Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Kin Hubbard and Abe Martin

Irvington, a planned community on Indianapolis’s eastside, has been home to a number of famous Hoosiers through the years. One day in the 1910s, a camera-laden tourist was searching through the area for the home of Frank McKinney “Kin” Hubbard, creator of cracker-barrel philosopher Abe Martin, whose folksy brand of humor graced the Indianapolis News’s back page for twenty-six years.

Finally finding Hubbard’s home, the visitor approached a disheveled-looking gardener working on the author’s lawn and asked him if he thought Mr. Hubbard would mind if he took a few snapshots of the house. “What if Mr. Hubbard does care?” the man asked the tourist. “How will he ever know?”

The tourist was closer to his favorite author than he knew. The man he had questioned was Kin Hubbard himself, who was involved in one of his favorite hobbies: gardening and being mischievous. His behavior with the tourist merely reinforced a fellow News employee’s observation that Hubbard was “a genial Dapper Dan with the soul of an imp.”

Operating out of the fictional town of Bloom Center in Brown County, Abe Martin delighted millions of readers across the country with such sage wisdom as “It’s don disgrace t’ be poor, but it might as well be,” and “When a feller says, ‘It hain’t th’ money, but th’ principle o’ th’ thing,’ it’s the money.” Hubbard, the News noted upon its faithful worker’s death in 1930, possessed the uncanny ability “of seeing life clearly, and touching it kindly in the places where it should be touched.” Although biting at times, Hubbard’s humor could always be counted on to produce a laugh and leave behind no trace of bitterness.

Hubbard displayed an artistic flair at an early age. In an autobiographical sketch he provided the News, he said that from the time he was old enough to hold a pair of scissors, he could “cut from blank paper any kind of an animal with a correctness and deftness that was almost creepy.” This artistic talent, however, did not translate into classroom success, as Hubbard dropped out of school in his hometown of Bellefontaine, Ohio, before the seventh grade and took a job in a paint shop. His father could not be too upset at his youngest child, as he seemed to miss his son’s presence during the day. He once complained to a teacher who made his son stay after school that if his son “doesn’t get his lessons, it’s because you don’t know how to teach. Besides, the boy’s needed for errands at home.”

Although displaying no enthusiasm for school work, Hubbard, like fellow Hoosier humorist George Ade, who figured prominently in the artist’s subsequent career, displayed a passion for the theatrical life. From his youth until his death, Hubbard dropped whatever he was doing if a circus came to town. Asked by the owner of the paint shop where he worked what he wanted to be, Hubbard had a career in mind: "I want to be the sole proprietor of a good, well-painted, comprehensive, one-ring circus."

Politics, however, provided Hubbard with another livelihood. With the election of Democrat Grover Cleveland to his first term as president in 1884, Hubbard's father was rewarded for his lifelong devotion to the Democratic Party with an appointment as postmaster. Kin clerked at the post office for a time, but it did not cure his ambition for the theatrical life. During his employment, he made trips to the South as a silhouette artist and even enrolled in the Jefferson School of Art in Detroit. That experience, however, lasted only a short time as Hubbard complained that the school was “too tame.”

Hubbard’s love for the theater, however, paid off in a way that set the course for his future career. After witnessing a local performance of the Grand Bellefontaine Operatic Minstrels and Professor Tom Wright’s Operatic Solo Orchestra, Hubbard wrote to a friend in Indianapolis about the show, embellishing his remarks with some drawings. Impressed with Hubbard's artwork, the friend showed the drawings to John H. Holliday, Indianapolis News owner and editor. The friend wrote to Hubbard and urged him to come to Indiana and try for a job on the News. Hubbard agreed, but once in the city he sat in University Park for nearly a week before gaining enough courage to approach the newspaper for work. Finally given a job, Hubbard remembered the editor remarking as a salary was agreed upon ($12 a week), “I reckon you’ve got to live.”

Hired in 1891, Hubbard remained at the News for three years. During that time he produced a number of works for the newspaper, but, as he remembered, was “always handicapped by not knowing how to draw. I could execute rude, sketchy caricatures that were readily recognized, but I knew nothing of composition, light and shade, and perspective.” Although apprehensive about his position, Hubbard did manage to enjoy his life in Indianapolis. Given an annual pass to local theaters, he never missed a show or, when they came to town, a circus. 

