reed magazine logonovember2005

A right to die, a will to live

don james imageHe’d always been productive. When he took over at Roosevelt High School in 1960, the place was in need of help. James and his staff turned the school around. He mixed fiscal conservatism honed as a lifelong Republican (“the Republicanism of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt,” he was quick to point out), with a willingness to take on both the educational bureaucracy and the prejudices of the times. For example, he had to fight to hire the best school librarian he could find, because the district was not used to hiring a woman of color to run one of its libraries back then.

By 1968, James had earned his doctorate at the University of Portland and was promoted to be director of secondary education for a group of Portland schools; ultimately, he was directly responsible for 56 schools.

James retired in 1982 — too soon, he later decided — because he was fed up with the changes that were taking place in the school district. He took over as director of the Portland Association of Public School Principals and also taught at Portland State University. Urged on by Republican mentors including Tom McCall and Clay Myers, he ran for state office, winning the primary and losing the general election.

“Politics was a strange venture,” James later recalled. “Claire didn’t much like the idea, and I sort of went through the motions. But I learned a lot.”

For a while in retirement, he and Claire became snowbirds and went south for the winters. Then one day James’ world resized and reshaped itself into a walnut-sized gland in the reproductive system, and the cancer that was growing there. next page