JOHN HENRY: ELEGY
Among American tall tales, John Henry was an African American steel-driver, a towering railroad man. Henry pitted bone and sinew against steam drilling hammers of profit-crazed railways—and won. To confront worker displacement, Henry challenged his mechanical replacement to a steel-driving contest, crushing holes in granite, blasting, gouging rail tunnels through bedrock. Prevailing, Henry’s heart quit. The machine triumphed, sans glory. Transcontinental commerce coursed through Henry’s veins; America’s economic titan leapt from his loins. American workers in every age are John Henry.
Tall tales enshrine ideals. Real people shrink by comparison. Most of us are, frankly, Lilliputians astride mythic Gullivers. Nevertheless, Shoreline boasted its own John Henry. John Henry of Shoreline was a lawyering man. He pitted brains and street saavy against human nuttiness—and won (sometimes). Wisdom pulsed in John’s veins. Fragments of the best of Shoreline sprang from our John Henry.
John Henry excelled at law. To my knowledge, only John possessed a Superior Court judge’s epistle, penned after trial, commending lawyerly courtesy and efficiency. Colleagues sought John’s guidance, I in their number. John delivered insight with growl and grin, as pontiffs issue bulls or saints beatitudes. John erred, but never thoughtlessly. John castigated foolishness and petulance. John hoped for better than America gives most days. Nothing escaped scrutiny. Our Henry slung cross-examination as his mythic counterpart wielded a hammer. He drove penetrating, impertinent questions. He was good at it.
To know John as lawyer missed the lion’s share. Carolyn, John’s widow to whom he was immensely devoted, is a national treasure; were she bullion, America would deposit her in Fort Knox and return to the gold standard. That portion of his great heart not expended on family and hearth, John Henry lavished upon Rotary. On a bad day, Rotarians lunch, laugh, and leave. But on good days (and there are many such), Rotary creates human peace and promotes personal and communal goodness. John treasured this latter Rotary; he ridiculed the former. John pressed Rotarians to build relational bridges to odd, foreign, uncomfortable places--in our hearts, in Shoreline, across oceans. He promoted peace, not by yammering platitudes, but by making friends of persons who were not.
I know John Henry had to leave us; it was his time. Seneca (Roman, 1st century A.D.) said: “To me, the thought of my dead friends is sweet and appealing. For I have had them as if I should one day lose them; I have lost them as if I have them still. . . . Let us greedily enjoy our friends, because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours” (Epistle LXIII, On Grief for Lost Friends).
I hold John Henry in my heart. I miss his growl. And that is no tall tale.