Tuesday, June 21, 2005

OBT: Jake Pickle

From Andrew Dobbs at Burnt Orange Report

. . . The 32 year veteran of the House retired in 1994 and died this Saturday at 7:30 in the morning. Pickle was one of only 5 congressmen to serve the 10th District in the course of 105 years (until redistricting mangled the district). . . He was a superb representative for Austin, a tireless advocate in Congress and a lifelong and unwavering Democrat. . .

More here.

From The Los Angeles Times

PASSINGS
J.J. Pickle, 91; Former Congressman Aided Social Security Reform

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

J.J. "Jake" Pickle, 91, a former Texas congressman who helped pass major Social Security reform in the 1980s, died Saturday of natural causes at his Austin home.

Pickle was elected in 1963 to the House seat once held by President Lyndon Johnson. As chairman of the Social Security subcommittee, Pickle helped pass reform in 1983 that helped ease the system's financial troubles by raising the age for full benefits from 65 to 67.

On Pickle's first day in Washington as a newly elected congressman, Johnson sent a limousine to meet him at the airport with a surprise invitation to sleep at the White House. But Pickle said he had already accepted accommodations with a friend. Pickle kept in close touch with his constituents, returning to Austin so frequently that the nonstop Braniff flight from Washington to Austin was dubbed the "Pickle Express."

Pickle served in the Pacific as a Navy officer during World War II and surviving three torpedo attacks. With other veterans, he started an Austin radio station still known as KVET. Pickle published his memoirs, "Jake," in 1997.

From the Austin American Statesman

J.J. 'JAKE' PICKLE: 1913-2005
The people's politician
Gentleman Jake was Austin's congressman for 31 years.
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
By
Chuck Lindell, Sunday, June 19, 2005

Jake Pickle loved politics, from the handshake hellos to the knock-down fights.

He loved Austin, the adopted hometown he represented for 31 years in Congress.

And he loved telling a good story, especially when he was the punch line.

Pickle's story came to an end Saturday morning, 91 years after his birth in the West Texas town of Roscoe, and after a 14-year fight with prostate cancer and a four-year battle with lymphoma. He had spent the past month confined to his Austin home, still entertaining guests until recently, and that's where he quietly died, in his own bed, with his wife, Beryl, nearby.

"He had a formidable will," daughter Peggy Pickle said. "Every time somebody said the situation looked bad and there was a certain number of months (left), he just hunkered down and decided he wasn't going to die."

Pickle, who caught the political bug as a Depression-era student at the University of Texas, years before he became a protégé of Lyndon Baines Johnson, never lost the down-home courtliness that earned him the nickname "Gentleman Jake."

On Pickle's first day in Washington as a newly elected House member, President Johnson sent a limousine to greet him at the airport with a surprise invitation to sleep at the White House. Pickle sent the limo back, explaining he had already lined up accommodations with a friend.
"I was raised in West Texas. If you accept an invitation, you're gonna do it, you know. So I did it," Pickle explained later.

Pickle was involved in politics, either professionally or peripherally, from the day he was elected UT student president in 1937 until the day he left Congress in 1995. In between he earned a reputation as a prodigious worker, a politician with a common touch and one of the true characters in Congress — the guy who tossed thousands of "squeaky pickle" rubber toys in countless area parades.

"He always delivered as best he could. He was indefatigable," said Roy Butler, who worked on every one of Pickle's congressional campaigns, then worked with the congressman as Austin's mayor from 1971 to 1975.

"You'd walk down the halls up there in Congress with him, and of course he knew every single soul," Butler said. "He walked at a great stride and with great energy. He always had a smile, always had his hand out, always had a kind word for everybody."

Pickle chose to retire after winning 16 elections to the U.S. House, often losing weight during fast-paced campaigns that exhausted volunteers one-third his age. Anybody who questioned Pickle's hard-charging style received a terse reminder that the campaign graveyard is full of overconfident politicians.

His home phone number was always listed, and he returned from Washington most weekends to answer calls. The nonstop Braniff flight from Washington to Austin was nicknamed the Pickle Express, and the man who called himself a natural ham worked the aisle as if each plane was his personal political rally.

"Other than the long commute to and from Washington and, starting in the 1980s, the increasing partisanship of Congress, there was little I didn't like about being Congressman Pickle," he said in his 1997 book, "Jake," which he co-wrote with Peggy Pickle. "Despite the stress, long hours and the lack of personal and financial privacy, members of Congress are given a truly fabulous perk: the opportunity to get things done."

