Jonathan Rowe, a life uncommon

03/31/2011

Jonathan Rowe, a prolific writer and social philosopher, passed away suddenly on March 20, from a blood infection. He was 65. Most people in West Marin knew Jon from his weekly KWMR radio show, America Offline,  or as the co-founder of West Marin Commons and the Tomales Bay Institute. A strong believer in the importance of community, Jon became a fixture in Point Reyes Station. He was a brilliant theorist who moved countless readers with well-observed and poignant prose, which appeared in numerous publications nationwide.

“Jon was one of the most reliably thoughtful and wise people I ever met in my whole life,” said Jon’s friend and collaborator, Gary Ruskin. “He was so humble and self-effacing. He was such an authentic person that, in a lot of ways, the most singular thing about him was not what he wrote, but how he acted to everyone around him.”

Jon was born on January 19, 1946 in Boston to Nancy and Abbott Rowe. Abbott was the co-owner of a local manufacturing plant, and Nancy was a saleswoman for a variety of clothing and jewelry stores. They lived in one of Boston’s suburbs, close to the city.

“By unspoken agreement, the entire neighborhood was open to us kids,” Jon later wrote. “We played football in one yard, Whiffle ball in another. We didn’t know the owners, and no one seemed to care.” He spent as much time away from home as possible.

Growing up in Massachusetts was difficult for Jon and his younger brother, Matt. According to Matt, Nancy was an alcoholic, and displayed unpredictable mood swings. Later, psychiatrists told Nancy’s family that she probably suffered from early onset dementia for much of her adult life. Jon was miserable at home. “We never lacked for material stuff; our grandparents made sure we had everything we needed. But it was not a happy family. Especially for Jon,” Matt said. “The psychological aspect of dealing with a tumultuous home life was very difficult for him.”

Jon developed a severe speech impediment, which took decades to overcome. “I’m sure that was from psychological damage from our family situation,” Matt said. Despite his stutter, Jon excelled at school and was able skip a grade. “Jon had his eye set on Harvard, right off the bat, even in elementary school,” Matt said.

Nancy made a half-hearted attempt to raise the children in the Jewish faith, but it didn’t stick. “Our mother told us to go to Jewish Sunday school. But she didn’t bother to take us, so we would just take the trolley into the city, wander around for a couple of hours, and go back home,” Matt said.

Nancy divorced Abbott, and moved the family to Truro, a small town in Cape Cod near Provincetown. She married James Simpson, an artist and antiques dealer whom she met in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Jon hated the small fishing town. “We were growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, living in an Ozzie and Harriet world, and we thought we were pretty freakish,” Matt said. After one year, Jon enrolled at Tabor Academy, a boarding school an hour and a half drive away.

Jon became a Christian Scientist early in his adulthood, and remained deeply devoted to his faith his entire life. He was known to read the bible every day. “It’s part of Jon’s life that he didn’t talk about much. Almost not at all,” Gary said. “He lived out his religion through his deeds, generosity and work, trying to build community.”

Jon finally realized his dream of going to Harvard, and graduated in 1967. He went on to the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, though he never took the bar examination, and never practiced law.

Instead, Jon joined with a group of progressive lawyers and law students in Washington, DC, who worked under Ralph Nader. Known as “Nader’s Raiders,” they investigated government corruption and fought for social justice. “I hired Jon Rowe to work with Nader in 1969; we paid him $400 for the summer,” wrote Robert Fellmeth, a renowned populist lawyer and teacher. “Jon was the glue in any organization he worked with. No ego, just the facts, ma’am.”

Nader was also impressed with Jon’s work. “He was as incorruptible a person as you will ever meet—honest to his intellectual and ethical core,” he wrote. “How he will be missed!”

Jon took an interest in taxation policy, and started publishing a newsletter called People and Taxes. He also served on Nader’s Tax Reform Research Group, trying to find ways to relieve the government’s dependence on the lowest-earning 40 percent of American taxpayers. He then became deputy director of the Multi-state Tax Commission, and associate director of Citizens for Tax Justice, working to enforce and push for fairer tax laws, especially towards large multinational corporations.

Jon’s work caught the attention of Congressman Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota. Byron shared Jon’s distrust of tax-dodging corporations, and hired him as his legislative director in 1981. “He did not observe the rule that freshmen should be seen and not heard,” Jon later wrote. Together, they fought the closing of railroad lines that transported supplies to farmers, and lobbied for other farmer rights.

He left Byron’s staff to become a journalist, and wrote for a number of publications, eventually becoming editor at Washington Monthly, and a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor. Jon was admired for his concise prose. He had the unique ability to convey complex ideas using simple, bold language.

