Remembering Jack

I met Jack as a leader in the church I served in Idaho. In one of our first conversations, he said to me, “You’re from North Dakota? I’m from North Dakota.” We proceeded to talk about the state where I had lived the previous 7 years and where he grew up, raised mostly by his single mother. His mom was a school teacher and principal and later a librarian. Jack and his big brother worked at every job available from farms and ranches to the grain mill to road construction. He’d spent enough winters in Minot to have no fear of -30 temperatures and had plenty of stories of the state where I had lived.

Jack was a faithful member of the church, rarely missing worship, always doing his part. He served as Moderator of the congregation for a term while I was pastor and when his term was ended he was quite happy to settle back into the pew and just be a regular church member. Jack didn’t talk about his work very often, but I learned that he was a tireless worker, unafraid of 60-hour work weeks. Jack didn’t talk about his work very much with me. He loved talking about his North Dakota roots, about his family and about the church.

Jack and Marilyn invited us into their home for family dinners and celebrations and whenever we went there, he’d rise from dinner and take me out to look at his quarter horses. He loved raising horses and he was quick to saddle one for a ride around the corral or load a couple into a trailer for a ride in the mountains.

Once when we were looking at the horses he told me a story that demonstrated his personality. One day a memo was circulated in the law firm where Jack worked. This was back in the days when there was no email and memos were pieces of paper delivered to worker’s mailboxes or deposited on their desks. The memo reminded all of the employees of the firm that theirs was a prestigious law firm and that a certain amount of decorum was expected. This decorum extended beyond the walls of the firm to the parking garage. Employees were expected to have well-maintained vehicles in appropriate condition to impress the clients of the firm. The memo made Jack angry. He went home that night and took his well-used Dodge Ramcharger SUV out into the corral. This was in the days when a SUV was a utility vehicle and not a status symbol. He whipped a few donuts in the corral until the vehicle had lots of horse manure all over it. He drove it to work the next day and parked it between a Mercedes and a Corvette, each belonging to partners in the firm. He laughed as he told me the story.

I heard that story before I knew that Jack was a founding partner in the firm. His name was the third one on the building.

Jack had spend much of his career as a trial lawyer and at one time he had argued more cases before the Idaho Supreme Curt than any other attorney. Early in the time that I knew Jack, he was instrumental in passing the Farm Worker’s Bill through the legislature. The bill brought farm workers under Idaho’s workers’ compensation provisions. This was a huge justice issue in the state because there were many farms who employed seasonal workers who often received no benefits and who were simply discarded when they were injured and disabled. Idaho has a long history of hispanic workers going back to long before statehood. Basques from Europe were imported to herd sheep. Workers from Mexico had been coming to Idaho for generations, many of them longer than the families who owned property in the state. There were plenty of Spanish-speaking land owners and farmers in Idaho. But Idaho also had a legacy of systematic racism. Idaho was not a state until 25 years after the Civil War. As a territory that was rich in gold and silver, it was one of the places where the Southern States sent miners to dig for precious metals to help fund the Confederacy. After the war many confederates settled in Idaho and brought their racial opinions with them. More than a century later, when the 1992 Los Angeles riots brought about extensive reform in the LA police department, many of the officers who were dismissed for acts of overt racism relocated to North Idaho where they continued to practice their beliefs.

Jack had no tolerance for racism. He was an intensely loyal family man. When his oldest daughter fell in love with and married the star of the university football team, he became a son to Jack. Jack and Marilyn’s first two grandchildren were African-American boys. If anyone told a racist joke or made a racist statement, they were quickly called on the carpet by Jack. And Jack was used to winning arguments. He could be incredibly intimidating in a clash of words.

Impressed with the justice work of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Jack sought to bring that style of advocacy to Idaho, insisting that his firm hire minority attorneys and offer pro bono services to victims of injustice. He worked with other community leaders in Idaho to found Kids’ Chance, a non-profit organization that assisted children of injured or deceased Idaho workers with financial assistance for college education.

Throughout his highly successful career with numerous legal awards and distinctions, Jack always presented himself as a North Dakota farm boy and a man who loved horses.

As I listened to parts of the memorial service for John Lewis yesterday, memories of the part of the history of the struggle for racial justice came to my mind. I thought of what a leader he was in the civil rights struggles of my lifetime. Listening to the tributes paid to Lewis, somehow Jack came to my mind. Whether you call the movement civil rights or Black Lives Matter, the movement is a call for justice for all people. Racism affects all of us regardless of the color of our skin. And if a North Dakota farm boy can become a tireless advocate of the rights of farm workers, I can also do my part to call for an end to voter suppression and unequal administration of justice. This great country has a long way to go to live up to the ideals of its founders. Every one of us need to re-read the Declaration of Independence and rededicate our lives to the vision of a nation where all are treated equally.

We have some wonderful models and mentors in the struggle.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!