The end of his first stint at the News came about as the result of the hiring of a new managing editor who wanted, according to Hubbard, “a real artist who could draw anything.” Called upon by the editor to produce a drawing of an angel for Easter, Hubbard did not panic, but hurried to the city editor, who liked the young man, and asked for his help. The sympathetic editor found an art student to furnish the needed illustration (described by Hubbard as a “production that would have made a circus wagon woodcarver turn green with envy”) and Hubbard's job was saved for a time.

His time at the News, however, would be short. Called upon to draw for the newspaper pictures of the intricately-restored interiors for a number of city banks, Hubbard threw up his hands and departed Indianapolis for the safety of the family home in Bellefontaine. During the next few years, Hubbard kept busy by again visiting the South, driving a mule team in Chattanooga, serving as a gatekeeper for a Cincinnati amusement park, and working as an artist for the Cincinnati Tribune and Mansfield News.

In 1899 the thirty-one-year-old Hubbard received a letter from the Indianapolis Sun inviting him to work for the newspaper. He accepted the offer and during the two years he worked at the Sun “really made more progress as an artist . . . than I had in all the years before,” he said. Hubbard rejoined the News as an artist in the fall of 1901 and worked there for the rest of his life.

Upon his return to the News, Hubbard became well-known for his caricatures of state political figures, particularly Indiana legislators. In working with politicians as subjects, he preferred to draw those with whiskers and hair, as caricaturing bald lawmakers was “just like drawing a cocoanut.” Although a collection of these drawings was published in 1903, Hubbard’s lasting fame would come not from politicians, but from a rustic character who made a habit of commenting on legislator’s foibles all the way from the wild country of Brown County.

While traveling on trains during campaign trips by Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and Republic vice presidential candidate Charles Fairbanks in 1904, Hubbard found that at campaign’s end he had some extra material. After first experimenting with such names as Seth Martin, Steve Martin, and Abe Hulsizer, Hubbard finally hit on the right one—Abe Martin. On December 17, 1904, the Abe Martin character made his first appearance. The drawing showed a smiling, whiskered gentleman staring at a playbill featuring a scantily-clad (for those days) woman. At the drawing’s bottom, the character commented: “If I thought that blamed troupe done everything it has pictures fer, I’d stay over this evening and go home on the interubin.” The feature, Hubbard laconically recalled years later, “caused some favorable comment and it was decided to continue it.”

On February 3, 1905, Hubbard moved Abe Martin to Brown County, where he remained for the rest of his career. Finding that sometimes he had things to say that Abe Martin would be unlikely to utter, Hubbard added to his cast with such delightful country neighbors as spinster Miss Fawn Lippincut; senior citizen Uncle Niles Turner; teacher Professor Alexander Tansey; editor and publisher of the Bloom Center Weekly Sliphorn the Hon. Ex-Editor Cale Fluhart; businessman Tell Binkley; and many others. In naming his characters, Hubbard sometimes used the names of people he knew in Bellefontaine. He also found that another good source was Kentucky jury lists.

Hubbard's career received a boost in 1910, again thanks to a Hoosier author. In May of that year an article about the Abe Martin feature appeared in American magazine. The article’s author, Ade, lavishly praised Hubbard’s work. Before the article had appeared, Fred Kelly, a friend of Hubbard’s had been trying to find a firm to syndicate Abe Martin nationally. Kelly was turned down by the McClure Newspaper Syndicate in New York because that agency thought Abe Martin was merely a local phenomenon. Ade’s piece changed that view in a hurry, as syndication offers poured in after its publication. Hubbard signed with the George Matthew Adams Syndicate and Abe Martin was soon appearing in approximately 200 cities.

On December 26, 1930, at his new North Meridian Street home, the sixty-two-year-old Hubbard died from a heart attack. Just the day before he told his wife and two children that it had been the happiest Christmas of his life. Tributes to Hubbard flooded the News following his death and in 1967 he was posthumously inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame. Although touted as “the humorists’ humorist” by D. Laurance Chambers of Indianapolis’s Bobbs-Merrill Company, Hubbard probably would not have let the praise go to his head, preferring to remember what Abe Martin once said: “Flattery won’t hurt you if you don’t swallow it.”




Monday, December 16, 2019

Indiana Congressman Jim Jontz

On the eve of Election Day in November 1974, Kathy Altman, volunteer White County coordinator for Democratic candidate Floyd Fithian’s successful run to represent the Second Congressional District against incumbent Republican congressman Earl Landgrebe, was driving back with her husband, Jerry, to their house in Monticello, Indiana. The couple had just finished a long day’s work setting up a get-out-to-vote effort on Fithian’s behalf. Suddenly, the car’s headlights flashed into the rainy darkness and lit upon a lonely figure trudging down the road—Jim Jontz, a young, first-time candidate for the Indiana House of Representatives.

