Four days after starting this job at City Weekly, on April 9, 2007, flowers were delivered to my office. I’ve kept the card that came with them. I tacked it to the bulletin board five feet from my desk. It hangs right at eye level, where I can read it often:
Dearest Holly: You made the sun come up in our lives again today.
Much love, J.D. and Bea
It was a reference to my new position after leaving The Salt Lake Tribune, where longtime liberal icon and retired University of Utah political science professor J.D. Williams would frequently call to chat about a particular column I had written. Sometimes our conversations were more purposeful. Gripped by a sudden memory of a long-past news story, he would ask—ever so politely—if I could dig up a name or headline from an old, weathered Trib library file.
I’ve often thought if I actually did have the ability to conjure up a sunrise for J.D., I’d be a happy woman indeed. That would only be right, since the man has done the equivalent for me many times over the past 30 years.
On the morning that this column comes due, I got the news at my home that J.D. Williams had died the night before, on Sept. 3, at his home in Holladay. His lifelong love Bea (they met as children in middle school) and his children were at his side. J.D. had lived with cancer for more than a year. He was 81. The last time my husband and I spoke to him, in mid-August, he was very tired.
My tears came quickly, blurred my vision on the drive to the office. Almost as quickly, though, a flood of memories replaced them. I’ve felt J.D.’s influence in my life at what might be the strangest moments. On those recent election days when I’ve felt like throwing up my hands and staying home, hunkering down in my anger at the current power base in this country, I’ve heard J.D.’s husky voice, just as I did as a sophomore student in his massive Political Science 110 class, with more than 100 students in attendance. “Democracy,” he said, “is built upon the right to be insecure.”
I figure that bit of wisdom applies to many aspects of living in America, and in this world. From watching in shock as New York’s Twin Towers tumble under a terrorist attack to putting your faith in an underdog Democratic candidate here in Utah, you have to know that little, if anything, in a democracy is static. You want a sure thing? Absolute security? Decisions made for you? Then this isn’t your kind of country, and definitely not your political system.
In fact, living in a democracy is a lot like the weather in Texas—stick around long enough, and the scene is bound to change. And sometimes, even to your liking.
Most City Weekly readers, I’m sure, never had the pleasure of taking a J.D. Williams class. I’m sorry for that. I’ll try to tell you what you missed.
John Daniel Williams (but no one ever, ever called him that) taught political science at the U of U from 1952 until his retirement in 1992. J.D. was the first director of the U’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, where people as philosophically opposed as Karl Rove and Ralph Nader have touched down as speakers. There, J.D. helped school a sea of students in American politics—or as they always say at the Hinckley, “the art of the possible.”
And with J.D. urging you on, you always knew you had a place in politics. He was the first to teach me that politics was first and always about people. He made it clear: Democracy absolutely depends on our participation. It’s true that big money, secrecy and sleaze too often muck up, even overpower American politics, but J.D. helped convince me that as long as I used my voice, my pen, my computer keyboard, my vote, I didn’t have to settle for special interests hijacking my democracy. I still don’t.
In 1986, J.D. delivered the 48th annual Frederick William Reynolds Lecture at the U. He wrote his speech in honor of the U.S. Constitution’s bicentennial. He called it “The Miracle at Philadelphia,” and along with revealing the detailed discussions among Jefferson, Madison and many other lesser known framers of the document, told the story of how a roomful of blustery politicians could find enough common ground to hammer out a lasting foundation for this country.
The introduction J.D. wrote for his address 19 years ago went like this: “It is not at all certain that complex historical events really have beginnings; but it is absolutely certain that all lectures must. And so we begin with Frenchman Jean-Francois Revel, commenting on the revolution in 18th-century America and France: ‘That revolution was, in any case, the only revolution ever to keep more promises than it broke.’”
I can hear him still. I’ll miss you J.D. Williams, and I love you.
More Mullen: Mullentown.com