Jan Conn

If left to the standard obituary format Jan’s life would be summarized somewhat like this:
Jan (Bien) Conn, age 99, of Custer, S.D., passed away May 13, 2023, in her friends’ home from natural causes.
Jan was born in April 1924 in Takoma Park, Md. She attended public schools and some college, studying music. She was married to her husband, Herb Conn, for more than 68 years.
Jan was actively involved with climbing, caving and music. She loved music and was an avid reader.
She was preceded in death by her parents; husband; and her two sisters.
Jan is survived by her beloved cat, Vixen.
As per her request there are to be no services.
If Jan were writing her own obituary, it would be succinct (“Much to do about nothing”), or possibly nothing at all. As she put it, “I’m afraid I never thought about living a life to please others. How can you when you don’t know what is in their hearts? If we can please ourselves without hurting others, that’s about all we can wish for. (A very good excuse to live a selfish life that I’ve enjoyed)” and, of course, “You may have to grow old, but you don’t have to grow up!”
So, this Jan Conn obituary is for the rest of us: a celebration of our relationships with her.
The above are all Jan’s words from her letters and her conversations. Maybe there is a way to use them to express her essence. As we know, she was a complex human with so many gifts and talents. Her perspective on life came naturally. It is not surprising that her admirers and friends came from myriad backgrounds, interests, professions and skills. I think each of us who were blessed to know her felt her wisdom and humanity. She was a gift in our lives. CF
She often expressed insightful ideas with few words: “Be yourself” and “why not?” When asked to condense 99 years into one word, it was “fun.” Strong ethics accompanied the fun. On hundreds of rock spires, she and Herb were the first to climb, it was “why leave gear?” and “if it was fun climbing up, it was fun climbing down.” In reference to the cave, Jan said, “There are a lot of places where you don’t even want to leave footprints.” But Jan leaves us with not only the legacy of the first female ascent of Devils Tower and 65 miles of mapped cave passage but also a spirit of creativity imprinted on the peaks, the passage names and the land. CH
Jan wasn’t just a great explorer of the underground. When a cave passage is first illuminated, it goes from being unseen blackness to a beautiful wonder. Jan had that effect on people. She had the most wonderful way of being a bright light of perspective in the darkest spaces in the minds of others, revealing those spaces to be something fun to explore. Fun and exploration were synonyms for Jan which were both played out courageously, enriching the lives of everyone around her. Jan could listen to someone for 30 minutes and then, in one simple sentence, create a profound perspective shift. CP
It is not an easy task to briefly summarize the significance of Jan Conn. She will be remembered fondly for her sharp wit, her infectious giggle, her generosity and encouragement, her prodigious creativity and resourcefulness, and, of course, her climbing and caving achievements.
Jan Conn and her late husband Herb were climbers from the East Coast who moved to the Custer area in 1949 and climbed, mapped and explored the Needles in the 1950s. They made over 200 first ascents between 1947 and 1959, and their climbing is a crucial first chapter in the magnificent, ongoing saga of the Needles. They were innovative in every sense of the word; they rethought the rudimentary climbing footwear of the day, donning inexpensive, smooth-soled tennis shoes instead of the heavy, hobnailed boots that were then in vogue, they climbed back down their routes rather than rappelling and they set the stage for what would later become a key tenet of Needles climbing ethics by never resorting to points of aid. Every move on their climbs in the 1950s was done free, and that philosophy didn’t become dominant in other parts of the United States until the free-climbing revolution of the 1970s.
The Conns’ climbing and caving achievements are unparalleled, but they remained very modest about their accomplishments. For my part, Jan was always very generous in sharing her wisdom and her entries from her climbing journal so I—and later generations—could decipher the intricacies of her often-complicated routes. I am very lucky to be able to have called her my friend, and I treasure every moment I got to spend with her. One of the last things she said to me is that her climbs “were all there waiting for you,” and I’ve since taken that to mean that her routes in the Needles, along with her discoveries in Jewel Cave, are one of her many gifts to humanity. She will be very missed. LS
Jan’s artistic pursuits will be remembered alongside her radiant grin. She showed how the most memorable part of an adventure story might be the campfire songs and that you don’t have to limit yourself to one instrument. She proved that making rubber stamps, knitting mittens and teaching music could all be as rewarding as sitting on a rock and playing the flute or running to catch a pine cone for the sheer joy of it. CH
Jan was a wonderful musician and played the flute as well as the guitar, and composed a great deal of music. Two notable compositions are her Broadway-style Musical, “Run to Catch a Pine Cone,” and a piece for classical guitar called the “Underground Suite,” inspired by her caving exploits. She taught lessons in the Knothole, and it served as a guest house, a library and a kind of museum of their lives and many exploits. SW
Jan leaves us with the lesson that life can be as simple as you want to make it. You just “back away from the things you don’t want to do.” You can choose to spend years living in a car or a life without electricity because if you have electricity, then comes the well, followed by the washing machine, and then you’re washing clothes all the time. CH
For some folks, the simple things are the best and make the biggest contributions. So “be yourself,” “why not,” you can “climb” or do “anything if you’ve got the guts.” Jan’s passing set her off on her next adventure in search of her beloved husband Herb. His wish was that upon his passing he would be able to see the entire Jewel Cave passage system on a map. It’s my wish that the two of them are poring over that map together, plotting their next adventure together. DK


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