J.H. Martin

J.H. Martin served as the chairman of the Greater Baton Rouge State Fair for 25 years.

It is a season of loss, particularly for Baton Rouge, as some of the icons of public and community service have recently passed on.

Perhaps it’s the case that bad news comes in bunches, but a common tie of some of the obituaries was the postwar ideal of the power of community, locally and nationally.

Here in Baton Rouge, Judge Melvin Shortess died at 86. The retired jurist headed the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal and mentored generations of lawyers and judges.

In retirement, he founded Thirst for Justice, a pro bono project formed in association with the nonprofit Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Baton Rouge.

Baton Rouge also saw a great loss in the death of J.H. Martin at 82. Aside from his many friends in his business career at Franklin Press, he was an incredible community activist with the Greater Baton Rouge State Fair.

That annual event is not just a matter of carnival rides and corn dogs. It's also a substantial fundraiser for charitable activities in the Baton Rouge area.

Chairman of the fair for 25 years and 30 years president of the State Fair Foundation, Martin embraced a commitment that was an incredibly useful labor, generating almost $5 million in scholarships and grants for charitable organizations.

While those two figures were closer to home, two others also deserve note because of their connection to the Baton Rouge men they never met.

One was C.O. Simpkins, the Shreveport civil rights leader and the first serious black candidate for mayor of the north Louisiana city. He eventually served as a state legislator.

But his life story far transcended politics. An associate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the dentist was an early civil rights advocate and ran for school board in the 1950s when it was dangerous — physically dangerous — for an African American to do so.

Bombs and threats of worse drove him to New York City but he returned to Louisiana later in life. It was a privilege to know him and enjoy his company back home.

His efforts were lauded in the halls of Congress, including by U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Benton.

Sorry, Mike, but C.O.’s views were probably closer to those of a New York liberal than a Louisiana Republican. Johnson’s sincere tribute, though, is another illustration of how far America has come, with communities now welcoming those of a different color who were once shunned or worse by established political forces.

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That cause was part of the life’s work of Neal Peirce, a journalist and pioneer in comprehensive metropolitan planning. He died in Washington, D.C., at 87.

He traveled throughout the nation but Peirce thoroughly enjoyed his times in Louisiana, writing columns and working with the kind of community activists and public officials — Martin and Shortess come to mind — who are interested in results for the place where they live.

Peirce was the early advocate of not only biracial but nonpartisan agreement across party lines — and particularly local jurisdictional lines, that split up efforts to improve cities and towns across the country. One suspects he would not have been a fan of the St. George breakaway movement in suburban Baton Rouge.

In the lives of these individuals, community was a powerful motivator. And throughout their long lives, days of dreadful divisions in American life were ultimately overcome.

There are lessons for today in all their stories.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.

Lanny Keller: A lesson in building change with civic leadership from BRAF

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.