MILTON – As displaced residents of Milton in 1972 crowded into the old high school to escape rising waters, a woman in charge of cooking opened her own home for eight elderly and disabled people.
After Hurricane Agnes’ waters receded, Jane Pawling Owens, the former director of food services at Milton Area High School, and her husband Prentiss Owens made it their mission to care for two of these displaced residents without families. They helped two elderly sisters repair their homes, replace their belongings and live their lives for years after the flood.
In 1998, the Milton Historical Society recorded and transcribed the interviews of 10 Milton residents who experienced the 1972 flood. Deb Owens, president of exhibits at the Milton Historical Society, led the project and interviewed her mother, Jane Pawling Owens, died June 29, 2010 at the age of 86.
“My parents were very generous,” said Deb Owens, from West Milton, who was 21 and worked as a JPM employee in Lewisburg in 1972. “They were always helping people. They were amazing people.
Deb Owens said her parents once took in a high school student when she was having family issues. His father installed the electrical wires in the historical society. They were both founding members of the historical society in 1981. Deb Owens became active in the historical society in the mid-1990s.
Jane Owens, born 1924 in West Milton, was serving as Food Services Director for the Milton Area School District in June 1972 when she received a call that residents along Limestone Run were being evacuated to the old high school in the 32 S. Turbot Ave., which is now the Rockwell Retirement Center.
“I don’t remember who I spoke to. They told me I had to come in and open the cafeteria,” Owens said in the transcript. “Of course everything was put away for the summer, stocks were quite low. I went in and made a big pot of coffee and they started bringing people in.
There weren’t many displaced residents at first, but Interstate 80 was closed at night and between 100 and 150 people were brought to school. She found Danish rolls, oatmeal and loaves of bread in the kitchen.
“I cooked dinner together in the evening so people could eat, but it was difficult because I couldn’t shop and keep cooking,” she said. “A little later, Bob Brown, Danville’s caterer, came over to bring food and help out. I stayed all night. I think I called some of the kitchen workers and asked if they would come over in a few hours to help as it involved washing all the dishes. It was simply impossible for one person.
The National Guard brought cots and residents slept in the basement gymnasium. They also brought bread from the penitentiary and meat and milk from local businesses, Owens said.
Owens remembers holding a baby with sores on her body and later learning that the child had impetigo, a common and highly contagious skin infection that primarily affects infants and young children. When she returned the baby to her mother, Owens rubbed herself carefully.
“There was no place to send them,” Owens said. “You couldn’t get to the hospital. There was simply no place to send anyone. You just took care of everything that happened.
The bathrooms were up a flight of stairs which made it difficult for the elderly and disabled. Toilets were also blocked, meaning residents were using alternative means to relieve themselves, Owens said.
Owens took eight of the school’s oldest and most disabled residents and let them stay in her bed and that of her family in her home. Owens has set up beds in his basement for his family to sleep in.
Owens was specifically interested in two Ridge Avenue sisters with no living relatives – Flida Ranck and Helene Pfleegor. They lived on Social Security. One had a broken hip and used a walker and the other suffered from emphysema. Neither wanted to eat anything at school so they wouldn’t have to walk up the stairs and go to the bathroom.
“They weren’t talking to anyone, and when I was talking to them, they were just crying,” Owens said. “They both had their nightgowns on. They hadn’t had time to get dressed. They just put on a coat over their clothes and that’s all they had on, what they had on their backs.
Deb Owens said she was unable to get to work during the flooding. She stayed home with displaced residents, cooked for them and helped care for them.
After the flood, Jane Owens said she and her family helped two elderly women for the rest of their lives. The family helped the women repair their house for six to eight weeks. They also bought them new furniture.
Over the next few years, Deb Owens said her family took care of Flida and Helene. The Owens ushered the sisters into Milton Towers seniors’ apartments, brought meals, cleaned their apartments, and did their laundry.
“The first Christmas after the 1972 flood, we brought a Christmas tree and presents for them,” Deb Owens said. “They broke down crying. They hadn’t celebrated Christmas for years. They told us it was the best Christmas they had ever had.
Jane Owens doesn’t say in her interview when the sisters died and Deb Owens isn’t entirely sure either. She said it was maybe about six years after the flood.
The Milton Historical Society is holding an exhibit about the 1972 flood in the borough from 1 to 4 p.m. on July 10. Newspaper clippings, photographs as well as audio and transcripts of the interviews will be available to the public.