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Eugene Jax, social worker with a heart for justice, dies at 82

October 12, 2018

Eugene Jax was a social worker with a heart for social justice, and his children couldn’t help but be swept up in the causes, too.

There were rallies over war and peace and boycotts of nonunion grapes.

“Dad loved a good protest,” the children wrote in a tribute at the funeral service.

Jax, who after retiring continued to strive to give voice to the homeless but later was slowed by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), died on Oct. 2. He was 82.

A lifelong seeker and adventurer, Jax grew up in a home with parents who gave him the freedom to wander. He hitchhiked at age 10. With his own children, he drove to Mexico in a station wagon with no one seat-belted and no radio, the kids recalled.

But it also was in Mexico where Jax first was influenced by the teachings of the Brazilian educator and theorist Paulo Freire, who had led literacy campaigns for the poor and powerless that helped give the underserved the tools to think critically about their role in society.

At home in the Twin Cities, Jax often would give talks about Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”

“Why are things this way in society? Who decides? Who has the power?” were among questions to be explored.

Ed Flahaven met Jax in the mid-1950s when Flahaven was assistant pastor at St. Peter Claver Church in St. Paul and Jax was the social worker assigned to the parish by Catholic Charities. Flahaven said that Jax was instrumental in helping troubled families get on track and that he brought “sizzle” to his work.

“We clicked immediately,” Flahaven said.

In the early 1970s, the two traveled together to Mexico to support literacy efforts at a time when the government was hostile to such endeavors.

“This was obviously dangerous work,” Flahaven said. “I think it illustrates the soul of Gene Jax.”

During his 50-year career, Jax also worked at the Wilder Foundation and Regions Hospital.

Outside of work, he remained ever curious and would spend hours reading in his red chair, his family said. His book list included everything from Russian novels to the Bible to mysteries. He also had an interesting approach to ensuring that chores were done around the house. Someone who put off raking the yard might jump in the shower and find the rake there. Today, his kids employ similar tactics with their own children, they said.

Text messages then will be sent to other siblings, saying, “I pulled a Gene Jax today.”

At Jax’s funeral service, Flahaven joked about one daughter being exasperated with all the time spent being an activist. People laughed. But much of the eulogy was about a man with strong convictions and opinions carrying the weight of papal decrees.

“Gene walked his talk,” Flahaven said. “He was fearless.”

Jax’s service was held Wednesday in downtown St. Paul’s Church of the Assumption — not far from Catholic Charities. When the time came to dedicate prayers, one went to the people Jax had served — those who are homeless, those with mental illness and children in crisis.

His work was done, Jax was quoted by his wife, Norita, as saying in the past year, and when she asked him what he meant by that, he replied: “Raising a family, loving, protesting and questioning,” she said.

Jax is survived by his wife; children Heather, Jeffrey and Daphne Berry; stepchildren Eric Larson, Jessica Johnston and Emily Larson; 12 grandchildren, and sisters Dawn Belleau and Sue Balistreri.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109

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