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Janice A. Bruns, Famed Violet Grower, dies at 66

Joe Janice Bruns their wedding day August 7th 1967

Joe and Janice Bruns on their wedding day August 7th, 1967

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Updated: November 27, 2013 6:14AM

Returning from a picnic the day after her senior prom, Janice Bruns was in a car accident that paralyzed her from the waist down.

She survived another 48 years and became a nationally renowned grower of African violets. At the peak of her hobby, she had 2,000 plants in a specially built room addition at her Hanover Park home. She maneuvered her wheelchair to water and groom them. Often, it took six hours a day.

Her green thumb created flowers so flawless, “if you didn’t know it was a real plant, you would swear it was fake because it was just perfection,” said Andrea Worrell of Downers Grove, a former officer with the Illinois African Violet Society. When Mrs. Bruns brought the blossoms to garden sales, “They couldn’t put them out fast enough.”

“She was one of the top, top show growers,” said Ann-Marie Keene, a Maine violet lover and creator of a blog, Fuzzy Foliage. “She was an important person in the history of violets.”

Worrell said: “It’s thrown us quite a curve in the violet world.”

When African violets mutate, a new variety is born. Mrs. Bruns was excited when one of her pink-flowered, purple-speckled plants mutated into what is called a chimera — a cutting that grew new plants with stripes instead of specks. She named it “Summer Song.”

“A lot of people still grow it,” said Joe, her husband of 46 years, who built special contraptions to help her roll in close to tend her flowers. His work as a physical therapist enabled him to tend to her.

She also wrote for the magazine of the African Violet Society of America and raised and bred Great Pyrenees show dogs.

Mrs. Bruns, 66, died Tuesday at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates.

Born Janice Jans, she grew up in Blue Island and attended St. Donatus elementary school and Mother of Sorrows High School. She was 17 on the day after her senior prom, when an auto plowed into the car she was riding in with five other teens. They were returning from a picnic. Smoke from a nearby junkyard had caused traffic to slow down, and when an oncoming driver couldn’t stop in time to avoid hitting the vehicle in front of him, he swerved into the opposite lane, striking the teens.

Though she wore a seatbelt, her back snapped. Young Jan remained in Adventist Hinsdale Hospital from May to August. After a couple of weeks at home, she entered Little Company of Mary Hospital for rehab. She didn’t get home until January.

Joe Bruns was an orderly who heard there was a beautiful young woman in “Room 356, Bed 2.”

“I saw this little skinny, scared girl. She was in a cast,” he said. A friendship began, and when she returned home, they started going out together in groups. Sometimes they went to see Chicago garage rockers “The Shadows of Knight,” who had a huge hit with the song, “Gloria.”

In the days before disability rights, “You didn’t see people in wheelchairs,” her husband said. “But we got her out. It was hard for her, with people staring. People would come along and say, ‘What happened to her?’ ”

“I’d say, ‘why don’t you ask her?’ ”

“We were made for each other,” he said.

“He loved her like out of a movie,” Keene said. When Keene congratulated him on the day after their 42nd wedding anniversary, he said, ‘ ‘It’s just as beautiful as it was yesterday, because I’m with her.”

Mrs. Bruns found her calling in the early 1980s, when she received African violets from her grandmother. She studied books to bone up on their care. “I built her a plant stand with lights and said, ‘This will hold 24 plants; of course you don’t need any more than that,’’ Joe Bruns said. “She wound up with a couple of thousand. We built a room addition for her plants.”

When her back bothered her after a spinal fusion, “I built new plant stands so she could get under it, because she couldn’t reach anymore. She could roll under them.” He also created a popular computer program, First Class, for categorizing the plants.

The rose may be the “Queen of Flowers,” but the velvety African violet has ensorcelled gardeners worldwide. Striped, ruffled, or speckled, there are more than 17,000 varieties registered, according to Worrell and Keene, in a kaleidoscope of colors, including white, yellow, coral, red, burgundy, purple and pale blue.

They sport names with a whiff of faraway places: Persian Lace. Kiwi Dazzler. Wrangler’s High Sierra. Chanticleer. Firebird. Lacy’s Determination. Buckeye Cranberry Sparkler.

Mrs. Bruns especially loved growing the miniature varieties. She did so until about a decade ago, when back problems forced her to give up her African violets hobby.

She had a 3.5 pound poodle, Lisa, an alpha female who could back Heidi, their 100-pound Great Pyrenees, into a corner. The Bruns’ fell in love with the gentle giants and owned a series of “Great Pyrs” that came after Heidi: Muffin, Cher, Panda, Amy and Emma.

She owned Two Tivos to record her favorite shows, including “Hell on Wheels,” “The Walking Dead” and “Vampire Diaries.” She also liked trips to Las Vegas.

Mrs. Bruns collected candles, dolls and crafted miniature teddy bears that will be displayed at her visitation from 2 -5 p.m. Saturday at Ahlgrim & Sons Funeral and Cremation Service, 330 W. Golf Rd., Schaumburg. She also is survived by her daughter, Tracy Sharp; her mother, Lorraine Schultz, and three grandchildren.

“She actually enjoyed life,” her husband said. “She made the most of what she got.”

Email: Maureen O’Donnell

Twitter: @suntimesobits

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