. It’s just the way I’ve always been since high school, so that’s my normal.”
When I met Janet, she was volunteering at her sorority (which happened to be the same as mine) at her alma mater, USC (I forgave her for that). I found that she’s warm and friendly, yet one of the most competitive women I know. I’ve been beaten by her in tennis, seen her destroy everyone in trivia – and even when making blankets for charity, hers blew mine away.
Both an athlete and a fan, you’ll find Janet playing in Disney softball and bowling leagues as well as sitting in the stands at Dodger games. The Hedke family even attends spring training in Arizona, where there’s a bonus – Chrissy, her husband Mike and three grandchildren live there.
“I met my husband at a college basketball game and we still enjoy watching sports together, whether it’s Dodgers baseball, NASCAR or USC football or basketball,” she says.
They moved to Santa Clarita after the Northridge earthquake in 1994 and Janet continued at breakneck speed. She sings in the Grace Baptist Church choir and the Santa Clarita Master Chorale. (There’s a concert on June 1 at the COC PAC: tickets at scmasterchorale.org.)
But most of her volunteerism goes to Special Olympics, where Janet has coached Allison and her team members in softball, basketball and bowling since 2006.
“I love that the program offers so many levels of competition across all sports, year-round,” Janet says. “It’s extremely rewarding to see the athletes improve their skills over the course of the season and strive for the gold medals at each tournament they attend. But it’s not the medals that are important – it’s the relationships we’ve built with the athletes and parents and caregivers and other coaches. And the hugs from the athletes are the best!”
Santa Clarita is hosting a Special Olympics tournament on May 18 in the Hart High School stadium, with Opening Ceremonies at 9 a.m. (information at sosc.org).
As if the road of life isn’t challenging enough for Janet, she also spends weeks at a time physically taking curves and bumps at full throttle, participating in “The Great Race” competitions, which are precision cross-country driving rallies for vintage cars. She and Steve own several collector cars, including a small railway motorcar, and they have competed in a 1957 Triumph TR3, a 1959 Land Rover, a 1929 Model AV8, and currently, a 1964 Studebaker Daytona.
“Over the years, we’ve rallied in almost every state and made some great memories,” she says.
They’ve shared the thrill of competition with their daughters, while also winning their share of large cash prizes, evidenced by a collection of trophies. Locally, we can cheer them on in a competition that begins June 22 in Riverside and overnights in Lancaster. They will continue for nine days and end up in Tacoma, Washington. Details are found at greatrace.com.
It makes sense that I saw Janet last weekend at the Sierra Pelona Wine Festival where she was volunteering her time – driving guests in a golf cart, of course. I was reminded by her smile and greeting from behind the wheel that she’s always happy to take you along for the ride.
But hop on fast, because she won’t be stopping long.
Martha Michael is a contributing writer for The Signal.