Janice Viola Huff DeVries
An Underdog Story
Feb. 22, 1931 to December 2, 2013
She always thought she was lucky to have her birthday on a national holiday. Janice Viola Huff — born during the rock bottom of the Great Depression on February 22, 1931 in Rochester, New York – shared her birthday with the father of the country, George Washington. For decades she enjoyed the day off with family and friends, until an act of Congress created the mash-up Monday holiday in February known as President’s Day.
She loved her husband Jack, her children, her grandchildren and great grandchildren, horse races, casino gambling, playing card games, reading modern romance magazines, big earrings, Al Jolson, old timey country music, and waitressing — probably in that order. Her favorite food was clams, although she was also partial to lobster thermador from a certain Southern California restaurant popular with the race track crowd.
She judged her life a great success, but overcame great odds to get there. The daughter of Frances Elwell and Allen Huff, Janice was the youngest of twelve children (and also younger than some of her nieces and nephews, and was mortified at school when they respectfully referred to her as Aunt Janice). Her parents separated when she was young, so she was forced by her single mother to become a waitress at the age of 13 to help support the family during World War II.
Like many in her generation, the war was the defining event of her life. She had five brothers who fought in the war, including brother Deke who was wounded at Iwo Jima and brother Ralph who was featured on the cover of Life magazine playing taps for the fallen on the D-Day beaches of Normandy. Amazingly, all five survived the war. Along with her mother, she was busy with the USO efforts in Rochester. Late into her life she would continue to visit cemeteries on Veterans Day to leave flowers on the untended graves of soldiers.
She was a wild one. As a young waitress she was adopted as a “mascot” by the local Mafia Don who tipped big for side projects (“He had me deliver packages for him,” she said). At the age of 16 the Don asked her what she liked to drink and she quipped “Beer and Crème de Menthe.” A case of each was delivered to her front porch, much to the ire of her mother, who was president of the Rochester Christian Temperance Union. That same year Janice ran away with a girl friend to work in New York City, but was arrested by the FBI, jailed (“People were nice, they snuck in cigarettes,” she recalled) and was driven back by one of her brothers to Rochester.
The arrest may have been the best thing that ever happened to her, because when Janice turned 18 her mother sent this black sheep to live with father, who was racing horses in Southern California. Shortly after her arrival in 1949 she met a shy 20-year-old immigrant from the Netherlands, Jack DeVries, who was taking care of horses for his Uncle George and Aunt Carla DeVries (the American house wife who kissed Hitler, but that is another story). Seeing she was afraid of feeding horses, he helped Janice with her chores. He later said “I fell for her like a ton of bricks.”
The courtship was whirlwind and on April 2, 1949 they drove to Yuma, Arizona to get married. After a hot dog dinner, they had to drive back to take care of the horses. Nothing would get her down and race track friends (which were legion, from race track execs and famous jockeys to tack store owners and grooms) nicknamed her “Tough Huff.”
Her greatest assets were a love of people and a gift for gab. A favorite saying was “People have more fun than anybody.” Janice quickly became pregnant and one new race track friend in Del Mar, CA named John asked where she was going to deliver the baby. Janice said she didn’t know and he said “You can have the baby at my hospital.” He was John Scripps, an heir to the Scripps Howard newspaper fortune. Janice Frances Ruth “Joy” DeVries (later Swank) was born in January 1950 at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla. Jacqueline May DeVries was born September 1953 in Bixby Knolls, CA (near Long Beach) and Henry Jordan DeVries was born April 1957 in Bellflower, CA.
During the early 1950s Jack’s father and mother returned from the Netherlands and started a dairy farm in Paramount, CA. Then Jack and Janice quit the horse racing circuit and Jack worked to help run the dairy.
Janice believed in the value of hard work. To help support the family in the 1950s she worked as a waitress at a few high end restaurants, including the Steak House at Knotts Berry Farm. She recalled Walter and Cordelia Knott as tough task masters who would only let you off to vote if you promised to vote Republican.
She worked hard and played hard. During the 1950s a Janice and Jack photograph, taken in a luxury box at Hollywood Park with Jack’s Aunt Carla, appeared in the society page of an LA newspaper. That got Janice into hot water because she had called in sick that day to go to the races, but because they liked her so much they didn’t fire her.
In 1960 the DeVries clan moved to Chino, CA where they bought 15 acres for a dairy farm and horse race stables and training track called Chino Downs. During the early 1960s Jack worked the dairy and also got to follow his passion – horse racing. He trained and raced harness horses at tracks throughout California and Arizona. Watching Jack as a race horse driver was nerve wracking for Janice because she had seen her share of horse racing injuries.
Living out in the country on a dairy farm/horse stables was boring for a city gal like Janice. In the 1970s Janice went back to work as a waitress, this time working lunches at a local country club owned by tennis great Jack Kramer. An avid horse player, Kramer had a special affection for “Janny” because they would bet the horses together. Janice had the sassy, brassy New York waitress schtick down. She wore a name tag that said Sam (”I don’t want customers to know my real name”) and developed a loyal lunch time clientele. When she retired from the country club after 25 years of service they threw a banquet in her honor, a rare tribute for a part-time employee.
During the 1970s the family sold the dairy farm and Jack became a dairy cattle hoof trimmer (he called it a bovine pedicurist). The couple sold their land and moved to Ontario, CA. When Jack retired from hoof trimming they sold the home and moved to live in Vacaville, CA in 2000 to be close to their daughter Joy Swank (who once won a look alike contest with Janice) and their Swank grandchildren.
After the move to Vacaville Janice landed a lunch-time waitressing job at the Hungry Hunter in Fairfield. A honcho of the chain came to meet her because corporate HQ was appalled a woman of her age had been hired, but he was quickly won over as a fan. She retired from that job in 2003 to take care of Jack who was recovering from a third bout of cancer.
On New Year’s Eve of 2008 Janice was diagnosed with stage four cancer throughout her body and was given six months at most to live. Her cancer doctor – Dr. James Long, or Saint Long as she would call him – would eventually call her a medical miracle, and credited her longevity to her positive attitude. She shattered the record for survival on a drug that halts the growth of cancer cells. When Jack passed away in May 2012, she lost her best friend and soul mate of 62 years, but she kept fighting and living in her own home until the final week of her life.
She is survived by three brothers – Deke, Ralph and Rip – and her three children, her son-in-law Jerry Swank and her daughter-in-law Vikki DeVries. Also seven grandchildren: Janna Swank Mohney (and husband Matt), Jack Swank (and wife Anabelen), Jace Swank, Karla DeVries Rosenstein (and husband Jacob), Devin DeVries, Jack DeVries and Jordan DeVries. Also four great grandchildren: Madeline Mohney, Dylan Mohney, Ryan Mohney, and Emeline Swank.
Her motto was: “It’s a great life, if you don’t weaken.” She never did.