SH’s Rockin’ Red mail carrier dies

Audrey Caro

Even people who didn’t know her by name knew Janice Lee Urben.

She was easy to spot by the themed hats and hairbands she constantly wore as she delivered mail in Sweet Home for 35 years.

“Everybody thinks of her as the lady with the crazy hats but she was so much more than that,” said Pam Brown, who worked with Urben for more than a quarter century.

Urben died in Portland of pancreatic cancer on Feb. 24, about a month after she was diagnosed.

Longtime and relatively new friends use the same words to describe her: openhearted, hilarious, free-spirited.

Sean McCluskey, who is working on Urben’s old route, wore Urben’s “Happy New Year” headband with bouncy yellow stars, in honor of her as he delivered mail on Feb. 26.

He first met her 3½ years ago. He and his fiance took their engagement photos at Urben’s Rockin’ Red Ranch, between Holley and Crawfordsville.

“She was a great lady,” McCluskey said. “She made a big difference in the whole town. Definitely a sweetheart.”

Urben’s childhood friend Kristy Schindeler said Urben was gregarious, outgoing, exciting and full of life.

“She could take a stranger and be best friends within an hour,” Schindeler said.

Schindeler and Urben started first grade together in Milwaukie.

Their mutual love of horses worked its way into their playtime and eventually they bought a horse together.

They were 11 or 12 years old when they bought Smokey, Schindeler said.

She moved to Clackamas, which also is where Smokey lived.

“Janice would ride her bike five miles to Clackamas and we would go out riding for hours at a time,” she said.

When they were 19 years old, they moved out together and lived in a few different places together before moving to Sweet Home in 1980. They eventually became partners in the Rockin’ Red Ranch.

Urben and Schindeler lived together for 28 years. Schindeler moved out in 2007.

“It was a rough ending but I loved her all my life,” Schindeler said. “We still worked together and communicated.

“The times we had were so great and so fun. It was always about the horses and the dogs.”

Their ranch was named after their first stallion.

“He was scary,” Schindeler said.

Rockin’ Red wouldn’t let anyone near him, she said.

The horse’s original owner told Urben if she could ride him, she could have him.

“So she took his saddle off and rode him bare back,” Schindeler said. “She could ride anything and she was fearless.”

Teri Perkins, who worked with Urben for 25 years, recalled one time Urben hurt her hand.

“She didn’t want to take a break from work, so she called her vet and her vet came and sewed up her hand on her lunch break,” Perkins said. “She was tougher than nails.”

Urben was tough but got her share of bumps, bruises and broken bones from her horses.

“There was one horse that stomped on her pretty bad,” Brown said. “She shot it and ate it.”

According to a several co-workers, Urben brought horse meat enchiladas to a potluck.

She told them but “it was after we ate,” Perkins laughed. “It was OK – whatever, that was Jan.

She was hilarious. She was always in a good mood and she always helped everybody.”

She told an interviewer in 2008 that her headgear schtick was an effort to create goodwill.

“If I have to look silly to get you to smile, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Urben’s neighbor and longtime friend John Mithen said there were sometimes as many as 40 horses at the ranch, but usually between 10 and 20.

“Her favorite horse was Majesty,” he said.

She worked to pay for the horse when she was 13 or 14 years old, he said.

Majesty was her main riding horse for 20 years. She probably had her for 28 years, Mithen said.

As an adult, she rescued a race horse that was going to be put down by its owner. Urban was known for rescuing animals and helping people too, Mithen said.

If people would get evicted, she would help them get back on their feet again, for example, he said.

She was devoted to her father and dedicated her life to helping care for him for about the last decade, Mithen said. They’d spent years traveling the world together before his health failed.

“Her biggest concern was leaving her dad,” Schindeler recalled.

Her mother has Alzheimer’s disease and has lived in a facility for about 10 years, Schindeler said.

Janice Urben had a “warrior spirit and an open heart,” Mithen said.

“If someone would abuse an animal or another person, she would step in and take care of it.”

Alisa Ward, who cared for Urben in final days, knew her for four years. Ward also is caring for Urben’s father Paul.

“She came into my life at a hard time when I had lost my father,” Ward said. “I’m glad I could return the favor and be there for her until the end. She touched so many people’s lives.”

They met at the annual Rockin’ Red Ranch annual Barn Bash, Ward said.

“She was a joyous woman,” Ward said. “She gave me the biggest hug.”

Urben was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on Jan. 26 died on Feb. 24 in the same home in which she was born, Schindeler said. At the time of publication, Ward was still caring for Urben’s father in the family’s home.

“She was invincible,” Schindeler said. “Everything else, she recovered from. I guess it was just her time to go.”