“He didn’t use jargon. He didn’t use words needlessly,” said Elizabeth Barnet, his friend and co-founder of West Marin Commons. “His words were meant purely to express ideas, the concrete. He didn’t toot his own horn.”

Jon became known for his outsider’s view on a number of issues, but gained wide attention for his writings on economics. He described economics as “Psychology on steroids…a model of human nature [that] extrapolates an entire scenario for how the world works.”

His writing captivated readers with its unorthodox approach to the subject, and how he methodically skewered every aspect of the American “diseconomy.” He claimed that the national economy has become a system of diminishing returns, yielding less tangible product and more obesity, depression, environmental degradation and social fracture. He examined the way many economists equated economic growth with “progress,” and conflated market activity with happiness.

“I came to [economics] with the proverbial ‘beginner’s mind.’ My mind was never alphabetized according to the assumptions of the trade,” he later said. “Once you buy into those assumptions, it becomes really hard to see the absurdities. I rush in where angels fear to tread…I’m an expert because I’m not an expert.”

Jon’s articles led him to an organization called Redefining Progress, a San Francisco-based think tank that raised questions about the nature of economic progress in America. Though the think tank eventually disbanded, Jon became attracted to the idea of community commons, or resources that are shared among a local population. “That’s actually where this whole idea of commons began to emerge. It wasn’t an official program of the think tank, but Jon and I started thinking independently about it,” said Peter Barnes, a friend of 40 years.

While living in San Francisco, Jon met and fell in love with Mary Jeane Espulgar, the assistant property manager of the building he worked in. Mary Jean grew up in La Castellana, a farming village in the Philippines. “When I first saw him, my impression was that he was kind of a sad guy. He had his head bent everywhere he walked, like he was carrying something heavy on his shoulders,” she said. “But then I discovered that he was a thinker; that his mind wanders.”
They were married at a courthouse, near Mary Jean’s cousin and aunt, in New Jersey.

Jon and Mary Jean moved to Point Reyes Station in 2001, a decision that they “had to think about for 15 seconds,” Jon later said. The next year, Mary Jeane gave birth to a son, Joshua.

“He was totally committed to his son and his wife,” Elizabeth said. “If we were on the phone in the evening, he’d cut off the call because it was time to go read to Joshua.” Jon often said that Joshua was the best thing that ever happened to him.

“We were always with him, in his mind,” Mary Jean said. “We were number one in his life. Not just because he told us; he let us know through action.”

Jon remained committed to the idea of community commons. In 2001, Jon co-founded and became the first director of the Tomales Bay Institute—now called On the Commons—an organization that strategizes how communities can promote shared resources.

Jon identified and collaborated with locals who shared his vision. Together they founded West Marin Commons, an organization that spearheaded projects like the online groups West Marin Share, West Marin Soapbox and Over the Hill Gang. The group also organized events, and is currently planning an outdoor community space in downtown Point Reyes Station.

In 2002, Jon began hosting a radio show, America Off-line, which interviewed politicians, social thinkers and activists. “He was very easy to work with. He had very clear ideas about who he wanted to talk to, and the areas of interest that he had, namely the notion of community and commons,” said KWMR Program Director Lyons Filmer. “He was very protective of his guests, and showed them enormous respect.
During a pledge drive, we would typically pre-record his show, so that he wouldn’t have to break with a guest for a pitch break.”

America Offline became one of KWMR’s most popular shows. “Jon’s absence leaves a terrible hole for the community, but also a great hole at KWMR,” Lyons said. The station will keep playing recorded shows on Jon’s regular Tuesday, 5:30 p.m. time slot. “He’s not going to disappear from the airwaves,” she added.

Jon loved West Marin, and fit in with the community seamlessly. He went to the gym almost daily, and played pick-up basketball games with friends. Anyone could go and chat over a coffee in Jon’s “office,” in Toby’s Feed Barn. He had many friends, and made everyone feel as though his relationship with them was a cherished thing.

“I was under the illusion that I had a very unique relationship with Jon, but after the outpouring of letters recently, it’s clear that he had much the same effect on everybody,” said his friend, Murray Suid.

Jon will be greatly missed by all who knew him. “He was here in this community such a short time, but he had a huge and deep impact. It’s hard to imagine that he’s gone,” Elizabeth said.
“Now it’s a matter of figuring out how to carry his vision and his spirit forward.”

 

Jon is survived by his wife, Mary Jean; son, Joshua; brother, Matt and many, many friends and collaborators. Contributions to Jon’s family, or directly to Joshua’s college fund, can be deposited to Wells Fargo account no. 5561290361. Checks can be made to Mary Jean Espulgar-Rowe.