Jontz had been staying at the Altman’s home while engaging in a dogged door-to-door campaign in the four counties of the Twentieth District. Altman and her husband asked him if he needed any help. “No, it’s late,” Altman remembered Jontz responding, “but there’s a laundromat up there that’s still open I think I’ll go hit before I quit for the night.”

The next day Jontz, a twenty-two-year-old Indiana University graduate with an unpaid job as a caretaker for a local nature preserve, defeated his heavily favored Republican opponent, John M. “Jack” Guy, Indiana House majority leader. “I must have knocked on half the doors in the district,” Jontz said of what he called a “shoe-leather” campaign. “And I found that people like to have someone come to their door and talk to them, even if it is a young kid. I told them that I wasn’t a lawyer or politician, but that I was interested in people, in dealing with them personally. And that was about it.” Jontz had entered the race in the majority Republican district in large part to oppose a multi-million-dollar U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam project on Big Pine Creek near Williamsport, Indiana. He had gone to bed on election night believing he had lost after hearing a report from the final precinct in Warren County indicating that he had been defeated by a scant two votes. The next morning he awoke to learn that there had been an error and he had won by the same slim margin. “One more vote than I needed to win!” he later exclaimed. The unexpected result stunned election officials, with one deputy clerk in Warren County marveling, “I never before realized just how important that one vote can be.”

Jontz’s initial run for office, which saw him survive two recounts to secure his legislative seat, set the standard for his subsequent longshot political career. As a liberal Democrat (he preferred the term progressive) usually running in conservative districts, Jontz had political pundits predicting his defeat in every election only to see him celebrating another victory with his happy supporters, always clad in a scruffy plaid jacket with a hood from high school that he wore for good luck. “I always hope for the best and fight for the worst,” said Jontz. He won five terms as state representative for the Twentieth District (Benton, Newton, Warren, and White counties), served two years in the Indiana Senate, and captured three terms in the U.S. Congress representing the sprawling Fifth Congressional District in northwestern Indiana that stretched from Lake County in the north to Grant County in the south. Jontz told a reporter that his political career had always “been based on my willingness and role as a spokesman for the average citizen.”

Jontz managed to win re-election in the Republican district thanks to a combination of tireless campaigning; a relentless focus on serving his constituents through such activities as town hall meetings, a toll-free number for those wishing to question their congressman, and face-to-face encounters at neighborhood coffee shops at all hours of the day; and a willingness to listen to dissenting opinions. “You have to disagree sometimes,” he noted. “But you have to disagree agreeably.” Tom Sugar, a longtime Jontz aide, called the congressman “very, very politically savvy, not in a sense that he manipulated voters, I don’t mean that. What I mean is, he knew the people he cared about and learned their issues very deeply. And he sincerely fought for their interests. And he fought for the interests of his district.” Tom Buis, an agricultural policy expert on the congressman’s staff, remembered returning late at night to the Longworth House Office Building in Washington, D.C., only to find Jontz still at his desk reading every letter that went into and out of his office. “If his constituents were paying him by the hour, he was working for less than minimum wage,” said Buis, “because he worked around the clock. They got their money’s worth.”

Each election season voters in Jontz’s congressional district could count on hearing a knock on their front door and seeing the rumpled, tousle-haired Democrat ready to promote his candidacy and talk about whatever issue that might concern them that year. “Jim believed in knocking on every door that was knockable,” said Sugar, who went on to serve as chief of staff for U.S. Senator Evan Bayh. Whenever a community in his district hosted a parade, Jontz could be found riding the route on his sister’s rusty, old blue Schwinn bicycle with mismatched tires, waving to the crowd lining the streets, his tie flapping in the breeze—an effort that won him the title of “best congressman on two wheels” from one Indiana reporter. (Jontz’s record was riding his bicycle in seven Fourth of July parades in one day.) The national media also paid attention, finding Jontz to be a good story, noted Scott Campbell, who served as the congressman’s press secretary. “There were other liberal Democrats in the U.S. Congress, there were other conservative districts in the U.S. Congress, but the number of solidly Republican districts represented by liberal Democrats was a number you could count on your hand,” said Campbell.

