Thursday, November 10, 2011

In remembrance: Jason R. Campbell

Jason at work in Liberia, where he was helping  to strengthen a fledgling labor union.
My good friend Jason Campbell died in a tragic accident on August 6, 2011, in Abuja, Nigeria. Here is his obituary. Glance over it and you will see that Jason accomplished an extraordinary amount in his all-too-short life. 

I was honored to have the opportunity to speak at a celebration of Jason's life and work yesterday at the AFL-CIO. I have copied my remarks below.

My name is Matthew Reisman. I am honored to have this opportunity to share with you a few reflections about Jason.

I was able to attend Jason’s funeral in August and feel fortunate for that, because it enabled me to meet more of the many people Jason touched throughout his life, and to learn more about his many rich experiences before I knew him. I met Jason in the fall of 2003, when he and I were beginning a master’s program at the Kennedy School. As you probably know, Jason was as personable and engaging as anyone you’ll ever meet, and he made friends as easily at Kennedy as he did everywhere else. I know that I was just one of many people that Jason came to know well there, but I think that Jason and I shared a special bond, and I want to tell you a bit about that because I think it sheds a broader light on the kind of person Jason was.

During my first semester at Kennedy, I enrolled in a course called “The Political Economy of Trade.” Jason was in that class, too, as were several others who are here today. It turned out to be one of my favorites, and set me on a path towards a career in international trade.  While I still didn’t know Jason well by the end of the semester, I had gotten the sense that he enjoyed the course, too. I had noticed that he was fully engaged in the material we were studying. And I was bemused and impressed when Jason wore a union pin to our final exam and made sure our free-trading professor saw it as Jason turned in his test. 

As it turned out, Jason and I were among a small group in our class that selected International Trade and Finance as our core area of study. It was in the semesters that followed that I got to know Jason well. I’m pretty sure that I took more classes with Jason at Kennedy than with anyone else. Many of my memories of Jason involve late nights studying, including for a class on trade law that was among the most challenging I’ve ever taken (and that Jason excelled in). It was one of those late nights that I remember Jason introducing me to his enduring love for Paul Wellstone while driving me home. Another fond memory is going with Jason to chat with the former governor of his home state, Jesse Ventura, who was a fellow at Harvard during our second year there. I was very nervous at first, but I was struck by how at ease Jason was, and how effortlessly he established a rapport with that most imposing former executive as they discussed their shared connections to Brooklyn Park.

But my fondest memories of Jason took place far from the classroom. In between our first and second years at Kennedy, we spent a summer working a couple of blocks apart—Jason here at the AFL-CIO, and me down the street at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. We resolved to meet weekly for lunch and pretty much stuck to it. Neither of us was making any money, so these meetings often consisted of sacked lunches on a park bench in Farragut Square. 

I loved those lunches. We talked about many things, but most of our discussions focused on the work we were doing, things we were seeing on the job, and issues we were reflecting on and trying to understand. Jason and I were tackling very similar issues but from very different perspectives – he among champions of organized labor, and me with folks who had a somewhat different point of view.

The conversation that Jason and I started that summer never really ended—we kept it going as long as we knew each other. Those of you who knew Jason know that he was a most exceptional conversation partner. He was an extraordinary listener—always willing to hear out any viewpoint, no matter how different than his—but also not shy to challenge the other party. And that’s what I loved about him. Jason challenged me to defend my arguments well, to question and test my own assumptions, to really listen, and to see things from perspectives that I was not accustomed to taking. He and I did not see eye to eye on every issue, but that’s what made talking with him so much fun. 

There was no one that I enjoyed talking shop with more than Jason. After we graduated, I rather relentlessly tried to recruit him to work with me wherever I was employed. I forwarded Jason one job opening after another, including, I must admit, more than one after he’d already begun his work in Nigeria. I know that I tempted him on more than one occasion, but he always told me that the time wasn’t right. He loved and believed in what he was doing, and deep down, I knew and respected that. 

In my own mind, I tried to ascribe noble motivations to my efforts: “If I could just bringJason here,” I’d tell myself, “he’d really shake up the way these people think about things.” But as I look back now, I know that my motivations were in fact quite selfish. I wanted Jason sitting in the desk next to mine because I loved being with him. I wanted our conversation to go on, forever.

I am so grateful to have known Jason—and for all that he taught me, including, as clichéd as it probably sounds, about myself. I will always miss him. And whatever desk I’m sitting at, I will always save him a seat close by, so that we can keep the conversation going. 


  1. Sorry for your loss. It's a very well written tribute.

  2. I worked with Jason on an anti Right to Work Initiative in OK in '01 and , fortunately, we remained friends, which was easy to do with him. Our paths crossed from time to time, and when I worked for AFGE in LA on TSA campaign 2010 I was able to hang with Jason a few times before his last trip to Nigeria.

    Ten years ago, as I was leaving an initiative campaign in ME, I saw him in Boston when he was at the Kennedy School and he introduced to his friends at his fav. hangout; typical Jason.

    I considered Jason one of my best friends and one of the finest folks in labor, a group that's in dire need of more like him.

    Grant Schott