The people who gather at the Labor Temple on June 17 to mourn the passing of Jim Douglas will have many different memories of him. Some will be remembering his time at Real Change, where his service as a volunteer and board member earned him the organization’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award. Some will be thinking about the skilled and tenacious lawyer, a critical part of the legal team that sued a foreign dictator and won. Others will remember his joy in making music, his extensive work with Habitat for Humanity or his work reorganizing and expanding Rainier District Little League. They will remember him as an activist, lawyer, father, husband and friend.
Jim Douglas died April 17 after a long battle with prostate cancer.
Jim was a baby boomer, born in 1946 in California and raised in the university town of Davis, where his father was a professor in the veterinary school. Academic sabbaticals meant that the family spent a year in New Zealand and several months in Taiwan. Jim’s summer job in high school and college was cleaning cages at the University of California Davis veterinary lab. In high school, he was a high-achieving student, accomplished athlete and class president. He later went to Stanford. Jim said he was “an ordinary thinker” before his last two years at Stanford, when local and national anti-racism and anti-war movements made him think a little harder about civic responsibility.
When he graduated in 1968, he knew he was likely to be drafted, so he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Somalia for an extremely challenging, life-changing experience he later described in a memoir. Law school at Yale came next, where he solidified his intention to be a “people’s lawyer,” and was a co-founder of the progressive National Lawyers’ Guild chapter at Yale.
He also fell in love with Sasha Harmon.
“They were really good buddies, and they loved to laugh,” longtime friend Janet Stecher said. “They were great partners. To see the healthy relationship they had was wonderful.”
The two also sang together in the tenor section of the Seattle Labor Chorus, which Stecher directs. She recalls that the blend of their two voices was remarkable: “There was this great vocal texture that informed the section.”
In 1973, after his graduation from law school, Jim followed Sasha to Seattle, where he did legal aid work; then he spent two years assisting farm workers in Texas. When he returned to Seattle, he and like-minded colleagues established a law collective that is now the Douglas Drachler McKee Gilbrough partnership. For the first few years he represented clients with complaints such as race discrimination and illegal police surveillance.
In 1979, Jim and Sasha’s son Owen was born. Owen is now a special education teacher in the Chicago area and a union president.
On June 1, 1981, two union activists, Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, were gunned down in their Pioneer Square office.
The two had been working to improve conditions for Filipinos working seasonally in Alaskan fish canneries and to reform their corrupt union local. Three suspects were caught and convicted.
But Viernes and Domingo had also been activists criticizing President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, and there were many reasons to believe he had been involved in their murders.
For the next eight years, Jim was part of a legal team that investigated the complex involvement of Marcos and his cronies in suppressing democracy in the Philippines and influencing elections in the U.S., an investigation that took them through the worlds of espionage, Filipino gangs and international corruption.
In 1989 a judge said they had presented “overwhelming, and essentially unrebutted evidence” of Marcos’s illegal operations in the U.S., and a jury set damages at $8.3 million. It was a stunning victory, and the story would have probably made a great movie. So far no movie has been made.
“It must have been too political and not had enough sex,” Jim wrote in a personal account of the case. “They thought Pee-wee Herman should play me. It seemed OK at the time, but in view of the troubles he’s had since, I’d rather they pick someone else.”
Even while that case was going on, Jim was working on expanding the Rainier District Little League, which gave hundreds of kids in a diverse population the opportunity to play baseball in a well-run program. He played team sports himself, as a member of the Howies for three decades before playing senior softball with teams called There Goes the Neighborhood and Casket Ready.
A self-taught standup bass player, Jim became a member of Clallam County (“Seattle’s Slowest Rising Folk Group”) in 1989, greatly enjoying their chances to perform at farmers’ markets, house parties and the annual Folklife Festival.
He was the driving force behind the Seattle Labor Chorus’ three CD recordings and their Flying Squad, a small group leading chants and songs on picket lines and at rallies. The chorus had been discussing doing such a thing for a while, but it didn’t go anywhere until Jim took on the idea and made it happen, chorus member Lou Truskoff said.
“Jim was someone who had both vision and a let’s-roll-up-our-sleeves-and-get-this-done mentality: a great combination,” he said.
He brought those same qualities to his work at Real Change. Founding Director Tim Harris says he was a very effective board member.
“Always blunt in a very supportive way,” Harris said. “You never had to guess what Jim Douglas was thinking. He was utterly committed to what we do, he cared deeply about it, and he brought important skills and talents. He rarely mentioned his struggle with cancer, and through it all, until the final month when he went into hospice, he was completely here.”
Much of his work as a lawyer involved representing people in need of Social Security disability benefits. Harris adds that, because of that, he understood the people of Real Change.
“His heart was always in the right place, and his mind followed,” Harris said.
He worked at the vendor desk, selling papers to the vendors and talking to them about how things were going.
“Jim was a gracious man, and cared about everyone,” Real Change Vendor and Board Member Shelly Cohen said.
Jim was first treated for prostate cancer in 2002 and found out in 2004 that the cancer had spread. He kept working at his law firm until 2012, but realized his time was short and that he had always wanted to write a book about his time in Somalia. And he did. His memoir, “The Toughest Peace Corps Job,” was published in 2016.
Jim Lauinger, who served on the board with him, says Jim Douglas had “an unusual amount of wisdom. He was very thoughtful with what he was doing in his life to make it better.” And Lauinger references an Emily Dickinson poem that describes how props support a house until it is built, after which it will support itself.
The house is then like “a perfected life … the scaffolds drop, affirming it a soul.”
Lauinger adds that, in those terms, Jim Douglas lived a perfected life. Not a perfect life, but one that affirms the soul.
Sasha Harmon contributed to this report.
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