Christopher Klose, who managed Jontz’s first run for Congress and served as his chief of staff in Washington, D.C., called his former boss “a true populist,” noting he could be just as distrustful of mindless government as he could of reckless corporate behavior. He remembered Jontz saying that issues needed to be examined from “top to bottom, not left to right.” One of Klose’s favorite memories of Jontz is one culled from the campaign trail. After another long day and night seeking votes, the candidate, after packing up his car for the next day’s schedule of events, uttered what came to be known to his staff as the Jim Jontz prayer. “Jim would just shake his head and look up and say, ‘Lord, help me win this one, and I promise next time we’ll do it right,’” Klose said.

This single-minded devotion to serving the voters—he kept a homemade sign given to him by a supporter in his Washington, D.C., office that read “This office belongs to the people of Indiana’s 5th District”—came with a price in his private life, as Jontz endured two divorces. “He always had a goal,” said his first wife, Elaine Caldwell Emmi, who today lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. “He knew exactly what he wanted to do.” She recalled one conversation with her husband as their marriage was falling apart in which she told him that every morning she awoke questioning if this is what she wanted to be doing and how should she lead her life. “He looked at me and said, ‘I never ask that question. I know exactly what I should be doing,’” Emmi said. “I think he really liked being a public official, a servant of the people—that was really his goal.” Being a congressman, noted one of Jontz’s aides, became his “all-consuming passion.”

From an early age Jontz, the eldest of two children born to Leland, an Indianapolis businessman, and Pauline (Polly) Jontz, displayed a penchant for organization and a dedication to nature while growing up in the 1960s in the Northern Hills subdivision on the city’s north side—a “semirural setting” that enabled him to develop his interest in the outdoors. “Mom encouraged me to chase butterflies, and we bought all the Golden [Nature] guidebooks,” Jontz said. Polly, who worked at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and for many years as president of the Conner Prairie Pioneer Settlement, remembered her son as “a very intense child, very curious, very serious, [and] very focused.” Jontz’s kindergarten teacher told his mother that he had been the only student she had taught “who had the dignity to be president of the United States.” He also displayed the leadership qualities that served him well during his political career, organizing the neighborhood children for impromptu football games and bicycle races. “He was a fun young man to know because he was interested in everything,” said Polly.

On family trips during the summer to historic sites and national parks, Jontz made sure to add to his growing rock collection by stopping at every rock store on the route and hunting for geodes along the roadside with his pickaxe, noted his sister, Mary Lee Turk. His other hobbies included music (Jontz played the piano, trombone, and French horn) and a devotion to the ideals of the Boy Scouts of America as a member of Troop Number 117, earning the rank of Eagle Scout while in the seventh grade. “My main aims now are to receive a good education, to become an asset to my community and a good citizen, and to live up to the Scout oath and law,” Jontz wrote in his application for Eagle Scout. When he was older, Jontz continued to support the organization, working summers at Camp Belzer, a Boy Scout reservation near Lawrence, Indiana. He also maintained his interest in the outdoors by leading nature hikes through Indianapolis parks for the Children’s Museum and serving as a naturalist for the Indiana State Parks system.

Jontz’s interest in nature meant that there were often wild animals roaming the family’s home at 1141 East Eightieth Street. Camp Belzer had a small zoo with rescued wild animals. At the end of one summer, Jontz brought home with him a de-scented skunk he named Jerome. Although his father built a cage for the skunk, it sometimes escaped. During one try for freedom the skunk hid under a bed and bit Leland on the finger when he attempted to retrieve it and return it to its enclosure. Other members of Jontz’s wildlife menagerie included a hawk that Jontz fed raw meat and a squirming mass of baby rattlesnakes. “You never knew what would be in our house,” noted Turk.

From his parents Jontz learned the lesson of always following his convictions but expressing disagreement within established structures. Both Polly and Leland Jontz were staunch Republicans, and were surprised to hear their son note, after saying something to him about your party, meaning the GOP, “Mom, I’m a Democrat.” Despite their political differences, his parents supported Jontz’s quest to find a suitable vocation for his devotion to hard work and wide knowledge. After graduating from North Central High School, Jontz entered Williams College, a small liberal-arts institution in Massachusetts, but spent only one semester there, calling it “too academic” for his tastes. “I read 12 hours a day there,” Jontz recalled of his time at Williams. “I had had enough of that, so when I came to I.U. [Indiana University] I had some spare time.”

