For thirty-three years, Jim Barlow has been my friend. His death in the early hours of this morning stings and I am not alone. Hundreds if not thousands of family, colleagues, friends, fellow churchgoers, and certainly those who were his students feel the same way this evening.
Jim was a social worker turned teacher. He taught at Sunset High School in the 60s before moving on to Aloha High School from where he finally retired in the mid-2000s (dragged kicking and screaming from his classroom, I would think).
Along with Bill Presley, Jim he started the Model Presidential Nominating Conventions in 1964. The first conventions, which attracted speakers like Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, were held at Sunset. But within a few presidential cycles, the Model Conventions grew and drew the participation of hundreds of schools and thousands of students. A Monday night leadership class, called Metro Congress, met weekly every year to develop leadership for the conventions and to debate the issues of the day. Speakers at Metro Congress were high level, used to dealing with adults, and sometimes left in awe (one speaker left in tears) at the grilling they received by high school students.
The Model Conventions - often called the “Mock Conventions” - moved into the Memorial Coliseum by the 70s. Whatever party was out of power was what the convention simulated as students poured over state election data and the records of presidential candidates. Jimmy Carter spoke in 1976. Ronald Reagan was there in 1980. Both Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson were speakers at the 1988 convention. Bill Clinton appeared in 1992. George W. Bush declined to speak in 2000 and vote-by-mail in Oregon was a major factor in the cancellation of the convention program. Presidential candidates stopped campaigning in Oregon near primary day, and it became impossible to bring in major speakers (if we could have only foreseen the 2008 race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton…).
Jim took care of the big picture concerns of the convention – finding speakers, etc. – while Bill focused on teaching students about how to craft a political platform that represented whichever party was being modeled that year. They were a dynamic duo supplemented by younger teachers who helped run mock presidential campaigns and issues caucuses. Carole Douglas took care of the finances. In 1984, I was a student in the convention (a proud Gary Hart delegate). In 1988, I was brought on as a consultant to the convention and an advisor to Metro Congress. Jim, Bill and I developed important friendships. They have both been family to me.
Jim, of course, was a philosophy teacher when he wasn’t helping to run the conventions. Just take a moment to read the tributes made to Jim over the years on the James B. Barlow Appreciation Society on Facebook to get an idea of the lives he touched. He won a prestigious Milken Educator Award in 1990 and many other honors.
For two years, between 2012-2014, I was the senior minister of Sunnyside Church where Jim had been a member since birth. It was not so much a job but another opportunity to have fun with Jim. We spent nearly every Saturday night together folding bulletins and tearing apart our theologies and putting them back together again.
Jim had a serious of strokes on Sunday. It was clear that he would not survive them. Bill came that Sunday night and Jim was not awake. But on Monday Jim awoke for a few hours and said that it was “very sweet” that Bill had visited. He could hear us but just couldn’t respond. As Bill told me the next day, and I couldn’t agree more, it was very special for the three of us to spend one last time together.
You’ll hear from just about every student Jim ever had that they adopted some of Jim’s odd mannerisms. My wife Liz, who was Jim’s student teacher when working on her Master of Arts in Teaching at Lewis and Clark, sometimes bemoans my Barlow sense of humor. That came from both Jim and Bill. So if you’re ever offended by my jokes you know whom to blame.
My decision to leave Sunnyside Church (and my other assignment at University Park Church) for Pacific University was not an easy one. There was still work to be done, but it was obvious that my call to ministry was in a different place.
Still, during those two years, I had with Jim some of the most intimate conversations we had ever had. We talked about our love for one another – our love for Bill, for Carole, for Liz, and for pets (mostly cats on Jim’s part) – and the feeling of family we had developed over thirty years. Our daughters loved it when he’d call them varmints. Jim’s death leaves a void. But his family and friends, along with the legions of students he taught, will keep building a more informed citizenry and, in Jim’s words, a more “fluffy” world.
We’re not even at the 24-hour mark since Jim died. If he had any regrets – besides passing before his wife, Susan – it would have been not to vote for Hillary Clinton in November. The Unites States with Donald Trump as president was not acceptable to Jim. He knew we could do better as a people.
PS Coffee and tea will be served in the StarLight room.
UPDATE: A memorial service for James Barlow will occur at the former Sunnyside Church (3520 SE Yamhill Street, Portland, Ore., 97214) on Sat., October 29, 2016 at 6:30pm. A reception will follow. Please contact Rev. Dr. Chuck Currie at [email protected] or 503-208-6521 with questions.