July 5, 2021
I’ve probably got a hundred pictures of Jim Fleischmann from scores of visits in Montana, but all of them are on a hard drive that I can’t access easily on this computer. There’s one though that I keep by my desk in my office and my house from thirty years ago or so. I’m catching my first big brown trout on the Madison River, and Jim, my comrade and fishing buddy, is unhooking it, while I’m grinning bigger than the sky, and mi companera is snapping the picture. Later, eating that fish at the Duck Camp in the Centennials where we were all bunked, my then very young daughter announced that she only really liked to eat brown trout that her daddy caught. I’ve got a thousand memories like that of times with Jim.
I first met Jim more than forty years ago when he briefly came through the office and was introduced when I was in Durham, North Carolina at the headquarters of Carolina Action where Jay Hessey, its director then, and I were finishing the negotiations thar brought the organization into ACORN in the late 1970s. When his wife, Nancy, then went to medical school in Minnesota, Jim was the founding organizer of ACORN in the Twin Cities, and I would stay at his house with his whole gang, including then his son, Ben, and Nancy and I would talk about the running in various directions from their house. When he was back on the East Coast, he did various stints with ACORN in our political operations and as an ACORN regional director. He was ACORN through and through.
Dr. Fitch ended up running the health services for the University of Montana, and that meant Jim was off the ACORN team for a minute. He ended up organizing at Montana Peoples’ Action with one of its co-founders, Secky Fascione, who later was his partner for years, and became a dear friend as well. Jim would invite me to do staff and leadership training for MPA or one thing and another. I would work for plane fare on the condition that I could bring my son Chaco along with me. On one side or the other of the training, we would end up taking advantage of the generosity of my friends and comrades who ran the Sleeping Time Duck Camp in an old one-room schoolhouse in the Centennials. Hiking and exploring with Ben and Chaco, getting blown around Red Rock lakes in a raft, fishing up and down Montana, hunting antlers, sitting around the camp stove, is where Jim and I went from being comrades in the struggle to friends for life.
This century, for more than seven years we had an Airstream on Rock Creek, 50 miles from Missoula, courtesy of Secky. When we pulled the Katrina trailer up from the South, we stayed in Helena with Jim, his new wife, and his two precious, young daughters. When he ended up back in Missoula again, his house became our depot for washing clothes and taking showers when we were on Rock Creek. Jim’s health had gone bad. He was misdiagnosed with Lime disease and nothing seemed to work for him, so it was a steady slide. He had to give up fishing, but he never gave up talking organizing. He was helping a longshot candidate in Utah, just as he had helped Max Baucus win a Congressional seat and all us in starting a branch of the New Party in Montana. We talked about organizing trailer parks, as he had done around Montana. We talked about organizing an association of patients with Lime’s who could fight for better care. There were still good moments for him. I can remember one night around the campfire with his brother at Rock Creek where they were all playing and singing. I had talked to him last maybe six weeks ago about the work, about visiting New Orleans, about all of us getting up to Montana again after the pandemic.
I was on the road again in California, and finally checked my phone. I was surprised to see a long text from Ben. Jim had contracted pneumonia. It didn’t look good. In his reverie, Ben told me Jim had mentioned me a couple of times. I should call quickly, and I might catch him in a coherent moment. I walked into the back yard in San Jose, and called. I talked to Ben, but Jim was now in hospice. He died the next morning.
His obit in the Missoula papers said he was almost 70 when he passed. I don’t believe it. To me, he’s working his part of the march at one of our conventions. He’ll be crawling down into the basement to prime the pump at the duck camp. He’ll be knocking the doors on the other side of the street. He’ll be working his way through the willows to drop a fly in the Big Hole. He’ll be missed deeply. He was part of my work and a great part of my life.