In January 1971 Jontz enrolled at IU in Bloomington, where he majored in geology and lived in Wright Quad with a freshman named Bob Rodenkirk. A native of Chicago, Illinois, Rodenkirk originally had been roommates with a relative of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who very quickly flunked out of the university after spending more time enjoying himself than studying. Jontz proved to be quite different, with Rodenkirk describing him as a serious and driven student, especially when it came to environmental issues. “I can’t remember a time when he didn’t have a to-do list a half a mile long,” said Rodenkirk. As more and more Americans became concerned with conserving the country’s natural resources, Jontz responded by spending a large amount of his time with the Biology Crisis Center, a student group working on conservation and environmental affairs in the Bloomington area. With the center he worked on such issues as the belching black smoke from the university’s coal-fired power plant, a sinkhole that had emerged in front of Wright Quad, how IU disposed of plastic foodware, the ecology of the Jordan River, and opposing a dam that threatened the Lost River in Orange County.

Tracking down Jontz during his days at IU could be problematic, as he spent little time in his dormitory room, getting by on just four to five hours of sleep per night—a schedule he kept in later years (one of his favorite quotes was “early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and organize”). Through his work on environmental issues, Jontz became very involved in state politics, helping to write the conservation and recreation platform for the Indiana Democratic Party and serving on an environmental education task force created by State Superintendent of Public Instruction John J. Laughlin. Even when he was in his dormitory room, Jontz received little rest, fielding questions from such noted Hoosier political figures as Governor Otis Bowen and U.S. Senators Birch Bayh and Vance Hartke. “The phone calls I would take from Jim were amazing,” remembered Rodenkirk. What scared Rodenkirk was Jontz’s habit of reading a textbook lying open on his lap while driving back and forth from Bloomington to Indianapolis to lobby on behalf of the environment at the Indiana Statehouse. Jontz always made it back safely, and Rodenkirk was “amazed at how much information he could process. He was a born leader.”  

Jontz’s work on environmental matters at the university brought him into contact with another student activist, Emmi, the daughter of Lynton K. Caldwell, a nationally known professor of political science at IU famous for being one of the principal architects behind securing environmental impact statements for federal projects. Although Emmi had observed Jontz in geology and folklore classes they shared, the two did not become close until she helped arrange a trip with other IU students to Washington, D.C., to lobby on wilderness issues before a U.S. Senate subcommittee for an environmental law class she was taking. Through her father she was able to find accommodations for the group in the basement of a church on Capitol Hill for just seventy-five cents a night. “He really wanted to make a difference,” Emmi said of Jontz, whom she married in June 1973.

Although she hated public speaking, Jontz relished such events. “And he got better at it every day,” she said. “He remembered everyone’s name and took delight in walking into a room full of people as no one was a stranger—there just were people he hadn’t yet befriended.” Although it might sound too grandiose to say that Jontz wanted to save the planet, Emmi noted “that was his ultimate goal, to be a spokesman for those that couldn’t speak—the trees, the animals, the air, the water.”

Graduating from IU in 1973 with Phi Beta Kappa honors, Jontz worked for a few months in Chicago as program director for the Lake Michigan Federation before returning to his home state as conservation director for the Indiana Conservation Council, where he also edited the organization’s monthly newsletter. A potential ecological threat in Warren County, however, soon drew Jontz and his wife to northwestern Indiana. As far back as the 1930s, there had been proposals to build a dam and reservoir on Big Pine Creek, which flowed from southwestern White County south through Benton and Warren counties before entering the Wabash River near Attica, Indiana. Along its route the creek flowed along scenic sandstone cliffs and Fall Creek Gorge, noteworthy for the large potholes carved into the floor of the steep-sided canyon. In October 1965 Congress, in its Flood Control Act, authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to build an earth and rockfill dam on Big Pine Creek at an estimated cost of $28 million. The resulting reservoir would cover more than a thousand acres northeast of Williamsport, Indiana.

The project, which received support from Republican congressman John T. Myers representing the Seventh Congressional District, drew protests from state environmental groups and several citizens in Warren County (a mail poll taken by a local newspaper has residents against the dam by a ten-to-one margin). Local groups opposing the project, including the Committee on Big Pine Creek and the Friends of the Big Pine Creek, charged that the dam and its reservoir would engulf sixty homes, ten commercial properties, 2,347 acres of cropland, 2,200 acres of pastureland, and 1,995 acres of woodlands. Hoping to protect a portion of the area from destruction, the Nature Conservancy, with the help of a $20,000 loan from a Purdue University janitor, bought a forty-three-acre site in Warren County, property that included Fall Creek Gorge. The conservancy hired Jontz to serve as caretaker and program director for the property. He lived in a handmade house near the preserve with Emmi, two dogs (Brother and Sister), and two cats (Vance and Birch, named for Indiana’s two U.S. senators at that time).

