Over the years, the public face of Jan Mitich has been that of a maverick member of the Marana Unified School District Governing Board - a staunch defender of children and teachers known for her frequent trips to Phoenix to buttonhole state legislators she feels aren't ponying up when it comes to funding education in Arizona schools.
But the public has a chance to see another side of Mitich at the Marana Art Council's Western Heritage Festival Nov. 2, that of an acclaimed regional poet who draws her inspiration from a ranching heritage that stretches from the flatlands of Wyoming to the desert ranges of Arizona.
Mitich and other nationally recognized cowboy poets will be spinning yarns and reciting elegies steeped in the values of the vanishing West at the festival in Marana, where a slew of Country and Western musicians and other artist will also be showcased.
Cowboy poetry, once considered the provence of a small group of fringe, provincial poets, has burgeoned in the last decade to become a well-respected genre that has grown far beyond its regional roots.
"A lot of cowboy poetry, and a lot of what I write, is about the code - the values that you just don't seem to see as much anymore in today's world. It's about hard work and living by your word. It's about helping other people when they need it and being a steward of the land," Mitich said. "It makes me sad just to think how far people are from the land now days,"
The land that Mitich was born on 59 years ago was the sweeping prairie lands of Wyoming and South Dakota. She and her twin sister Joyce were born eight weeks premature after her mother slipped on the ice while walking to the outhouse during a hard winter at their home in Newcastle, Wyo.
Her family ranched a number of small spreads near Sheridan, Wyo. and eked out a meager existence, often supplementing the food they raised with wild game that at times had to be hunted out of season.
In between ranch chores, she and her sister attended a one room school house with about 10 other rural kids who traveled in from the far-flung ranches that dotted the area.
Mitich, who now lives in Picture Rocks, says her love for the land, as well as her love for the written word, filtered down from her stepfather, George Prell.
Prell, whose ranching career included a stint running cattle in Pima and Pinal counties during the 1960s, was a hard-bitten cowboy who held a love for the well turned phrase.
"He couldn't sing, but he loved to recite poetry and the lyrics to cowboy songs. I remember driving around on long road trips, and he would be reciting 'Little Joe the Wrangler' or 'The Strawberry Roan,'" Mitich recalled.
Prell was known as a pretty good cowboy poet, but all of his notebooks from the 1930s and 1940s were believed to have been lost over the years.
But cowboy poets are a close community, and last year Mitich was presented with a copy of her father's poem "The Last of the Cowboys."
The poem, immortalized in cross stitch and hanging in the home of Prell's niece, was discovered by a fellow cowboy poet and presented to Mitich last year.
"He had been writing on the homestead since he was a kid of 17 or 18, but we thought nothing was left of his writing," Mitich said. "It was like a miracle to be handed that poem."
Her stepfather, who had served on a school board in Wyoming, also influenced her decision to become a teacher. Mitich spent 30 years teaching in the Tucson Unified School District before her retirement in 1997.
"The best thing was that I had the summers off where I would head up to the ranch or to rodeo," said Mitich, a former barrel racer.
As a teacher, Mitich would bring her horse to class at Pueblo Gardens Elementary school, led field trips to the Tucson Fiesta De Los Vaqueros Rodeo, and incorporated a segment on the history of ranching and farming into her curriculum.
"My kids were always interested in the ranching life I lived and their questions kind of led me to cowboy poetry," Mitich said. She began writing and networking with other Western poets in 1991. Since then, she's traveled throughout the Southwest performing her work at cowboy poetry gatherings. Her work was recently included in "The Big Roundup," an anthology of cowboy poetry that was awarded the Will Rogers Medallion by the Academy of Western Artists.
In a poetry genre dominated by men, and which often deals with the Old West that is defined by a rugged machismo, Mitich brings a softer edge in writings that deal with Western family values.
Her mother, Elizabeth Francis Luce, descended from a family that had homesteaded in Wyoming for a century and was a source of strength for the family. Her mother's dignity and force of will inspired much of her writing, Mitich said.
The topics of her poems include her memories of her mother's life on the range in "A Rancher's Wife," to "The Queen of the West," an elegy for famous cowboy movie star Dale Evans, written last year on the date of her death.
Elected to her fourth term on the Marana school board in 2000, Mitich often brings the same mix of compassion and no-nonsense Western mentality to helping oversee the sprawling district.
She's been a vocal advocate for disadvantaged students and often accompanies bus loads of school district parents and teachers to the Arizona Legislature to lobby for increased school funding.
Until a couple of years ago, Mitich taught gun education to the district's students. She said she stopped teaching the course only after her bad back forced her to curtail some of her activities.
"Heck, I know some people might think guns in schools might be a little politically incorrect, but I really don't care what other people think. Where I come from, guns are a fact of life. Everybody had one hanging in their truck," Mitich said.