What Jim Adler meant to us… By Nancy Becker-Kennedy — Former PASC Board Member
It was unbelievable to wake up Thursday morning, go to my desk to hurriedly get ready to go downtown where, Jim and I were to have had a 12 o’clock meeting with the Director of Los Angeles DPSS, when I saw an email with a subject line that said “Jim Adler passed away February 8, 2018.” I first started keening “oh no oh no,” but another part of me thought it was just one of those spam emails. That sentence couldn’t mean that. Jim Adler would not be gone because of some email. Jim Adler was always there — always without fail
Jim was like the dream father I never had. I loved my dad. He was a dear and delightful man, but he was very unhappy when he lived with my mother, my sister and I and when he found his soulmate, my stepmother I saw how lovely he was. But the idea of the father was a sad one for me growing up in reality. But later in life I had a dream father.
When I first met Jim Adler, we were all convened by the Director of the Department of Public Social Services to write an ordinance that would take away the simple relationship people with disabilities had with their caregivers and give it partly to a legal entity called a Public Authority so a union could collective bargain for higher wages for our caregivers. We needed that desperately. I feared that people with disabilities would be overrun by a large union because we had no union, but the prospect of our caregivers getting more money was just too important.
Some disability rights advocates and myself fought over giving our sole employer status to public entity, until we were guaranteed some equally balanced representation of the needs of people with disabilities. This Public Authority was supposed to be that for People with Disabilities. So, Jim and I were appointed. Jim because he was an extremely prominent and respected labor law expert, had worked under two Supreme Court justices, had been the Chair of the Public Social Services commission for years. I was appointed because the Director of Public Social Services found me a pathetic lone voice speaking out at the Board of Supervisors meeting about who was going to take care of people with disabilities if IHSS was no longer just people with disabilities and our caregivers. The director told someone sitting next to her, “Nancy’s right,” took pity on me and appointed me to try to be a “union” voice for people with disabilities.
So Jim and I served on the board for about 20 years. After the first meeting we attended together, he said to me, “it’s clear you’re the most knowledgeable person in the room, but your way of acting is so obnoxious that you will never build any support.“ That was the beginning of our relationship where he became my mentor. He was my greatest champion and tried to use all his prominence and respect to support what I and other people with disabilities needed and expressed. There were some people hired to be our advocates who told us what to say, gave us talking points about our own lives, and treated us like “the great unwashed” for whom they had to speak. But, Jim would never speak for us. He heard us, he respected us, and he would never lead us.
It was only after years of fighting with another woman with a disability to be chair of the commission, and we all were deadlocked, that some of us begged Jim to become the chair. With the way things were stacking up, we told him that if he didn’t become chair, we would never be able to get the needs of people with disabilities honored or acted upon.
Because I was obnoxious, I couldn’t get elected anything more than vice chair and Jim after so much begging gave into those of us with disabilities and agreed to chair for a short time, so that we could get some emergency services and other things we needed. Then he invited me and another board member to the house so that we could figure out how he could support the changes I was trying to put forth based on knowing how much people with disabilities and our workers were struggling. I’ll never forget that. And from that time on he always was my greatest champion. Complimenting me to everyone in office, and when I pulled together powerful people to serve the cause of people with disabilities he would always send me an email telling me how amazing I was. When we achieved a goal, I relished those emails from him congratulating me.
And I appreciated when he told me what I was doing that was self-defeating. I never felt defensive because I knew he believed in me and only wanted me to do better because he knew that the goals we were trying to achieve were so necessary. So when he would verbally “hit me upside the head” for some way I had inadvertently hurt our cause, I never minded the rebuke. He was the Mandy Patinkin to my Carrie In Homeland.
We all depended on him so much. He was the voice of wisdom we all looked to when our sometimes bitterly contentious commission was torn apart. Jim would come up with a Solomon like decision or the way to bring us together. In the beginning of our time together on the commission, before I had learned much from Jim about diplomacy, when I would bring up a motion that we really all believed in, I couldn’t get a second. Jim would reword it, put it forth and it would pass unanimously. That’s how much we all respected him.
So Jim was this very respected labor attorney, who spent an enormous amount of his time helping others, first on the commission for poor people on welfare, and then he found us — people with disabilities struggling to keep the independence we had crawled out of nursing homes to achieve. Jim said when he first came to one of the meetings he was asked to attend, he fell in love with us all. Jim had a passion for helping those who were struggling to find justice and live in peace and dignity.
I was often obsessed with my work keeping people with disabilities free and independent as we had been for 40 years on in-home supportive services program. I would call Jim sometimes several times a day and sometimes every other day. He was working hard on our causes and running his own mediation practice with his wife, and he still served as a board member on the welfare commission. But he had a life of balance.
He traveled all over the world — to different countries sometimes in one year, but he would almost always schedule his travels around coming to our commission. He would come back from Iceland and send out an email showing beautiful pictures, sharing his awe of the beauty of nature. And he was deeply rooted in a loving family and a large circle of friends. The only time he really pushed me to do something in return was to circulate a video be made with his niece about Donald Trump with Abe Lincoln as the narrator.
Jim had a charmed life. He had a beautiful marriage, and one day when I called this year, he was White River rafting with one of his grandchildren! I told him “you have such a good life!” and used the old Woody Allen joke “my only regret in life is that I wasn’t born you.”
I suppose it’s weird to be shocked when somebody who’s 80 dies. But we all were. He was supposed to be at this meeting with me that day and the next day he would be talking with me to the head of the state of California Department of Social Services. He had to make some adjustments though, because he would be out riding his bicycle and would call in on his cell phone.
So that’s why when I was to have been meeting with him on February 8 and he was to have been riding his bicycle on February 9, I couldn’t believe that email that said: “After a full life lived with caring and passion, James Adler passed away on February 8, 2018.”
The message was eloquent and elegant — like Jim. We were in the middle of two of our greatest struggles. I didn’t know how I could proceed without him, but so many times in the last few years he told me I was doing just fine by myself. But he would give us the power of a brilliant legal mind behind the justice we all new intuitively should occur.
I’m afraid people with disabilities and poor people will be a little less safe now, but Jim did empower us to take care of ourselves. Maybe we will be able to do without him as a champion, because he made us strong when he taught us by his example and by his tutelage. But it’s hard to imagine how we will do without his wisdom, his adorable laugh, and the delight and the pleasure of his company.