Often dressed in his trademark blue-jean overalls, Jontz quickly became one of the leaders in the fight against the Big Pine Creek dam, dominating a Corps of Engineers hearing on the project and appearing in the forefront of a protest held during a fund-raising golf event for Congressman Myers that saw dam opponents cruise around the country club in a mile-long caravan of cars, pickup trucks, motorcycles, and farm implements. Protestors confronted Myers with signs reading “Only You Can Prevent Forest Floods” and “Dam the Corps.” Bill Parmenter, who served as president of the Committee on Big Pine Creek, remembered Jontz as outgoing, friendly, and possessed with real leadership qualities. “He could make people do things—more than they thought they would be able to do,” said Parmenter, who lived to see the federal government finally abandon the dam project for good in the early 1990s.

To help give voice to those opposing the dam, Jontz attempted to find someone to run for the state legislature against incumbent Guy, a Monticello attorney, in the rural district. Unable to secure a candidate for the Democratic nomination, he approached party leaders in the area and told them he wanted to run. “They were tickled to death that someone wanted to do it,” Jontz said. With help from his wife and a few friends, Jontz began a shoe leather, door-to-door campaign, visiting every house in such small communities in the district as Boswell, Brook, Brookston, Chalmers, Fowler, Goodland, Kentland, Monon, Morocco, Otterbein, Oxford, Otterbein, Reynolds, West Lebanon, Wolcott, and many others. He also attended every fish fry he could find and three straight weeks of county fairs, shaking hands with countless potential voters. “I campaigned on the personal attention idea,” Jontz said. “Issues are important to people, but more important to them is feeling that government is responsive.”

After his razor-thin win over Guy in the general election, Jontz worked as hard during his days as a legislator as he had during the campaign. When the legislature was not in session, he could be found back in the district, attending meetings of service clubs and any other local event he could find. Jontz often talked with voters and turned their concerns about issues into legislation. After speaking with a grade school teacher in Wolcott, Jontz introduced a bill requiring reading and writing tests for high school graduates, an idea that became law. He and his wife also scoured every newspaper in the four-country district, clipping out articles about people in the news, pasting them onto official stationery, and having Jontz write a personal note congratulating them on whatever honor they had achieved. “Sometimes we would be up very late at night and get really silly,” Emmi said, “concocting imaginary headlines—‘County Commissioner Arrested for Stealing Hubcaps’ or ‘Honor Student Arrested for Prostitution Ring.’ You can imagine the gales of laughter that resulted.”

As a full-time legislator serving in a state where most members of the general assembly have other jobs, Jontz worked long hours when the legislature was in session. Many of his fellow Democrats sought his expertise on such issues as the environment and health care. Stan Jones, who, like Jontz, won his first Indiana House race in 1974 while in his twenties, noted at first the two of them were sometimes mistaken for young pages by the older lawmakers. He called Jontz a “very responsible legislator. He didn’t miss votes, he came to every committee meeting, read bills—not every legislator read bills.” Frequently, at the start of a day’s work in the House, Jones said that Jontz would walk in with eight to ten amendments for legislation he would then parcel out to other representatives to introduce. During one session in the 1980s, Jontz convinced another Democratic legislator to introduce an amendment forbidding utility companies from charging their ratepayers for unfinished power plants—a feature that became law.

Other issues Jontz found success with included nursing home reform; child, spouse, and elder abuse laws; preventive health screening; solar energy tax credits; a state cancer registry; residential programs for the chronically mentally ill; and the state’s unified tax credit for the elderly. “I think people [legislators] were pretty frustrated with him, but he was very effective,” Jones said of his fellow Democrat. “He was just determined to get things accomplished and it really didn’t matter to him that they might be upset by that.”

