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Portrait of John A. Blake ’66

Meeting Jimmy Hoffa

Old Gold

is a regular feature of DePauw Magazine, which is published three times a year.

Upon reading the article in the spring 2021 DePauw Magazine about Class of ’85 David Witmer’s book on Jimmy Hoffa, I reflected on my own encounter with Hoffa. In spring 1965, during my junior year, I participated in the Washington semester program at American University and had the unique opportunity to engage with many leading figures in government, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the attorney general and the speaker of the House.

These off-the-record and often candid discussions were memorable, but none left a more lasting impression than the time our small group spent with Hoffa at the Teamsters headquarters. As an impressionable 20-year-old from Oklahoma, I was in awe and wary of being so close to a reputed notorious gangster and powerful labor leader. Although he seemed a little rough around the edges to my Midwestern sensibilities, I listened intently as he described some of the finer points of labor-management negotiations. “Always include a demand for the one thing you know management will not agree to,” he confided. “The day that the other side meets all your demands is the day the union loses its hold on its members because the union has nothing further to promise them.”

On another occasion we met with House Speaker John McCormack. He shared with us his own take on the exercise of power. He was so engaged with our small student group that the one hour allotted for us rolled into two, much to the frustration of his scheduler. He related that he read Roberts’ Rules of Order cover-to-cover twice a year. By being the most familiar House member with the book governing House procedure, he controlled the debate and ultimately the Congressional legislative agenda.

We met with Justice Hugo Black in his chambers. We were free to ask any question that did not pertain to pending cases. I felt completely inadequate trying to come up with a thoughtful question, so mostly remained silent. Later, after I became a judge myself, I reflected on those lost opportunities to ask questions that only later had relevance and to which I would love to know his answers. Many of those questions have been answered over the course of my judicial career, and my quest for those answers was in many ways fueled by the inspiration I received in the room that day.

That semester was one of the highlights of my life. It contributed to the liberal arts experience, which has led me to a life of service and a love of the law. That semester and the Wednesday chapel lectures at East College opened me to a much wider world beyond the small Greencastle shire. That informed broader perspective with all its intellectual enrichment is what I consider to be my DePauw experience, which I have tried to share with and pass on to a new generation.

Blake spent a decade as the Garvin County, Oklahoma, associate judge, handling every kind of case from jaywalking to capital murder and performing more than 1,000 weddings before retiring in 2013. He was in private practice before his appointment to the bench.

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