Best, proudest votes
Pickle said his greatest accomplishment was the 1983 Social Security reform bill, which he guided as chairman of the Social Security subcommittee to rescue the program from insolvency by raising the retirement age to 67, raising the tax rate and taxing benefits.

But his proudest vote was for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He was one of only six Southern representatives to vote aye. On the job only two months but determined to vote his conscience, Pickle figured he had guaranteed himself a one-term career, because Old Confederacy sentiments still reigned in Central Texas.

Pickle recalled returning to his hotel at 2 a.m. after meeting some friends for late-night drinks to soften the gloomy mood. The hotel operator stopped him in the lobby and demanded that he call the White House. President Johnson, she whispered in a shaking voice, had called personally looking for him. Several times.

Despite the late hour, Johnson came to the phone and admitted that he had failed to vote for several civil rights bills so he could wait for a more auspicious time.

"I just couldn't bring myself to do it," Pickle recalled Johnson saying. "But you did today. On your first big vote in Congress. And I just said to myself that I wasn't going to let this night go by until I had called you and told you personally that your president is proud of you."

That was one of Pickle's favorite stories — he had hours of them — and it usually ended the same way. "Pretty heady stuff for a young man," he would say, choking up.

To the end of his life, Pickle always referred to himself as a "Johnson boy."

"There is a hole in our family's heart with the loss of Jake Pickle," former first lady Lady Bird Johnson said in a statement. "He was a master storyteller, a can-do public servant, and a most loyal friend this family ever had.

"They simply don't make better citizens or friends than Jake. Four generations of Johnsons will always be his forever fans," she said.

By the time he retired, Pickle was the third-ranking Democrat on the influential Ways and Means Committee — leaving just before Republicans claimed majority control of the U.S. House.

Back in Austin, Pickle settled into an emeritus role. He refused to pick a successor, who ended up being Democrat Lloyd Doggett. He passed the time with friends (usually at the now-closed Holiday House restaurant), made the occasional speech and delivered many a eulogy for a fallen friend.

"He really set the standard for accessibility and integrity in office," Doggett said. "I saw just an incredible adaptability to a changing city and a changing constituency."

One thing never changed. Everywhere he went, Pickle continued to work the crowd, listening to people talk about their lives and asking what he could do to help.

At Westminster Manor, a life-care facility where the Pickles lived, Jake would take forever to walk through the dining hall.

"He would find out who was doing what, ask what they needed," said Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of the former president. "You just wanted to say, 'Jake, you're not running for anything anymore.' But he was always running for how to be a friend for those in need."

With Pickle blind in one eye and often fighting vertigo, Butler frequently served as his taxi service — with Jake still calling him Mayor Wonderful. Like others who drove Pickle, Butler would extract a promise before agreeing to drive.

"I used to tell him, 'Now Jake, I am not going to take you unless you agree that when it's time to leave, you'll leave. I am not going to stand around anymore while you work the crowd,' " Butler said. "He truly loved people. If you went to a restaurant, he would stop at every table."

A rascal at heart
James Jarrell Pickle was born in 1913, the fourth of five children. Mischievous by nature, he was 4 when he earned his nickname while his family was acting out a drama for entertainment. His character, Jake, was a rascal; the name stuck.

Pickle began a love affair with the University of Texas when he arrived in Austin in 1932 with hopes of becoming a lawyer. The Great Depression was in full swing, and Pickle lived in Little Campus, the "poor boy's dorm" that was the former Texas Asylum for the Blind. He delivered milk supplied by a Manor farmer, clearing about a penny a bottle — enough for one good meal a day.

For his junior year, Pickle moved up to a job as night watchman at the Capitol, delighting in riding a bicycle over the newly laid terrazzo floor — until the skid marks were discovered and he was fired (only to be rehired when a Lubbock state senator lobbied on his behalf).

Pickle enjoyed moderate success on UT wrestling and swim teams, but law school proved a bit tougher. He failed a few classes and lost interest in a legal career.

He filled his extra time with a run for student president, defeating future U.S. Rep. Bob Eckhardt with help from future Texas Gov. John Connally. (Pickle would manage Connally's successful campaign for UT president the next year.)

"This university opened the doors of the world for me, and I love it dearly," Pickle said in a 2001 interview. And he repaid that debt by directing millions of dollars to the university for research, technology and educational programs. Pickle also steered money toward the new Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and to Sematech, a consortium of semiconductor companies that helped transform Austin into a high-tech mecca.

It was Connally who introduced Pickle to perhaps the greatest influence on his political life, Lyndon Johnson, who was then the congressman representing Austin and the rest of the 10th District.

