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An Alumna’s Life in Pictures

Jan Atwater
Following her 70th reunion, Jan Atwater ’52 recalls her journey from a shy young woman to a photographer entrepreneur.
By: Megan Tkacy

It’s been 70 years since Jan Atwater graduated from Endicott, and one thing remains the same in the one-time photography major’s life: “I just always had a camera in my hand, and I always have a camera today. I just always have it.”

While today’s camera is much smaller and can easily fit in her purse, Atwater’s enthusiasm for capturing everyday moments hasn’t shrunk at all during the course of her life. The 91-year-old New Jersey native traces her passion for photography back to an experience at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, N.Y.

Jan Atwater

“I entered the Kodak building, and they were asking for a volunteer to go up on stage. I was like seven, eight years old,” Atwater recalled. Given an easel and a canvas, she was then asked to paint a picture. Unbeknownst to her, she was posing for what would be an instant photograph. “As I was painting, all of a sudden, my face came out—on this white paper.”

Kodak sent the astonished Atwater away with a camera and two rolls of film. “I took all kinds of pictures that day,” she said.

Turns out, photography was the shared hobby of both Atwater’s grandfather and father, so the family had a darkroom in the basement. After the World’s Fair, “dad took me into the darkroom and instructed me on how to develop the film,” she said.

Fast-forward several years, and Atwater had her sights set on Beverly, Mass.

“My godparents’ daughter, who was a year ahead of me in school, came to the lake with an Endicott catalog. She said, ‘This is where I’m going come September,’” Atwater said. “I opened up that book and found a photography course. And I said, ‘That’s great. I think I’d like to do that.’”

But attending college was quite progressive for the time. During the Great Depression, she explained, families saved money to educate men, not women. “My father was not prepared,” she said. “He had to take out a loan on his life insurance just to get it paid.”

The first in her family to attend college, Atwater, who was just one of five photography students at Endicott, took her first wedding pictures while living in Reynolds Hall.

Jan Atwater

Decades later, she still remembers her first assignment from her professor, Mr. Keith. “It was to take a picture of something scaly,” she said. “I went down to Tuckers Beach and looked around, and there was this old rowboat turned upside down and all the paint was peeling. I got a very good mark on that assignment, as I recall.”

The College also helped Atwater transition from introvert to extrovert. After a serious bout of chickenpox, she was held back a year and watched as her friends flocked to high school. By the time she joined them, those friends had found new cliques. Atwater felt even more left behind.

Her father inspired her to soldier on. “He said, ‘You have a great opportunity now, going away to college, where nobody knows you. If you want to make a change, now is the time.’

While at Endicott, she not only honed her photography skills but met her husband of 67 years, the late Jim Atwater—during a hurricane. After taking shelter at a local church, he offered her and some others a ride home. She was last to be dropped off, and that’s when Jim made his move.

“He got out and walked me up to the door and said, ‘Would you like to go out next weekend?’” she said. “I said, ‘Call me during the middle of the week.’” Jim did just that but asked for a Jane Osgoode instead of a Jan Ordway, which she still laughs about today. The couple went on to have three children.

After graduation, Atwater also launched her own business, Photos by Jan, and shot candid photos and portraits for more than 40 years.

While so much has changed for Atwater and Endicott alike, the campus is still a photographer’s dream and Atwater is still in contact with the friends she made at the College and never misses a Reunion weekend.

“Endicott changed my life,” she said. “Of course, for the better.”

Are you an Endicott alumni member with an interesting story? Email—we welcome the opportunity to spotlight you in a future story!