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Jan Wagoner: A Millersburg Advocate
Lexington, KY (December 26, 2023) – It may come as a surprise to outsiders that the most ardent supporter of tiny Millersburg, Kentucky was a feisty East Coast transplant named Jan Wagoner. Saddened by the rapid pace of the town’s decline caused in part by the closing of its largest employer and the iconic Millersburg Military Institute, Wagoner vowed to do what she could to reverse the trend of townspeople moving away in search of work, leaving Millersburg businesses falling like dominos.
Jan hailed from New Jersey, where people are packed more densely per square mile than in any other state in the U.S., so it is quite likely that ending up in rural small-town America was not a twist that, in her youth, Jan would have imagined. But in the 1970s, in the laundry room of an apartment complex, the charismatic Jan met Rick Wagoner, an airline employee from Millersburg temporarily working in the Garden State.
Taking note of Rick’s UK apparel, Jan was quick to break the ice. “Well, hello, Kentucky,” she said with a grin.
“Jan was so very intelligent and so beautiful,” Rick Wagoner remembers, fighting for composure. “And so outgoing. She never met a stranger.”
Rick was smitten, and a short six months after that chance meeting the couple married. Nearly 50 years and numerous homes in various states later, the Wagoners came to rest in Millersburg, settling in the house where Rick spent much of his childhood.
Shortly after their return, Rick introduced Jan to two of his closest childhood friends and their wives—Darrell Poynter and Mike Williams, Bourbon County’s Judge Executive. Jan quickly became fast friends with Rita Williams and Debbie Poynter, and the three became known collectively as “the girls”. Rita and Debbie remember fondly the love Jan had for her family, her dogs, and for music, dancing and laughter.
Driven by her growing passion for the place that her husband held so dear coupled with a desire to preserve the history found there, Jan immersed herself in finding ways to bring the sinking town back to life.
“I would like Millersburg to become a little Hallmark town” Debbie remembers Jan saying. “Jan loved Hallmark movies, and she thought that Millersburg could be a town just like that.”
Jan became more convinced of that each year as Christmas at Mustard Seed Hill lit up the holiday nights, offering a showstopping destination drawing more and more folks to town. Loving the holiday season, every Christmas Jan decorated the Wagoner home to the nines. 2023 was no different, as her husband painstakingly carried on the tradition.
“From the very first time she came to Millersburg, my mom saw it as a very special place,” remembered Wendy Jeanes, one of Jan’s four daughters. “People who knew her understood how passionate she could be. She believed that the citizens of Millersburg are ultimately responsible for keeping the town going. She wanted to help breathe new life into Millersburg, and was proud to be a part of making the town all that it can be.”
Of the many residents that Jan called friends in Millersburg, two of the closest were neighbors Eddie and Anna Carter, who live on the corner diagonally across from the Wagoner home. They met when Jan beckoned them over to sit on her porch and visit, and the stories they tell speak of Jan’s generous spirit. Eddie recalls the many times Jan and Rick took he and his wife to their favorite Lexington eateries, and the nights Jan devoted to overnight care of Anna following her open-heart surgery, which allowed Eddie to continue to work his night shift.
“Jan was energetic, and always on-the-go,” Anna reflected. “She was so much fun. And she really cared—about everyone.”
The Carter’s son Jonathan understands completely the effect that Jan’s exhaustive economic re-development work has had on her beloved Burg.
“There are a lot of great things happening here now,” said Carter, who recently moved to Millersburg to be near his parents. “My wife and I are buying a house on Vimont that is being renovated for us. This revitalization that Jan fought so hard for is really good for the community. Businesses are being brought back, which brings money in to the city. Businesses are key. If we can attract businesses, it creates tax flow. Helping people understand how to bring Millersburg back was Jan’s mission.”
Back in 2015, concerned with the growing number of properties that had become unsafe, unsightly and were drawing down property values, Jan was instrumental in the formation of the Millersburg Property Evaluation Commission, serving as Chair. The Commission was created to address houses and commercial buildings deemed to be vacant, blighted, and deteriorated. Under Jan’s leadership, the Commission presented to the Mayor, the City Council and the Council’s attorney an initial list of 13 properties that the Commission felt needed to be addressed.
Rick, who also served two terms on Millersburg’s City Council, said it was Jan’s tireless efforts that inspired him to accept a position as the town’s Code Enforcement Officer. He was recently awarded Millersburg’s Citizen of the Year Award for the myriad ways in which he has served the town over the course of a tumultuous year.
Rick notes that it would mean the world to his late wife—a City Council member at the time of her death—to know that since her passing several of the properties on the Commission’s list have been cleaned up, torn down or renovated.
So, when the Millersburg Revitalization Fund was announced in July of 2023, it came as no surprise to her friends, family, and the residents of Millersburg that the fund was named for Jan. In a tragic turn, Wagoner lost her battle with cancer shortly after the Fund’s announcement.
“She would have been so humbled by the Revitalization Fund being named for her,” Rita noted. “But she would have said “no, I don’t need this attention” because that’s just the way she was—she loved doing for other people and didn’t want to take credit for herself.”
“My mom understood the importance of the Revitalization Fund, and how it would ensure that the town’s legacy would survive far into the future,” Jeanes explained through her tears. “She wanted to put Millersburg back on the map and to give people a reason to not bypass around it, but rather to travel through it and stop. She wanted to see cafes and shops that would bring people to the town. And to her, the Revitalization Fund was a vital next step in that,” Jeanes said. “For the Fund to be named after her is just an incredible source of pride for our family, because it’s her legacy.”