British-born Brattleboro resident Denise "Jane" Ashworth has been defying expectations her whole life. She was a translator in World War II, she was among the first women to work the trails for the U.S. Forest Service — and now she's self-published her first children's book.
Ashworth has a story to tell.
"My name is Denise. But my family all call me 'Jane,' because I guess as a small child I was a nuisance," she says. "And 'Jane' became 'Naughty Jane.' I imagine I caused a lot of trouble."
When you're young, they call it "trouble." But after a few decades of ignoring the social assumptions on age and gender, "trouble" becomes something more.
Ashworth was the youngest of six children, and grew up in the dairy country around Lincolnshire, England.
"We went exploring rivers and we went exploring ponds, and making friends with the animals," she says. "It was a lovely time."
When she was growing up and chasing her older siblings around, she says she never let someone else tell her what she couldn't do.
"I had to fight my way from my early childhood on," Ashworth says. "That's what I think kept me going. It made life troublesome, a little difficult, but interesting."
One could live 99 years and not have an interesting life, but that's not the way Ashworth rolls.
As a younger woman, she studied language and traveled in France and Germany. She saw Adolph Hitler speak when he was rising to power.
"He came to visit the town where I was studying several times," Ashworth says. "And I got to watch him operating. He was an incredible man. Really so. He was horrifying. When you think of the many thousands of people he had killed, it's unbelievable."
During World War II, Ashworth translated messages from German battleships and submarines at a top-secret project that had cracked the German Enigma code. She met her future husband, a U.S. Army captain, and they moved to the United States.
Years later, after they divorced, Ashworth went to college to get a degree in landscape architecture. She was 55 years old at the time. She got a job designing campgrounds and trails with the U.S. Forest Service and she was one of the first women to do trail work for the federal agency.
"When I got sent places, I was sent with a whole household of men and I was the only woman there, and I had to manage by myself," she says. "They were very iffy about a woman. They didn't want to have a woman doing what they were doing. Women couldn't do what men did, apparently. And so I had to fight my way along. It made life interesting for sure."
Ashworth never slowed down. She started a hiking club when she was 67.
In her 80s, she returned to college to get a master's degree in communications because she wanted to write and work in television.
A few years ago, she took a creative writing class, which led to the publication of her first children's book, Zoa and the Fawn. The book tells the story of a cat that befriends a young deer in the countryside very much like where she grew up.
"I'm going to be 100 next birthday," she says. "So it's incredible when you think about it. Here I am running around. Very busy."
She moved to Brattleboro a few years ago to live in an assisted care facility near two of her children.
I asked Ashworth how she's kept so active for almost a century, and what she might tell young people who were just starting to explore their own interests.
"Try and take advantage of every possibility you can see, because that's what you have to do, is jump at possibilities," says Ashworth. "And don't give up. Just be persevering and hard working, and it'll work out that way for you. It did for me, anyway."
Ashworth has another children's book already written, which she hopes can be published soon.