In 1986 GOP congressman Elwood “Bud” Hillis, who had represented the Fifth Congressional District since 1971, announced he would not seek re-election. Jontz captured the Democratic nomination for the position and faced fellow state senator James Butcher of Kokomo. Sugar, a Howard County native whose parents supported Butcher and even held a fund-raiser for him in their home, recalled receiving a call from Alan Maxwell, his political science professor at IU Kokomo, saying there was a candidate running for Congress who needed his help in organizing the county. His first meeting with Jontz occurred at the Howard County 4-H Fairgrounds. “I’d seen a photo of Jim in the paper before and, bless his heart, he wasn’t the most telegenic guy in the world,” said Sugar, who had never participated in a political campaign. Impressed by the candidate’s passion for issues, he agreed to help with his door-to-door efforts in the county, assisted by local members of the United Auto Workers and environmentalists from Indianapolis.

On a typical day, Jontz started knocking on doors on one side of the street beginning at three in the afternoon, with Sugar or another campaign aide taking the other side. The usual spiel included introducing themselves, telling a homeowner that Jontz was campaigning in the area, and giving them material on his candidacy. If someone did not answer, Jontz would leave behind his literature with a note signed, “Sorry I missed you, Jim.” Sugar said that the rule of thumb was that the campaign did not “stop knocking on doors until people started showing up [dressed] in robes.” After completing their first canvas of the county, every house that could be visited, Sugar quoted Jontz as indicating, “‘OK, let’s do it again.’ So we did it again.” Two days before the election, the second canvas had been completed, but Jontz decided to do it again. “He believed in working until the last dog died,” said Sugar.

Just hours after the polls closed on November 4, 1986, with Jontz defeating Butcher 80,722 (51.4 percent) to 75,507 (48.1 percent), the new congressman found Sugar as the celebration at campaign headquarters in Monticello was winding down and told him he wanted to visit a Chrysler plant in Kokomo the next day to thank the workers for their support. Bright and early the next morning, after only a few hours of sleep, Jontz stood at the plant’s gate to greet the groggy automotive workers as they started their early shift, jolting them awake with his words: “Hey, thanks a lot guys, I won’t let you down. I really appreciate your support yesterday, I will not forget.” Most of the workers acted as if this was the first time a candidate had ever thanked them personally for their vote just hours after winning an election. “It was an example of everything our campaign stood for,” said Sugar. “We meant it. We’re really going to fight for working folks.”

Jontz ran his four-room congressional office to emphasize constituent service, placing more staff members in the district back in Indiana than in Washington, D.C., helping veterans, Social Security recipients, and farmers. In comparing notes with other chiefs of staff, Klose found that his office had a far greater constituent caseload than any other delegation, with the closest office handling only a third of the casework Jontz’s office did. “Every time he [Jontz] would go out and say, ‘Tell me your problems,’ there were plenty of problems people wanted to tell you about,” said Klose.


The congressman remained in Washington only when he had to, spending the rest of his time back in the district attending to a packed schedule of events; his staff had to create specialized computer software just to keep track of where he had to appear each day. The hardest position on Jontz’s staff was scheduler because of his intense desire to be efficient with his time. Altman remembered Jontz becoming “totally frustrated” on Mother’s Day because there was nothing for him to do. “People used to joke . . . if there were two people together, Jim Jontz would find them,” said Altman. For Sugar, who marveled that the congressman had town meetings where there were no towns, one of the most memorable experiences he had while working for Jontz occurred during an early morning trip from Kokomo to Burket in Kosciusko County to meet with farmers in a local restaurant. “Those farmers could not believe it,” Sugar said. “I’m sure they talked about that for the next two years—that Jim Jontz walked in at five o’clock in the morning and had coffee with them and talked about agriculture policy.”

The hard work and attention to detail paid off, as Jontz twice won re-election. While in Congress he worked to make his mark on legislation in a similar manner as he had while serving in the Indiana legislature—through amendments, a procedure he used effectively on the 1990 Farm Bill. While other congressmen went home for the evening, Jontz stayed late until the night, even making popcorn for hungry staffers from other congressional offices as they worked to settle differences between House and Senate versions of legislation. The staff members were not only “just floored” that they got a snack, Buis noted, but there were also astonished that “it was delivered and popped by a member of Congress. But Jim never thought of himself as someone with a title above anyone else. That was part of his appeal to people.” Klose noted that Jontz also made his mark in Congress by working within the system to earn financial assistance for such projects back in his district as the Hoosier Heartland Corridor road project, the psychological unit at the Veteran’s Hospital in Marion, and Grissom Air Force Base near Peru.

