I didn't know him well, but what I knew about him I liked.
James Crow was a name on my supporters list. This meant that he was sentenced to get a call from me once every year or two asking him for money. I dreaded making "money calls" more than anything else about being a politician. It was degrading and just plain awful in every way.
But Jim Crow was unfailingly polite, upbeat and pleasant and he always said yes. Except for the last time I called him about a year ago. While remaining polite he told me he'd have to think about it and would get back to me. Usually, when someone said they'd have to get back to me, it meant they would not get back to me and the answer was really "no and don't darken my doorstep again, you lout."
But James Crow did think about it and did get back to me the next day with a hardy "yes" and "where do I send the check?" (The fact that Jim had to hesitate, though, was another indication to me that I was in trouble with my base.)
Over thousands of these types of calls that I've made over the years, this is literally the only time this has happened. Someone says they need to think about it. Then they actually do think about it. Then they have the courtesy to call back with their answer. I have no doubt that if Jim Crow had reached the opposite conclusion about supporting me, he would have called back with the bad news just the same.
Over the years, I had the pleasure of meeting Jim on several occasions through my friend Emily Earley, who served as my first campaign treasurer and was a long-time friend of the Crows. I knew that he was a UW professor and scientist, that he loved music, and that he was one of the kindest people I'd ever had the pleasure to meet, but that was about it.
I later learned that he wasn't just "some kind of scientist," but an internationally recognized geneticist who developed a specialty in the use of DNA in criminal cases and was an expert on the genetic impacts of radiation. He was also an accomplished musician who played with the Madison Symphony.
But you wouldn't know any of that by talking with Jim. I've often observed that it's the least accomplished and least secure among us who demand to have their titles attached to their names, and the most productive and most personally well-adjusted who let their work speak for itself. Jim was the best of the latter.
He led such a productive life that his passing recently at age 95 was noted with a long obituary in The New York Times. State Journal columnist Doug Moe, who was much closer to him than I was, wrote a touching tribute to Jim in Sunday's paper.
Jim Crow's passing adds to a growing list of a generation that is leaving us. Gaylord Nelson, Martin Hanson, Bud Jordahl, and Emily Earley, among others, preceded him. But in lives so fully lived, we can appreciate their accomplishments and their contributions, and hope that for those of us who expect to have decades left we can do a fraction as well.
In the movie Harvey, Elwood P. Dowd, played by Jimmy Stewart, says, "My mother told me that in this world you need to be oh so smart or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant."
James Crow didn't have to make that choice. He was both.