The phone rang early this Tuesday morning in my office; it was my 94-year-old father. Dad’s message was a sad one — my 92-year-old uncle, John, my father’s only sibling had died. I took a deep breath, said I was sorry and heard myself comment, “He had quite a run.” My Dad and I shared a few memories, commented that, while very sad, it wasn’t a surprise because John’s health had been failing.
I have spent the last couple of days thinking about my uncle, he did, indeed, have quite a run. His obituary in the New York Times referenced his notable lifetime achievements. In the 1960s, John was the chief lawyer in the Justice Department’s civil rights division. In that role, he rode with the Freedom Riders in Alabama in 1961. He and a federal marshal escorted James Meredith when he enrolled at the University of Mississippi in 1962. In 1963, John dramatically quieted an angry crowd of protestors by stepping between the protestors and the police who were waiting with drawn weapons and convinced the crowd to disperse. After leaving the Justice Department in the mid ‘60s, John returned to government service in 1973 and served as the Chief Counsel for the Judiciary Committee and led the investigation for the possible impeachment of President Nixon, an investigation that ultimately led to President Nixon’s resignation. Finally, in 2012, John was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. My Dad was with John in the White House that day two years ago, along with my cousins, John’s four children.
Despite these amazing accomplishments, John was always my uncle. Always there to take an interest, offer perspective, offer encouragement or tell a story. He liked me and I liked him. While I didn’t see him in action in the 1960s, I did get a chance to see him regularly in the 1990s. In that time, it became very clear to me that John was incredibly hard-working, very bright and committed to do the “job right,” whether that job were being a father, grandfather, brother or uncle; supporting a friend; taking on a case; or sorting through a business dilemma. He showed respect for everyone and took no short-cuts.
I have heard many stories about John’s childhood, his optimism and energy, his sense of fun and his love of sports. He, I think, was like many of our North Shore students – eager and able, full of potential and possessing the ability to make a difference. I know that I chose the teaching profession for a lot of reasons, some logical and some probably a bit random, and I would like to think that one of the reasons I have remained a teacher is because of my Uncle John – knowing that the students I would meet and work with could grow to become people like him – people who were principled, seekers of justice, people who could make a difference for those close to them, a difference for the larger community and/or even the country as a whole.
Potential is a very powerful thing – and no doubt our classrooms, hallways and corridors, performance spaces, gyms and fields are forums for the development of this potential every day. Is potential always reached? No, certainly not, but, I believe it is reached more often than we might admit. How do I know? My Uncle John.
North Shore Country Day is a private, college-prep school for high school, middle school and elementary school students in Winnetka, IL, a suburb of Chicago.