Calendar Editor John Sollenberger and I were walking to the Pasadena Civic Center Friday night to celebrate the PW’s 30th anniversary when one of my brothers called from Pennsylvania, our family’s home state.
“I have some bad news, Kev. Are you sitting down?” Tom asked.
“Yeah, I’m OK. What’s happening?” I asked impatiently as Sollie and I came to a halt at the red light at Arroyo Parkway.
“Jack died,” Tom said as firmly as he could about our older brother, an aortic aneurism the apparent cause. Jack, John Allen Uhrich III, was 70.
“A punch in the gut” was how Tom put it while I paced the sidewalk, cell phone pressed hard to my ear, eyes closed, unable to speak, struggling to grasp the magnitude of what he had just said. Apt, but it was more than just that. For our sisters Cela, Martha and Mary, Jack was a loving and emotionally generous big brother; for Tom, Jim and me — the final three kids of the brood — he was like a father. Jack, the second-born, was much older than us, and played an extremely loving and involved paternal role in all of our lives.
By the time I was 6, Jack was in his last year at Lebanon Valley College, a liberal arts school in Annville, a suburb of Lebanon, our hometown. He was the first of us to go to LVC, paving the way for Cathie, the oldest of the eight kids who returned to school shortly after leaving the convent in the late 1960s, Tom, Jim and me. Jack studied history, but his other passion was sociology — or, more precisely, finding ways to help others less fortunate.
We were raised Catholic and my mother was extremely proud of Cathie’s vocation, but she made no secret of her wish to have a priest in the family. Although none of us fulfilled Mom’s desire, Jack pursued his goal of serving the socially, economically and politically oppressed of this world with the zeal of a missionary. As the Jesuits say, Jack truly was a man for others.
According to a 1999 story about my brother that appeared in The Valley, LVC’s quarterly magazine, Jack, as a member of the National Student Association, traveled to nearly 50 colleges to help establish tutoring programs for underprivileged children. The story goes on to describe how in 1968 he and LVC psychology professor Dr. Jean Love teamed up to create a tutoring program for children in Lebanon County. Jack eventually earned a graduate degree in teaching from Antioch-Putney Graduate School of Education in Ohio and a master’s in social work from Hunter College in New York City. He went on to teach high school social studies and founded a community education program in Brooklyn.
“I think the achievements I am most proud of have to do with touching people through teaching,” Jack told writer Heather Robino. “Besides being a parent, teaching is THE job.”
At a young age, in the late 1960s Jack was faced with paralyzing grief. His young wife, Barb, had died of cancer shortly after they married following his graduation from LVC. Things are a little fuzzy for me time-wise, being only 10 in 1969, but by then, a few years after Barb’s death, Jack was letting his hair grow long. He had lived and worked in such faraway places as New York and Philadelphia. And he had taken me in his trusty Volkswagen Bug to those places, where he taught school and became involved with various social causes, such as educational equality, the struggles for equal rights for women and minorities, and stopping the war in Vietnam. Jack ultimately ended up in Brooklyn, where he met his future wife, Arlean Tessler, and as a young teen I regularly took the train from Pennsylvania to visit them. Arlean had three wonderful children — Jonathan, Vicki and Matthew — who were about my age and were now not only great friends, but also my nephews and niece. They were now family. It was during this time that I became aware of the world outside Lebanon, thanks largely to these travels and the people, art, music and literature that Jack and Arlean introduced me to, publications like Mother Jones, In These Times, The Nation, the Utne Reader, The Guardian, the Village Voice and Rolling Stone. At 13 or 14, Jack bought me a subscription to In These Times.
Jack described himself in Robino’s article as a former Barry Goldwater supporter. But by the mid- to late-1960s, Jack was more of a social Democrat than anything. Come the 1980s, he became co-chair of Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns in his Brooklyn congressional district, and he later assumed a leadership role in the National Rainbow Coalition.
In 1990, Jack, Arlean and their family moved to New Mexico. There he continued his work as a psychotherapist and counselor and became a social worker with Albuquerque public schools. In 1995, Jack co-founded the Green Party in Sandoval County and ran for Congress on the Green Party ticket in 1996. He later ran for county commissioner, a race that he lost, though he managed to take 17 percent of the vote as a third-party candidate.
In 2000, Jack hitched his political wagon to Ralph Nader, becoming co-chair of the New Mexico Greens and the national finance director for the Green Party of the United States. He also occasionally wrote stories for this newspaper; the last one, “The Top 5 Reasons to Vote for Barack Obama,” appeared Oct. 17, 2008. The last time we talked, a few weeks ago, Jack said he wanted to write more and was working on another column for PW.
There are no words to describe the grief felt right now by Arlean, their children and grandchildren, my siblings and their children, my son and I, and all who knew Jack.
But I will say that I would not be the person I am today if not for Jack Uhrich opening my eyes to a world that I could hardly imagine and teaching me not only about the power of words and images but also the power each one of us possesses to make a positive change in this world.
I love you, Jack. Thank you for teaching me how to be a better person.