Monday, June 04, 2007

My Long Time friend, Herb Legg

Herb Legg – A Gentle Man

Christi McGinley
Communications Committee Chair

Herb LeggFor those who are new to Thurston County or Washington State you may not know about this gem of a gentleman who has dedicated his life to making the world a better place for the poor.

I’d arranged to meet Herb at his new residence, Providence Mother Joseph’s Care facility, where he’s been since a recent stroke. He told me he didn’t allow visitors but that he’d make an exception this time…”I was different.”

I was honored.

“First off, let me tell you that my religion is Quaker-Unitarian-Democrat. About all I need for religion is the Sermon on the Mount which says ‘Be nice to poor people.’”

I could see this was going to be a fascinating conversation. I’d not considered the Democrats to be a “religion” but I was willing to go along with it to see where it all would lead. Very quickly I realized I would be unsuccessful in leading the conversation in any orderly direction so I resolved to let it unfold naturally. What follows are bits and pieces of an hour-long conversation, an encounter really, with Herb Legg, a self professed “liberal Liberal.”

Herb was born in Tennessee and is the eldest of 10 siblings…plus one. One died at 3 months old after what was then considered a summer flu. His parents didn’t have the $3.00 per day to pay the doctor to treat his infant sister. After she was sick for several days they decided if she was alive the next morning they’d find the money somehow and take her to the doctor. Sadly, she didn’t survive the night. Herb recalls it affected the whole family deeply. “She was very, very young. It is why I believe in government paid health care for every person – repeat – every person.”

During the Depression, his family moved to Kittitas Valley around Ellensburg, WA. He graduated from Central Washington University, eventually taught there and was on the school board. A very brief and incomplete list of his many jobs and accomplishments includes working for the Washington State Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office. He served as a naval officer during WWII, was a lobbyist, a teacher, a city councilman, several-term state committeeman, two-term Thurston County Democrats Chair, and the State Democrats Party Chair in 1961. Herb Legg was and is an organizer.

“The three most significant events in my life were the Depression, WWII, and the Democrats.” I asked why he included the Democrats in the list. “It was a vehicle for doing something about my concern about helping poor people.”

“I practiced law in Olympia for 16 years, but decided I didn’t like it because, in order to represent my client well, I had to sometimes be mean to people. I didn’t like doing that so I quit and went into teaching.” Herb taught at several colleges including a “black” college in Dallas, TX, Central in Ellensburg and a community college in Seattle.

In a slightly more playful tone, he continues, “When I was teaching in Seattle, which was pretty laid back in those days, one of my students broke out a marijuana cigarette. He passed it around and we all, including myself, took a puff…I didn’t inhale.” -- I couldn’t help but recall another significant figure in recent history that professed similarly -- “But to show you how strict I was, my student started to light another one and I said that’s enough! Marijuana use was pretty casual, then. Nowadays they throw you in jail!”

Seeing an opportunity to talk about the local party, I asked him how the Thurston County Democrats have changed since he was Chair. He recalls the biggest dispute he had to deal with was the decision to move the Central Committee meeting from Saturday afternoon to Monday evening. This decision was made to accommodate those who lived in more rural areas and for whom coming to town for a meeting on Saturdays was a hardship.

“There were a lot of ‘Roosevelt Democrats—older people’ then and they would hold lunches and invite speakers to talk about important issues. Those older ones have stayed involved in one way or another.” In a serious tone he adds, “You have to get young people involved because these older people won’t be around much longer,” a concern we share and are looking for ways to address.

Turning to current issues, I asked what he thought Democrats should be concerned about today. “We need to change the national policy and work with the U.N. to do something about poor countries and we need to stop trying to be a policeman for the planet,” he said candidly. “WWII was the last time we were all united but I think we are united enough now and will stay together to make the necessary changes in our current political situation.”

Herb’s wife, Shirley, arrived just as our time together came to a close and he was eager to share with me the story of how they met. “I was teaching back East in a graduate program in North Carolina and one day I met someone named Shirley. We talked for 15 minutes and I said, ‘How’d you like to move out West with me?’ She said Yes! That was 30 years ago.” With a twinkle in his eye he continues, “Next to teaching and peanut butter I like Shirley best.”

I don’t know whether I found my answer to what a Quaker-Unitarian-Democrat religion really is but I suspect it has something to do with helping poor people. A worthy goal, indeed.

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