Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Dan Johnston

"It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." — Abe Fortas, United States Supreme Court Justice in Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969

DAN JOHNSTON was a hero of mine. When he was just a year out of law school, he argued and won a landmark United States Supreme Court. The 1969 case, Tinker v. Des Moines, affirmed the First Amendment free-speech rights of two Des Moines public school students who had been suspended from school for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.

Dan died this past October, 2016. 

I believe Dan counted Michael Gartner, co-owner of Big Green Umbrella Media, publisher of the weekly Des Moines newspaper Cityview, as a personal friend. Michael wrote a fitting and touching tribute to Dan on the day he died; I've been meaning to share it ever since. 

Toward the end of the article, Michael mentions a poignant detail of Dan's later life; Michael often saw him eating lunch alone at the Cub Club. By chance, that was his circumstance the last time I saw Dan: he was having lunch by himself at Taste of Thailand. I'm glad I took the time to go over to his table and chat with him. I hope I told him how much I admire him. I think I did. I certainly should have; he deserved to hear it from me and legions of others.

I only knew Dan slightly, but he always struck me as both a gentleman and a gentle man. He also seemed to me to carry a perpetual air of quiet sadness about him.

In preparing to write about Dan, I looked to see what Wikipedia had to say about him. There wasn't a a great deal there; what there was unsurprisingly concerned his famous case and Dan's subsequent legal and humanitarian career. However, there was a brief section under the heading entitled Personal Life, and the last of the three sentences concerning his relationship with Norman Jesse, who Dan referred to as the love of his life, twisted my heart:

"Johnston was gay; his partner for more than 35 years was Norman Jesse, who also served in the Iowa House. Neither Johnston nor Jesse was publicly out as gay during their careers in politics. They maintained separate residences across the street from each other and rarely spent the night together in the same bed."

I don't think I was imagining the aura of sadness. 

Dan Johnston in younger days

Dan Johnston

By Michael Gartner

October 21, 2016

Dan Johnston leaves two legacies.

As a 30-year-old lawyer in 1969, he argued and won a United States Supreme Court case that ensured the free-speech rights of students. “Students do not shed their Constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate,” Justice Abe Fortas wrote in the 7-to-2 decision involving the rights of students in the Tinker family to wear black armbands to schools in Des Moines to protest the Vietnam War.

Though the decision has been diluted over the years, it was and remains a great victory for freedom in America.

And as a still-young lawyer in 1972, he argued an Iowa Supreme Court case that led to new rules for apportioning state legislative districts — a system now viewed as a model for American states.

He was equally, and rightfully, proud of both.

He was a smart and complicated man. Raised in Marshalltown, he graduated from Drake Law School in 1964 and was elected to the Iowa House in 1966 after a stint as an assistant Iowa Attorney General. Two years later, he won a three-way primary to get the Democratic nomination to run for Attorney General, but he lost to Dick Turner by more than 100,000 votes in a million-vote election. Backed by organized labor, he was appointed Polk County attorney in 1977, when Ray Fenton was appointed to the bench, and he won a full term in 1978. He was re-elected in 1982.

At the time of his elections, he was a closeted gay and the subject of whispering campaigns. He recalls ducking the issue on a radio call-in show, but others say the caller in effect outed him before the 1982 election. Though he won handily each time, he remained in the background as the gay-rights movements began to sweep the country following the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969.

He left as county attorney in 1985 and moved to New York, where, among other things, he became a strong advocate for gay rights. He moved back to Iowa about 10 years ago.

In his retirement speech from Polk County, he acknowledged his homosexuality.

“I made three points in that speech,” he said the other day from his hospital bed. He spoke out against the death penalty, he recalled. He said there was “no inconsistency between law enforcement and civil liberties,” he said. And, he recalled, “I said I had stood up for children and immigrant farm workers, but never for the group whose oppression I know the best — my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”

He had a 35-year love affair with Norman Jesse, whom he met at Drake Law School and who served in the Iowa Legislature for 12 years. They lived apart but were often together in a relationship that became increasingly open. Jesse, who died in 2000, was “the love of my life,” Johnston said.

If Jesse was the love of his life, civil rights came in a close second. He had an unshakeable belief in the equality of laws and the dignity of man — for a while he was a staff lawyer for the Iowa Civil Liberties Union. And he had an unbreakable faith in unions — though as county attorney he stood with police during the bitter, 19-month Delavan strike by the Auto Workers in 1978 and 1979 to ensure that non-union replacements could safely cross picket lines; he also believed in law and order.

He never made any money — he got no fee for the Tinker case, though Joe Rosenfield picked up the $500 in expenses — and in recent years he had a spartan life style. He mentored young lawyers who shared his beliefs and took great pride in their efforts and accomplishments. At lunch, he always talked more about them than about himself, about their cases and about how they were fighting the good fight for the good cause.

He often ate lunch alone, at a high table at the Cub Club at Principal Park, and, wan and slow-moving and a bit disheveled, at times he seemed almost a ghost from the past as he stopped by to talk with judges and lawyers and others lunching there. But his mind was always in the present — expressing outrage at this injustice or disbelief at that absurdity. More recently, he was astonished by the presidential race. His final request to a kind nurse who watched over him at Iowa Methodist was to take him downtown to the Election Office to vote. She did, on Oct. 10. The next day, he was moved to Kavanagh House to die.

He was 78 and riddled with cancer when he died there on Oct. 21.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. He really was a great man. We have always had the freedom to publically show affection to our lover. To speak of them should we choose to do so, to have the rights afforded by marriage. For me, the strongest message in this post is that we must stand up (and vote) to ensure that everyone shares our rights. Thank you for introducing us to this man who hid who he was to fight for the rights of others.