Jonathan Rowe was, by inclination, an unobtrusive man. He moved through this world quietly, and he left quietly.
He did not promote himself. He was not comfortable seeking recognition. He concentrated instead on substance.
Jon died the other day, abruptly, with no warning of any kind, and left behind a wife, Mary Jean, and an 8-year-old son, Josh.
In part because of his modesty, and in part because celebrity and valor are not the same, you very likely did not know of him. Or, if you did, not nearly enough.
There are so many things that could and should be said about Jon, but I will not attempt to say them all. Jon’s friend David Bollier has already beautifully summed up Jon’s work, achievements and writing interests on his blog. I encourage you to read what he has to say, at http://www.bollier.org/my-friend-jonathan-rowe-1946-2011-appreciation. In fact, I’d suggest you read David’s piece first, as it will give you the “biography” and so you will have some context for my personal observations.
I’m going to focus here on what it was like to have the pleasure of knowing Jon as friend, mentor, and confidant.
Jon was my “intellectual partner.” I ran almost every idea by him. His mind and his hands touched my book, and he was integral to shaping our nonpartisan, nonprofit, news site, WhoWhatWhy. A mutual friend tells me Jon was excited by what we were doing and looked forward to his deepening involvement.
I met Jon more than two decades ago, when we both wrote for the Christian Science Monitor. We were introduced by a colleague, who for some reason thought we would hit it off. Boy, was she right. Jon was reticent around new people, almost profoundly shy. But first tentatively and then with growing comfort, he would engage on a level one rarely finds with more gregarious individuals.
He was, in short, a great friend if you were open to his laconically loving manner. And he always had something surprising to say—he was always musing in a slightly off-center way, practical but a bit more wide-ranging in his cerebral wanderings than most.
In the following years, Jon and I remained in close touch, though we seldom saw each other in person. In fact, during our long friendship, we were probably together no more than a few dozen times. That was principally because we were usually in different cities. I was in New York most of the time. He lived for years in Washington, where among other things, he had served on Capitol Hill, then settled in the bucolic coastal town of Point Reyes, north of San Francisco. He wrote, he had a radio show, he edited, he consulted, he lived the life of the writer-thinker-advocate.
Although we occasionally spoke by phone, we mostly communicated electronically, exchanging literally thousands of emails.
Soon, he began advising me as a kind of informal editor-at-large, very useful to a freelance writer whose work covered a lot of bases. I would send him story ideas, proposals, drafts. And he would send back thoughtful, succinct advisories. Like this, from 1998:
Russ: There’s the seed of a really good idea here. We don’t have to legally ban provocative speech to establish a cultural norm that discourages it. And that norm begins with our own politicians and media, who set the tone for the entire country.
I would get to this point much more quickly, and develop it more. Most of what you have now should be compressed into a lead-in for the point that rings the bell.
And this from 2002:
Russ: This is interesting, and I think cutting won’t be a problem. The first few pages in particular have a somewhat puffy and — to use the deadly newsroom expression — thumb sucking quality. Frame the question and get down to business.
And this from 2007:
Russ: This is a lot closer but not quite there. The frame is not quite right at the end. I think you are calling on the violin section a bit too much.
First, you obviously have great material, and there’s going to have to be a pretty thorough line edit to help it shine. Just too much information in places, offered parenthetically in a way that makes a reader work really hard to keep the thread.
Great. At the same time I think you need to back off a bit in terms of pushing a conclusion at people. The argument becomes brittle when you push it too hard. You need to be suggestive in a way that encourages the reader to fill in the gaps for themselves. Especially when you start to attribute motives to people, it tends to cross the line between valid conjecture and overreaching. Try to stay in touch with the reader’s initial skepticism, and go a little lighter on the you-read-it-here-first stuff. It comes across as self-dramatizing.
Jon worked hard to get me to say things in a simpler way. He cut long, meandering sentences. He expunged unnecessary adjectives.
Nothing ever seemed to matter beyond getting the concept exactly right. We’d go back to the drawing board again and again and again. Some stories that could have been out in days took the better part of a year until he would sign off on it. More so with my five-year book project. He was there for the ride, indispensable, both prodding and encouraging.