Pickle would send Johnson weekly reports from the district, which he traveled extensively for his Depression-era job with the National Youth Administration. But he wouldn't meet LBJ until a year later during a trip to Washington to discuss a local highway project. It was a memorable meeting. Called into Johnson's apartment through an open door, Pickle found LBJ holding court on the toilet, pajama bottoms at his ankles.

It was vintage Johnson.

"He was always testing you. He was always testing his power," Pickle wrote later.

Regardless of LBJ's quirks, Pickle joined Johnson's re-election campaign in 1941 — gathering 30,000 signatures "urging" LBJ to run even though he was serving in World War II — then helped Lady Bird run the congressional office.

In 1942, Pickle joined the war, serving in the Navy as one of the "90-day wonders," officers who were trained quickly for a rapidly expanding military. With a 10-day leave before shipping out, Ensign Pickle returned to Austin to marry Ella Nora Critz, known to all as Sugar.

Pickle served on the USS St. Louis, which was torpedoed but didn't sink, and the USS Miami, a light cruiser that also was torpedoed without sinking.

Daughter Peggy was on the way when Lt. Pickle returned to Austin in 1945. With Connally and eight other veterans — and with help from LBJ, who needed his "boys" in positions of authority back in Austin — Pickle established the city's third radio station. All were veterans, so KVET was born, and still exists.

The radio business couldn't pay enough, so Pickle co-founded a public relations company in Austin. He also scratched his political itch by joining the State Democratic Executive Committee as organizational secretary, putting him in the era's version of Texas-style partisan politics — liberal Democrats versus conservative Democrats, with divisions as nasty and volatile as Democrat versus Republican today. Pickle was on the conservative side and became known as the party's hatchet man for helping two governors ruthlessly purge liberals from the party's executive committee in the 1950s.

Though Pickle would reform his rough-and-tumble image, a quip from the time personifies his place in politics: "Do you know Jake Pickle?" Answer: "No, but I suspect him."

Sugar died in 1952 of breast cancer. Left with his 6-year-old daughter Peggy, Pickle filled the void with work, running campaigns that revealed a love and skill for politics.

He would remarry in 1960, wedding Beryl Bolton McCarroll, a widow with two sons. (They celebrated their 44th anniversary Dec. 17.)

Life took another turn in 1963, when U.S. Rep. Homer Thornberry, D-Austin, resigned his House seat to become a federal judge. Pickle campaigned so hard for the seat that he lost 40 pounds, won the special election on his third anniversary with Beryl and was called to Washington early by Johnson, who had assumed office the month before, in the wake of President Kennedy's assassination.

Johnson wanted his protégé to accumulate seniority on incoming freshmen, so Pickle was sworn in on Christmas Eve and quickly cast his first vote, supporting Johnson's sale of wheat to the Soviet Union.

Pickle caught on quickly to the ways of Congress, aided by his ties to LBJ and his political savvy.

He also became one of the institution's characters, tooling around Washington in a 1959 Chrysler New Yorker with massive tail fins. It was dubbed the White Shark. The car's engine once caught fire in the circular driveway of the White House while Pickle was inside the mansion; Secret Service agents doused the blaze.

Pickle's annual venison chili giveaway on Texas Independence Day or San Jacinto Day grew so popular it almost capsized under its own weight. By the time Pickle left office, his staff was rustling up 300 pounds of deer meat — enough for about 1,500 bowls cooked with three-alarm heat, because no way could Yankees take the four-alarm Texan variety.

But the private side of Pickle was equally larger than life.

Every Christmas morning, Pickle would conspire to arrive home via a different form of transportation, sporting plaid pants, a striped shirt and a Santa coat and beard. Once he arrived on a 1930s-era firetruck. Then there was a Bentley, a donkey and a motorcycle with Beryl in the sidecar.

"He would have gifts in his pouch and drive up with them to great fanfare," granddaughter Bergan Casey said.

The family, a blending of offspring from Sugar and Beryl, was fully united, Casey said.

"He took a great interest in what the kids and grandkids were doing, how they were doing in school, what trips they were taking," she said. "Even when he was in Congress, he always made a point to come to my high school activities and all the important milestones in my life. I don't think a lot of politicians would choose to do that.

"Family was as important as his constituency was, and believe me, they were important because we got dragged to a lot of those events," Casey said, laughing and fighting tears at the same time.

Services for Jake Pickle
Viewing: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Weed-Corley-Fish Funeral Home, 3125 N. Lamar Blvd.
Memorial service: 4 p.m. Wednesday, First United Methodist Church, 1201 Lavaca St.

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