Hot Off the IHS Press
Ray E. Boomhower is senior editor with the Indiana Historical Society Press, where is is responsible for the quarterly popular history magazine Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. Winner of the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award, Boomhower has written biographies of Civil War general and author Lew Wallace, famed Hoosier World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle, astronaut Gus Grissom, suffragette and peace activist May Wright Sewall and U.S. Navy ace Alex Vraciu. Here he answers questions about his new biography published by the IHS Press, The People's Choice: Congressman Jim Jontz of Indiana.
How did Jim Jontz come to your attention?
After graduating from Indiana University in 1982 with degrees in journalism and political science, I got a job as a reporter on the Rensselaer Republican, a daily newspaper in Jasper County. Jontz served as a state representative in that area, and I came across him while reporting on a variety of stories, including a water crisis in the small community of Parr, Indiana.
My interactions with Jontz during my days at the Republican left me impressed with how hard he worked on behalf of his constituents and his dedication to understanding the complex issues facing government. Before meeting him, I had been inclined to agree with a quote by famed journalist H.L. Mencken that the "only way for a reporter to look at a politician is down." After dealing with Jontz on a variety of issues, my view of politicians changed for the better (it returned to Mencken's opinion in later years as I realized not every politician was like Jontz).
Jontz's services to the citizens of Indiana inspired me to write about his life and career in the pages of Traces magazine. My article on him appeared in the fall 2010 issue and provoked a positive response from his friends, relatives and former staff members. Realizing there was more to be said, I worked with his mother, Polly Jontz Lennon, and his sister, Mary Lee Turk, to produce this biography.
Is there a moment during his lifetime that typifies Jontz's political life?
One anecdote immediately springs to mind told by Kathy Altman, a key member of his congressional staff. On the eve of Election Day in November 1974, Altman and her husband were driving back to their home in Monticello after a long day on the campaign trail working on behalf of a Democratic congressional candidate. They came upon Jontz, who himself was finishing up a long day campaigning for a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives. They offered him a ride, but he responded, "No, it's late, but there's a laundromat up there that's still open I think I'll hit before I quit for the night." The next day Jontz defeated his heavily favored GOP opponent by just two votes. ("One more vote than I needed to win," Jontz proclaimed after the election.) Jontz believed in working as hard as possible not only during a campaign, but afterwards on behalf of his constituents. He was the hardest-working man in politics.
Is there one issue in particular that Jontz focused on during his political career?
Jontz always seemed to be on the side of average, working people during his days in the Indiana legislature and as a congressman – working for the "public interest, not special interests," as he called it. His passion, however, was protecting the environment. Jontz first ran for office because of his interest in the environment, running for state representative to stop a proposed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' dam/reservoir project on Big Pine Creek in Warren County – an effort supported by powerful business interests in the state. As he noted, "I gave a damn about a dam." Due to the pressure exerted by Jontz and the citizens of the country, the project was abandoned.
For years afterward, Jontz used this victory of average citizens against politically powerful foes as an important lesson to young and old alike "who see injustice and want to believe that you can make a difference – you can make a difference.
Ironically, the issue that had sparked his political career – the environment – became one of the issues that lead to Jontz’s defeat to his Republican challenger Steve Buyer in the 1992 general election. His stand against allowing private companies leases at below market value to cut logs from portions of national forest lands owned by the federal government so inflamed western carpenter unions – worried about losing their jobs if firms could no longer harvest the timber – that they traveled to Indiana to campaign against Jontz’s re-election. Still, he never regretted his stand.
Are you working on a new book?
I hope one day to do a biography of another political-minded Hoosier, John Bartlow Martin. Martin was one of America's best freelance journalists in the 1950s, writing for such notable publications as the Saturday Evening Post, Harper's and Collier's. "When I hit my stride," he once noted, "I was writing a million words a year." He turned from journalism to politics in the 1952 presidential election, working for Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson. From that point, he worked for every Democratic presidential candidate until his death in 1987. As a former reporter myself, and someone who has always been interested in politics, Martin is the perfect subject.
The People's Choice: Congressman Jim Jontz of Indiana is available in the Basile History Market at the History Center. Order online here.