Unlike so many editors in a hurry to be done with a manuscript, Jon’s deepest interest lay in trying to precisely understand the heart of the matter at hand. He wanted to sort out all of the questions—moral, philosophical, practical, stylistic—and then make the case.
While I was writing my book and coming upon shocking and profoundly disturbing material, Jon was always there to calmly share the burden. He would digest new information, and often come back with thoughts, hours or days later. These discussions unfolded sometimes long after I had already moved on, as he tried to figure out how he felt about an issue.
I have been thinking about your piece today and something occurred to me that I couldn’t quite formulate last night.
There is an internal pull in the piece that gets it just a little bit off track. You are sending signals to the reader that illegality lurks just off stage. But you can’t deliver on that, and so it sets the bar too high, and unnecessarily so.
He had the capacity to say what he had to say bluntly and boldly without provoking the person being edited to take offense. We never had a fight, an argument, never exchanged sharp words, not in conversation, not in an email. I literally do not recall any unpleasantry of any kind.
Jon was a voracious reader of philosophers, thinkers, profound figures of large and small repute. When I sent him a piece I’d written on federal environmental policy and mercury poisoning in the fish population:
You might want to talk with Monte Burke, who just published a book called Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World Record Largemouth Bass. Monte grew up in the South (a red state guy), is an avid fisherman, and lives in Brooklyn.
He appreciated complex ideas, but he liked simple, powerful ones better.
In March, 2002, he wrote me, referring to his mentor, former employer and sometime political sparring partner, Ralph Nader:
Russ: In his new book Nader cites Abraham Lincoln on the point that if brought the “real facts” the American people “can be depended upon to meet any national crisis.”
Jon wrote a short essay at the height of the post-9/11 security panic:
I was in Washington this week and Capitol Hill feels like a state of siege. The place is saturated with police – not friendly cops walking the beat, but police cars, often two or three at an intersection, faceless and grim. Fences and concrete barricades are everywhere. You used to be able to walk through the tunnels under the Capital to get from the House to the Senate office buildings. Now a staffer has to escort you.
You feel like an intruder in your own government, and in the buildings you yourself pay for. The lobbyists still are there. They exit from cabs in their tailored gaggles, crowd the couches in reception areas. What’s missing is a sense that anyone else belongs.
Yes, security concerns are real. But like the invasion of Iraq, the start of a security state in Washington has happened with an alacrity that suggests a prior wish. There is no hint of regret. When Richard Nixon was elected President in 1968, a fence went up around Lafayette Park across from the White House, which was a frequent venue for protests against the Vietnam War. President Bush, in a meeting with Republican Senators, called the Constitution a “goddam piece of paper.” The security lock-down is a proclivity as much as a response to an actual threat.
The sense of enclosure – of space for democracy shrinking—is of a piece with other changes around town. In Dupont Circle and other neighborhoods, the quirky shops and budget restaurants are just about gone. Schwartz’s Pharmacy, where once you might have run into a young Ralph Nader at the magazine rack, or I.F. Stone, or Carl Bernstein having Sunday breakfast, his bike locked outside, is now a Starbucks – one of three that monopolize the coffee trade at the Circle. On Capitol Hill, the old places like Sherrill’s Bakery are gone as well, replaced by establishments more in line with the tastes of the less democratically inclined.
In this at least the nation’s capital really is a mirror of the nation. The same thing is going on from coast to coast. There is a connection, I think, between the police state on the Hill and the corporatizing of the neighborhoods. A retail chain that demands conformity in its thousands of outlets is of a piece with a government that demands conformity from its citizens. A chain that seeks to claim every block in a city (in parts of San Francisco this is no exaggeration) is related to a government that seeks to claim, in one way or another, most of the world.
It has to do with control, and with grabbing everything. They call it “freedom,” which I guess it is for those that do it. But for the rest of us it is a vise tightening, and less room to breathe. The House of Representatives moves to sell off National Parks and turn the rest into corporate billboards. State legislatures, at the behest of telecom corporations, ban localities from establishing municipal WiFi networks and thereby claim the air as a democratic commons. Corporations claim school classrooms as advertising venues. Wal-Mart decimates our Main Streets. On and on.
Their space expands, and ours shrinks. It is a syllogism that is larger than any of the people doing it. The crew in the White House is cheerleader and enabler for something it did not invent. We can be grateful in a way. For decades these tendencies have been working quietly and in disguise. Now they are out in the open, with an aggressive bravado. We can name them, and maybe start to deal with them.
