March 16, 2012

Retiring legislator says Church’s social justice teachings shaped his agenda

Rep. John Day speaks with Rep. Gail Riecken on the floor of the Indiana House of Representatives. (Submitted photo)

Rep. John Day speaks with Rep. Gail Riecken on the floor of the Indiana House of Representatives. (Submitted photo) Click for a larger version.

By John Shaughnessy

In trying to get a sense of John Day as a person, it’s revealing to look at the treasured items and beliefs that he has kept through the years.

After more than four decades as a Catholic Youth Organization coach, Day still has all the team photos and the team reports that he wrote to summarize each sports season.

In 36 years of serving as a Democratic legislator in the Indiana House of Representatives, he has kept true to the Catholic social justice teachings of trying to help children, the poor and the vulnerable.

In 74 years of life, Day has also kept a firm belief in the importance of community—a belief that was partly shaped when he was sick while growing up in Holy Cross Parish in Indianapolis, the parish that he still calls home.

“I had yellow jaundice in the eighth grade or seventh grade, and I was home a few weeks, feeling depressed,” Day recalls. “I couldn’t play basketball. I couldn’t go to school to see my buddies. Well, one day, the whole class came to my house to cheer me up. They brought bananas and apples and Hershey bars and comic books and all the things kids loved in those days.

“I was showered with gifts, goodwill and support. That had a great impact on me—from the standpoint that we’re all part of a community, and how we can have a positive effect on other people, even with simple things.”

As Day has decided to retire and not seek re-election in the November elections, the memories have been flowing for him. So have the tributes, especially during his last legislative session, which ended on March 8.

“The legislation he has promoted during his tenure has really focused on the poor and those in need—to give them opportunities and take away the obstacles they often face,” says Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, the Church’s official representative on public policy in the state. “John epitomizes a lot of good things about being a public servant. He is a good, faithful Catholic who is trying to live out his faith in what he does.”

In an interview with The Criterion, Day talked about how he has tried to live his faith as a public servant, the Catholic leaders who inspired him to work for a better world, and how one of his most meaningful moments in politics happened on a Holy Thursday evening.

Here is an edited version of that interview.

Q. What or who inspired you to enter politics?

A. “It was during my college time at Marian College, now Marian University, in the 1960s. It was a very hopeful time in our society. The Church was in reform with Vatican II. We had John Kennedy as president and Pope John XXIII as the head of the Church. Both were inspiring. There was a big emphasis on service with the Peace Corps and all those programs.

“As a student, I briefly met John Kennedy at a news conference he had here [in Indianapolis] while he was campaigning in the 1960 primary. Like many young people at the time, I was inspired by President Kennedy to go into some kind of public service, whether it was teaching or public office.

“Kennedy had his faults, of course, obviously, but among his strengths were he gave people a sense of participation and inclusion, that everyone had a contribution to make, that we all ought to work to make our country better.

“I was also influenced by Dorothy Day, [a Catholic social activist]. She said many times, ‘There is a call to us, a call to service that we join with others to try to make things better in this world.’ I can’t claim any relationship to her, but I sure would like to.”

Q. How has your Catholic faith shaped your approach to public service?

A. “Our Church calls us to pursue justice, promote human dignity and cooperate with others to build a more peaceful society. My legislative work has been very much influenced by the Gospel message to love our neighbor. I am especially mindful of Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 25, on how we treat ‘the least of these’—when did I see you hungry, a stranger, ill, in prison? The 1986 publication of ‘Economic Justice for All’ by the Catholic bishops of the United States is yet another reminder that we continue to strive for economic justice.”

Q. What has kept you serving for 36 years in the state legislature?

A. “It’s sort of like baseball. I know that sounds silly, but it’s true. In the second inning, you strike out. In the fourth inning, you hit a pop-up and you’re out. In the sixth inning, you ground out. In the eighth inning, you hit the game-winning triple. There’s enormous frustration, but there are things that keep you going.

“Great friends and supporters on the outside have encouraged me in social justice issues. And then once you’re elected, people have expectations that you will do something, that you will honor your promises, that you will try to make the community a better place—a more inclusive place. I’ve had plenty of failures, of course. And I’d like to have some votes to do over. But there have also been some successes. When you see some success, and you see people’s lives improved, you think, ‘I’ll just keep at this.’ ”

Q. In announcing your retirement, you stated that your legislative goals “have always been to give every child a safe and encouraging start in life, to promote human dignity and to widen the circle of opportunity.” Some of the laws you have sponsored include school breakfast programs, minimum wage increases, landlord-tenant reform and child health programs. Talk about why you made those goals your focus.

