by Dennis Dalman
Even a quick reading of the resume of Sartell Senior Volunteer of the Year Jan Sorell is apt to exhaust the average person because she has crammed so much work into a lifetime it makes one’s head spin:
Wife, mother, motel owner, school teacher, yearbook director, photographer, editor, school-media teacher, computer instructor, the member and/or chair of countless committees and organizations, spelling-bee judge, workshop facilitator, curriculum developer, published writer, speech-maker and active member of more than 10 professional organizations. Those activities barely scratch the surface.
Most people in Sartell know Sorell as one of the founding members of the Sartell Senior Connection, a group of mainly seniors that has brought a renewed dynamism to Sartell through its activities and its volunteerism. The group was founded in 2007, and Sorrel has just now finished her fourth year as the group’s board chair.
Sorell received thunderous applause and a standing ovation when she was named Sartell Senior Volunteer of the Year April 10 at the annual Sartell Area Chamber of Commerce banquet at Blackberry Ridge Golf Course.
Despite some recent medical problems, including another knee replacement, Sorell is up and at ‘em, just as active as ever. She doesn’t need a cane or a walker anymore. Her husband, Dale, loves to tease her by telling others, in front of her, that “Jan is off her walker.”
Sorell said her favorite activity is working with committees, brainstorming with others until good ideas emerge from the simmering conversations.
“I love committees,” she said. “I love to get ideas together and let ideas come forth from others. That committee work is really what I do best.”
Sorell was born in Richfield. Even in her school years she loved working with groups of students. She was a member of the yearbook and newspaper staff, and she was student-council president.
After graduation in 1956 and marriage, she earned a degree in elementary education, with a math minor, from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Then she taught third grade in Hopkins for two years.
She and her husband, Dale, one day made a bold decision. They decided in 1961 to move to Sartell where there was a motel for sale. The Winter Haven Motel, which they owned and managed for eight years. Before buying it they did a lot of research in motel ownership. The business would thrive, they were told, because it is on Highway 10, a very busy roadway, especially in the summer.
The Sorells and their nine-month-old son, Jeff, moved to Sartell Jan. 1, 1962. At that time, there were not even 1,000 people living in the city. Near the Sorell’s 11-unit motel, which was located just south of the now defunct Benton Mini Serve convenience gas-and-grocery, were the Commodore Club and the Vee Bar. Besides his motel management, Dale was also a ceramic-tile installer, and he and Jan operated their business at first from the motel and later from the home Dale bought just north of what is now Val Smith Park.
“Running a small motel was always a dream of Dale’s,” Sorell said. “We owned that motel for eight years, and lived in it for four years. We had a lot of summer tourists passing through, many from the Chicago area. We had so much fun with visitors, especially in the summer months. One year, the first year, a lot off them were passing through on their way to the World’s Fair in Seattle.”
Eventually, the very busy Highway 10 right by the Winter Haven Hotel was moved, and the roadway became Benton Drive, diminishing the Sorell’s motel business. By that time, Dale wanted to concentrate on his tile and construction business, and Jan, once again, had developed a hankering to teach again. In time, Dale joined Miller Construction, and Jan returned to teaching – one year of fourth-grade in St. Cloud’s Central School (now the city-hall building). Pregnant and with a child at home, she decided to become a stay-at-home mom for a time.
Later, she was asked to help teach fourth grade in Sartell, which she did, as well as teaching fifth grade off-and-on for nearly four years.
In the late 1960s, Sorell had become intensely interested in media and information systems.
She earned a master’s degree in information media from St. Cloud State University, then she found work in 1972 as a media specialist at South Junior High School in St. Cloud.
“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” she said. “I actually almost felt guilty to take a paycheck because I loved it so much. I didn’t know whether to attribute my love of that job to the hand of God or just dumb luck.”
In 1978, Sorell was asked to transfer to Tech High School to become its media specialist (the new name then for librarian). There, she transformed what had been an old gymnasium into a media center.
Sorell worked at Tech High School three times during the 1970s and 1980s. Staff cuts during recessionary times took their toll on Sorell and other school staff. Still, Sorell managed to find teaching work between times. She taught fourth grade at Kennedy Elementary School and second grade at South Junior High School (for a few years that junior high school had become an elementary school).
By then, a new job had opened in the school district. It needed a “resources facilities coordinator for academic achievement,” and Sorell got the job, working half her time at Tech, the other half at Apollo High School. She instructed other teachers about innovative ways to teach bright students. After nearly five years of that job, she returned full-time to Tech and stayed there for nearly 16 years, some of the happiest years of her life.
One of the first duties at Tech High School was to amass and collate a vast collection of school memorabilia that had accumulated helter-skelter throughout the years – such things as programs, yearbooks, pins, trophies and more.
“I felt as if I’d inherited all that stuff, and it was marvelous stuff,” she recalled.
One day, however, the memorabilia room had to be used as a textbook-storage room. Sorell and others decided to raise money for a storage place for the large collection. Sorell’s love of committee work and brainstorming once again surfaced. She was one of three people who organized an all-school reunion and then helped found a charter membership for an “Alumni Hall’” in Tech, with names on gold plates in the hall.
During her time at South Junior High School, circa 1972, Sorell was introduced to a then little-known world of computers. She became a member of the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium.
There was a huge computer main-frame at the University of Minnesota. Sorrel and just a handful of other computer-savvy people could access that main frame by dialing to St. Cloud State University, then putting the phone in a modem and getting a connection to the U of M main frame via a teletype system. It was a very arcane, mysterious brave new world – the world of computers.
What then to computer “geeks” seemed like the cat’s meow is now, in retrospect, in this Cyber Age, a clunky, awkward, roundabout way of doing things. Sorell, however, found it very fascinating, and she began to teach teachers and students how to use computers about the time that tremendous innovation, the “Apple” came along.
All of her lifetime talents and skills came to fruition with her work for the Sartell Senior Connection. It’s little wonder that fellow board members wanted her to be chair for four consecutive years.
And, once again, her genius for committee work paid off, with new ideas brewing all the time for new Senior Connection activities or improvements of old ones.
“We have such a dynamic group of people,” she said. “It’s one of the most vibrant groups I’ve ever worked with. They’re coming up with new ideas all the time. We like to analyze why things work, why they don’t work. We’re always tweaking things.”
Sorell is proud to be a member of the Senior Connection because she firmly believes it’s an asset to the Sartell area in more ways that one. Seniors, she said, tend to become withdrawn the longer they age – an outcome that can be unhealthy and even dangerous. By keeping seniors connected and active socially and intellectually, they become more motivated and happier. That can result in fewer medical problems, fewer bills, a healthier society all around.
And, not to forget, a big reason for the Senior Connection is all the play, the fun and the laughter that keeps Sorell and so many others feeling as if they’ve happily reached their prime.
Dale and Jan Sorell have three children – Jeff, 53, a retired Air Force man now working as a computer expert at a Minneapolis bank; Greg, 49, who works for an office-supply company in Alexandria and who lives in Sauk Centre; and Jill Maselter, a mother who home-schools her children and who lives just three blocks from her parents in Sartell.
The Sorells have 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.