What’s the form of government that joins authoritarian government with corporate convenience? The word is not awfully useful today, associated as it is with the racial politics of the Nazis. But the thing is upon us. The clock is ticking; and if we don’t start building boundaries now – more, if we don’t start to construct a shrewd politics of boundaries – there is no telling where it will end.
He took a deep interest both in the human condition in general and in the hurly-burly of the day to day.
In 2003, around the time of the Iraq invasion, while I was living in Belgrade, he wrote me:
Have you been able to listen to NPR at all – on the web perhaps. It’s been awful, especially the news updates. One administration official after another, taken as gospel. “Rumsfeld said…” That sort of thing. Jr
In 2004, when I was researching George W. Bush:
another interesting pattern is the way everyone who says something bad about George recants very promptly. remember the head of his office of faith based initiatives. would love to know exactly who called and what they said. that could establish the modus.
In early 2005, as the Dan Rather scandal unfolded:
this whole thing has the smell – strong smell — of a set-up. if the CBS investigation didn’t ask that question, that’s an even worse offense than the original, I’d say. are you trying to track this down?
In 2005, when I sent him a piece on Judith Miller’s New York Times reporting that led up to the Iraq invasion:
Russ: For what it’s worth that’s a crystaline distillation of the aroma I’ve been getting from Miller. She’s complicit in this, an accomplice posing as a principled journalist. Keep on the trail. Jr
When you told him something significant, he would say “Oh.” Or “Hmm.” Followed by silence. He was thinking. He wanted to respect the concept. Sometimes there was nothing to be said, and so he said nothing. Jon was also one of those rare people who would get off the phone the instant he sensed that you were busy.
He could say no when he had to, but he liked to say yes, in as few words as possible. When I asked him if he would consider joining our nonprofit’s board of directors:
sure I’ll do it.
Jon had a stammer that came and went. He tended toward silence. He was from New England, and he seemed to embody the better aspects of the Puritanical strain: self-effacing, prone to quietness, no use for excess.
The only favor I remember him asking was, once, if he might sleep on my floor for a single night. When I asked why he was passing through town, it came out that there was a DC party celebrating the release of an essay collection to which he had contributed. Otherwise I would never have known.
Jon’s personal and professional interests spanned topics like economic inequality, the things we share as community, the inaccuracy of our official measurements for progress. As best as I could tell, he had virtually no interest in creature comforts.
Many years ago, when I was coming into Washington and Jon was out of town, he invited me to use his apartment. I found that he, a white man, lived in a nearly all-black neighborhood, in a small (modest is not even the right word) apartment that one entered from the alley. A cab driver refused to take me all the way to the door. The apartment had almost no flourishes of any kind, and Jon slept on a mattress on the floor.
Jon was not someone you could easily entice to frivolity. His idea of a wild time was discovering a welcoming independent coffeehouse. Our great joke was that he was the rigorously ascetic one, almost embarrassed by a nice meal in a nice place. I lived the flashy Manhattan lifestyle, or so it seemed to him on his rare visits, when, coincidentally, I had a full plate socially.
Jon, annoyingly I have yet another one of these holiday parties…
I’m dizzy just thinking about it. A small town guy now I guess.
He found a lucky match in Mary Jean, a spirited Filipina working in a medical office, with whom this medical-skeptic Harvard grad seemed to share so little and yet shared so much. He enjoyed their regular trips back to visit her family in the islands. It was a whole new ecosystem to be contemplated. And Point Reyes was a real community—and that meant a lot to him.
And then, on October 16, 2002, he wrote me:
By the way, Joshua Perry Espulgar-Rowe arrived on 10/10, at 6:30 AM, full of sass and topped with a full head of hair. He was more than a week early, which is a trait he did not get from his Dad.
He became a dad late in life, and took great pleasure in being a companion to his son.
Russ: Sorry I couldn’t call tonite. I came home from my radio show and Josh wanted me to help him redesign his railroad track layout and that was that.
Jon was not exactly a Luddite, but he knew how to resist the blandishments of civilization as long as humanly possible. He never did have a cell phone as far as I know. I remember him visiting New York and leaving me a message from a pay phone, saying he would try again later. Once I missed him entirely on a visit because I had no way to call him back.