A. “I think that reflects the best of our Church teachings on social justice. And I think it also parallels our response to the needs of the people in our district. And it reflects my own value system. I was a teacher for a long time. I still teach

part time. I was also a juvenile court probation officer for three years. In that job, I learned as much as I could learn in two lifetimes about human struggles—child abuse, dysfunctional families, all the struggles that young people have to deal with.

“Seeing this struggle, you think to yourself, ‘Should people live this way? Can things be better? Can we give someone an encouraging push?’ So those thoughts went through my mind quite a bit.”

Q. Was there something in your childhood, your own background, that made you think about “widening the circle of opportunity”?

A. “My grandparents were immigrants from Ireland. Like most immigrants, they came to America without much but their hopes and their dreams. And their hopes that their children and grandchildren would do better. I’m a product of that. I’ve been very fortunate. I was the first in my family to go to college. I’ve been given certain gifts and opportunities. I think we’re well-served if we remember where we came from. That can be a guide for us.”

Q. You’re a longtime member of Holy Cross Parish. How long have you lived in the parish, and how has it shaped you in your political life?

A. “I came with the bricks. Holy Cross is home. I’ve lived there most of my life, except for graduate school and time in the Army. Like the kids say, I’m a homeboy. When I was in school at Holy Cross, people expected you to do your very best work, and that you’d contribute to your community. I had good role models in teachers, coaches and others who instilled the idea in me that, ‘You’re part of the group. We expect something out of you.’ ”

Q. Any moments from the legislature that stand out to you as you look back on your career there?

A. Let me just mention one, and since it’s Lent, it’s kind of a symbolic story. It was on my bill for school breakfast [for children in need]. When I was a small child, I came from a big family, and sometimes there wasn’t enough food. Well, I had worked for a long time on school breakfast, and the school breakfast law had passed the House and it was in the Senate, but they were in no big hurry.

“But they finally got religion, as it were, and it passed. The beauty is that the school breakfast bill passed in the Senate about 10 o’clock on Holy Thursday night. So you’ve got the Last Supper and the first breakfast for 40,000 children. The symbolism just struck me. That’s one I’ll always remember.”

Q. You were a Catholic Youth Organization coach from 1960 to 2003. How did you get started, and what kept you coaching for 43 years?

A. “It was after Mass one Sunday at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral [in Indianapolis]. The priest said, ‘You’re a young fellow and you played sports. Why don’t you consider coaching our basketball team here?’ I said, ‘I’m kind of busy. I work nights at Methodist Hospital, I’m a full-time student at Marian, and I really just don’t have the time.’ About a month later, he comes up to me again and says, ‘We need a coach, and we have to complete this form for CYO to enter a team in the league.’ I said, ‘Don’t these kids have fathers?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Some.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it for one year.’

“I did the first seven years for the Cathedral Grade School team. Then it merged with Holy Cross, and I continued coaching there. I enjoyed it. Again, it’s to return the favor of the people who were good to me and had a positive influence on me. I enjoyed the relationships. I think if I have any gifts, one of them is to develop relationships. When I work with people, I try to bring out their strengths. One of my current heroes would be the coach at Butler [University in Indainapolis], Brad Stevens. Notice how calm he is? He never shouts. I tried to be that way. I was never perfect, but for the most part, I was calm.”

Q. As you retire, what are your hopes for the political process that has become increasingly contentious?

A. “I would hope for more civility. Most of the major bills that I worked on and that were passed had Republican co-sponsors. I don’t think either party has the monopoly on good ideas or goodness or virtue. We’re far less civil today. I remember years ago when the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] passed. I was very much for it, worked for it and spoke for it. Three Republicans that were very much opposed to it and voted against it, we had lunch an hour later. That doesn’t happen very much today. I would hope for much more civility and much more focus on the public interest.”

Q. Any last thoughts as you look back on your 36 years of public service?

A. “I’m very grateful to all the people who have helped me and encouraged me through the years. It’s been an enormous honor to serve the community. I treasure that experience.” †

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