CHATHAM - For Chatham's Jo Ann Sprague, staying active means continuing to serve. Ever since she enlisted in the Women's Army Corps right out of high school in 1950, serving others has been her secret to a happy, active and engaged life.
From her days as a staff driver in the Pentagon through her years as a full-time wife and mother of six children, to six years as a representative in the Massachusetts House followed by another six as a state senator, Sprague has achieved her goals by living a life of service to others.
By 2006 she and her late husband Warren had retired and moved to Chatham. If anyone thought that retirement would mean she slowed down, they found out otherwise. With her experience and service on the Massachusetts Ways and Means committee, Sprague applied to serve on the town's finance committee.
"As a stay at home mom I was always interested in understanding my tax bill," she said recently. "My hobby was government," she said with a smile.
She has served on the finance committee since 2007, a volunteer job that has been estimated to take about 300 hours per year. Recently she was appointed to a subcommittee on affordable housing, a subject which she is passionate about.
"To keep our small businesses, people need a place to live," she stressed. The group is looking at creative ways to quickly increase the number of rental properties in town, including exploring public/private partnerships.
"The ADU amendment approved at town meeting is a good step," she said, "but more is needed." The finance committee subcommittee is designed to be a "different set of eyes" on the problem, not to interfere with others engaged in the same goals.
"We are fiscal watchdogs, protecting the taxpayers' interests and their money, looking both at today and 20 years from now. What can we afford?" she said.
Some things have changed for Sprague since served in the Massachusetts House and Senate. "When autumn rolled around I used to think 'campaign time is here!'" she recalled. The rigors of the campaign process, which she experienced during her dozen years in elected office, often meant she had to miss family birthdays or family functions. "I was always marching in the Walpole Fourth of July parade instead of home with the family or at a picnic," she recalled.
Today, "I never miss a birthday or a family function," she said. "I keep my schedule free and cancel nothing with the family. Maybe we get wiser as we get older. At my age I am protective of my family time!"
In 2017 Sprague experienced a severe jolt. Warren, her husband of 64 years, passed away and Sprague suffered a mild heart attack brought on by the loss. "I sort of dropped out for a while," she recalled. After two years she realized she was feeling better again. She decided to join the Chatham Walkers, a group sponsored by the Chatham Council on Aging (COA) that meets for walks three mornings a week.
"I had never before gone to events or activities at the COA, but now I signed up for some luncheons and went to the Busy Fingers group. You always meet someone by making a little extra effort to join in."
For anyone who wants to learn more and become active, she recommends attending meetings of the board of selectmen, the finance committee and of course the annual town meeting. Go to the meetings in person, she said. Don't just watch on TV.
"You will see someone you know, you will learn something," she stressed. "And after going a few times you may even stand up and say something," she said. "We are taxpayers and quite often a taxpayer comes up with the best possible solution to a problem. You may come up with information that might not be out there."
With her years of service in the public eye, Sprague knows how to prepare to get involved. "If I think I want to say something, I prepare word by word to speak my truth, with no embellishment." She has found that people appreciate hearing what others have to say. "If they come up to you afterwards and say you are wrong, listen to them," she said. "There is a kernel of truth in all criticism and we can learn from it. I have never lost a friend by speaking my truth politely and respectfully," she added.
"I am fortunate to be healthy and active," she said and she plans to stay involved. When her service on the finance committee is over, she will look for other areas where help is needed, she said, possibly in the area of veteran support. "I'll be active as long as I'm needed."