Although Jontz attempted to find common ground with Republican legislators, particularly on agricultural issues with GOP senator Richard Lugar, he was not afraid to vote his conscience rather than what might be popular back in his district, including voting against the use of force in the Gulf War. “He didn’t care because he was doing the right thing,” said Campbell. “Look at the political landscape these days and ask yourself how many people are doing whatever it is they are doing, voting however it is they are voting, because it’s the right thing to do. That’s a pretty small club.”

Jontz’s firm support of environmental issues frustrated and sometimes enraged colleagues from across the aisle. His sponsorship of the Ancient Forest Protection Act, which would have forbid cutting stands of ancient timber in three western states, caused one Oregon congressman to call him “a rank opportunist,” while another member of the Oregon delegation kicked him out of his office in the middle of a heated argument. Angered by Jontz’s successful push to end arrangements benefiting timber companies in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, Congessman Don Young of that state introduced a bill to establish 35 percent of Jontz’s district as a national forest. To answer charges that he was meddling in matters outside of the district he represented, Jontz called the ancient forests “a national treasure, much as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the Everglades are. If we cut the last 10 percent of the ancient forests for short-term greed, they will be gone forever. If we preserve them, future generations, as well as our own, will be able to enjoy their benefits.”

Jontz’s life on the razor-edge of politics came to an end in the 1992 election, when he was defeated by Republican challenger Steve Buyer. Several issues hurt Jontz during that campaign, including an antipolitician mood in the electorate inspired by the independent presidential candidacy of businessman Ross Perot, opposition from western carpenter’s unions for Jontz’s stand on old-growth forests, opposition from the pharmaceutical industry after he held a town meeting to discuss the high cost of prescription drugs, and a scandal involving the House bank involving a small number of overdrafts of checks. “It was the death of a thousand cuts,” noted Sugar. Reflecting on the first defeat ever in his political career, Jontz noted that he had been “skating on thin” ice for a long time as a Democrat in mainly Republican districts. “A lot of people didn’t think I was going to last more than one term in the state legislature,” he told a reporter from the Indianapolis Star. “So I have been living on borrowed time for years.”

Late on election night, when he knew he had been defeated, Jontz asked Sugar to take him back to the Chrysler plant in Kokomo he had visited after he won his first race for Congress. Early the next morning, Jontz was at the automotive factory gates to thank the workers for their years of support, telling them it had been an honor to serve them in Washington, D.C. Sugar remembered that some of the workers refused to shake hands with Jontz, but, now liberated from seeking their votes, the former congressman responded: “Oh, come on now, be a man, shake my hand.” Sugar said he was proud of his boss “for not just rolling over and taking it. He had given his life to their causes.”

In 1994 Jontz made his final try for political office, losing a longshot attempt to unseat Lugar, a fellow Eagle Scout, who became the longest serving U.S. senator in the state’s history. Jontz lost in spite of a humorous television advertising campaign that poked fun at Lugar’s interest in foreign affairs. The advertisement had the former congressman jumping into his pickup truck after learning that Lugar had secured $3 billion for Moscow. Jontz drove to Moscow—Moscow, Indiana—to ask someone from the community about the money. “Nope, haven’t seen a cent,” a woman in the advertisement told the candidate while she stood under the Moscow town sign. 

After his defeat, Jontz left Indiana to battle on behalf of numerous progressive causes in an attempt to forge coalitions among labor and environmental groups. He led an unsuccessful campaign to stop the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement with the Citizens Trade Campaign, served as president of the Americans for Democratic Action, and worked as executive director for the Western Ancient Forest Campaign. He participated in acts of civil disobedience, including blocking a logging road in Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest in the spring of 1995. His parents were aghast that he was arrested during the protest.  Jontz tried to mollify them by noting, “I had my suit on!”

Jontz moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1999, but Indiana still had a hold on him. He told his mother that he sometimes thought of returning to the Hoosier State to buy a plot of land in the Brown County hills, where he could sit back, relax, and enjoy the trees. He never had that chance, dying at his home in Portland on April 14, 2007, after a two-year battle with colon cancer that had spread to his liver.  

Visiting him during the former congressman’s final illness, Sugar recalled walking into a Portland hospital room to see Jontz on a conference call with fellow workers in the environmental cause, offering them his ideas on what to do next. For Campbell, hearing about Jontz’s death reminded him of campaign stop the two of them had made to one house in a small town in the Fifth District. “I’ve never had a congressman come to my door in the twenty-nine years that I’ve been an adult,” Campbell remembered the homeowner telling Jontz. “When you live in some very small town like Royal Center, Indiana, and not just you, but half the town says my congressman knocked on my door today, that means something.”