Recently, he’d agreed to let a good friend, Gary Ruskin, build him a website so he could post his collection of writings. Gary was at the house working on that project when Jon died.
Jon was selfless to the max, seemingly of a strong constitution, and he apparently did not know that he was carrying a fatal infection. He’d even gone to the gym shortly before collapsing. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died on Sunday morning.
Jon was a deeply religious man. A Christian Scientist, he didn’t have much use for doctors. It was one of those things on which he could be obstinate, so I never discussed the matter with him.
While it may have been his stubbornness that tragically ended his life, it was another aspect of his exemplary purity of purpose. Here’s an essay typical of the man:
Christian Science Monitor
January 26, 2006
It’s all in a name
It used to be that the names of places mirrored deeper meanings, values, and our past.
By Jonathan Rowe
POINT REYES, CALIF. – The news that a town in Texas has changed its name to that of a corporation, in exchange for free TV, made me think about my elementary school, which was named for a local man who died in World War I. …
I still remember the awe I felt when I looked up at the plaque in the main corridor. Somehow the message penetrated my unruly mind, that I was supposed to be brave and unselfish, and to serve my community and my country, the way young Albert Edgar Angier had done.
America once was full of messages like that. Schools, arenas, and public places bore the names of civic leaders and national and local heroes. A Washington Square Park, a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, was not just a memorial to a dead person. It was a testament to the qualities of character that the nation purports to stand for and to pass along to its young.
Have you ever heard of Joel Elias Spingarn? He was a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, a founder of the Harcourt Brace publishing company, and for many years an executive of the NAACP. His memory lives on in part because Spingarn High School in Washington, D.C., is named after him. His achievements are an example to every student who walks through its doors.
It’s not the kind of message that young Americans are getting much these days. Increasingly the Spingarns and Angiers are giving way to corporations eager for yet another hook into the minds of kids. Buses, hallways, classrooms, and even textbooks are filling up with come-ons for junk food and the like. A high school football field in Illinois has become Rust-Oleum Field. In New Jersey, an elementary school now has a ShopRite gym.
It’s not just the schools. Piece by piece the civic landscape is collapsing under a deluge of commercial self-promotion. Sports stadiums, parks, and other spaces all are dropping civic names for corporate ones. Ballparks once were a kind of lyric poetry of place. Crosley Field meant Cincinnati. Briggs Stadium meant Detroit. Candlestick conjured up the San Francisco fog, and the wondrous Willie Mays. Now you hear Cinergy, Comerica, SBC, and you are everywhere and nowhere.
Then there’s Clark, Texas. This hamlet of 125 residents has agreed to change its name to DISH, which is a satellite TV system owned by Echo-Star Communications. In exchange, the residents will get free satellite TV for 10 years. When a locality sells its name – its identity – to a corporation, it is both the logical culmination of the trend, and an object lesson in what’s at stake.
In scriptural times, the bestowal of a name was an event of great significance. A name was an expression of character; and humans earned new ones in accordance with their inner growth. Jacob, after he spent the night wrestling with his demons, became Israel. His old name means “to seize by the heel.” His new one, “God will rule.” The places where such events occurred acquired new names, too. Jacob called the place of his trial Peniel, which means the “face of God.”
Places had meanings. Their names connected the outer landscape to the inner – to the shared identity of the people, and to that which they most valued. For most of its history, our nation followed a civic version of this same tradition. Our outer landscape mirrored our character, our values, and our past.
The strange part is, it’s not the “godless liberals” who have brought about this change. For the most part, it’s the same ideologues who lecture us about traditional values on other days. They cut taxes to the point that schools and the rest are desperate for funds. Colorado Springs District 11 was one of the first to sell ads on school buses. It was in a “fiscal crisis,” a spokeswoman there explained. “They couldn’t pass a bond or any kind of tax increase.”
Ergo, the Coke ads in schools. Across the nation, plaques to the young men and women who give their lives in Iraq now will have to share space with those.
Next time ideologues bemoan the decline in traditional values in America today, and how young people choose self-indulgence over service, they might look at the propaganda they have invited into the schools, and into the culture at large. Character comes with a price; and if you aren’t willing to pay it, don’t blame others when it is gone.