Most of you knew my Dad and share my admiration for a number of qualities he exhibited:
his hospitality and genuine interest in getting to know people well
his humility, openness to new ideas, and concern for people rather than power
his respect for individuals, even those with very different lifestyles or views
I hope others here will say more about those characteristics, because I want to focus on another one—his lifelong passion for helping children by strengthening families.
The scripture I heard my Dad quote most often was from the letter of James:
What God the Father considers to be pure and genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world.
I see two major influences that led him to a professional career in social work: his farming family background, and his openness to learning.
We are inevitably influenced by our family heritage, and especially by the parents who raised us. In his memoir, Roots Deep in Texas, my Dad gives a glimpse of how each of his parents demonstrated the concern for people that was the hallmark of his career. He wrote:
Even during the depression, Papa continued to improve the land. He hired people who wanted to work, anyone who had no income. He paid one dollar per day. He did it even though he had to borrow the money at 10% interest, because the workers needed food and he wanted those fence rows and hedges cleared. (pg. 56)
Once my Dad's mother, who had 12 children, was asked how she managed so many children and if she ever wished she didn't have so many. Her response was:
"There were times when I would have liked to have had them farther apart, but I wanted each one! When I held each tiny baby in my arms and looked into its face I wanted to hold it forever." (pg. 20)
My Dad admired and imitated the generosity and love he saw in his parents.
It may come as a surprise to anyone who knew of the long hours of strenuous labor that my Dad invested in his gardens, but as a teenager he hated having to put down his book to go out with his Dad and brothers to the endless, exhausting farm work. He told himself, "When I grow up and have children, I will not make them stop reading to go to the fields to cut sprouts! Never!"
He and my mother were both school teachers and avid readers. My Dad's interest in learning opened him to new ideas that he would probably never have encountered if he had remained a farmer. One summer while he was taking graduate courses in education at the University of Colorado, he met my mother, who had come from Wisconsin to study there. In graduate school at the University of Colorado, my Dad learned that some good things can come from states other than Texas.
My parents were married during World War II, and after the war they took the job of houseparents in a children's home in Florida. It seems the experience of caring for children who had been neglected and mistreated motivated him to find ways to help them. At the age of 40, he went back to graduate school, this time in social work, and earned his Masters degree from the University of Wisconsin. As he learned more about the complexities and difficulties of social work, he began writing articles for church papers on the need for trained social workers to manage the placement of foster and adoptive children, to avoid the emotional trauma caused by the common practice of casual placements by untrained people.
As he gained experience in the field, working in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, he often came home with tragic stories to tell over the dinner table. My Dad was very reticent about expressing emotion. (He was the stiffest person I've ever hugged.) But we heard the grief and pain in his voice as he told of children enduring daily beatings by their parents, and mothers with active tuberculosis leaving the hospital to go home to care for their children. He kept learning from experience, and worked to find innovative ways to alleviate the suffering he encountered.
At the age of 50, my Dad accepted a new job which both tapped into and strengthened his passion for good child care in families. As Supervisor of Protective Services for the State of Tennessee, he screened all referrals for termination of parental rights and conducted workshops for social workers on how to work with parents who neglected their children. We continued to hear painful stories, but there were heartwarming successes, too.
A few years later, my Dad accepted the role of Director of AGAPE (now AGAPE Nashville). This was the kind of work he had longed for ever since he entered the social work field—helping children by strengthening families, while working as a church-related agency.
He was enormously gratified by the enthusiasm of the supporters and volunteers who got the agency off the ground and continued to support it over the years.
He was thrilled by the professional skills and dedicated efforts of the staff, as the agency grew and expanded its services—and as new agencies in other cities modeled themselves after it.
He felt his life's dream was fulfilled when he saw adopted children grow to healthy maturity, single mothers cared for during their time of stress, and family members learning relationship skills through counseling.
My Dad officially retired at the age of 65, but his work barely slowed down. He continued to serve as a consultant for AGAPE and also served on special committes for the Tennessee Department of Human Services, Christian Counseling Services, and the Davidson County Foster Care Review Board. He found the latter to be especially rewarding, because, in his words,
My conviction was that children should be returned to their own parents, if possible; if not, parents should be helped to surrender their child for adoption instead of leaving them in limbo in foster care, year after year.
With the Foster Care Review Board, he helped to get legislation passed that required a court-supervised review of the case of each child in placement every six months, to help prevent those children from growing up without the security of a family.
In retirement, my Dad devoted more of his attention to personal interests as well. He and my mother regularly cared for Alan & Alice's children, Scott, Paul & Katy, while their parents worked. He cultivated his largest garden ever, sharing the fresh tomatoes, squash, and other produce with many neighbors and friends. He and my mother each wrote a book of their memoirs. (Those books are treasures to me.)
They also took some road trips together, one purpose of which was to collect rocks from a variety of locations, including East Tennessee, New Mexico, and Wyoming. One unusual part of his extensive collection consisted of stones described in the Revelation to John as the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem.
My Dad studied and taught the Bible all his adult life. As a skilled teacher, he never lectured his classes, but helped the classes learn by asking questions and encouraging discussion. In his later years, he became particularly interested in the prophecies of Jesus' return to rule the world. He saw the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel as a fulfillment of prophecy that strengthened his faith. Encouraged by that event, he expected Jesus to return soon, and hoped to see that occur in his lifetime.
My Dad was happy with his life. He was not a complainer, and it never would have occurred to him to wish for Jesus to return to end his sufferings. I believe his hope was that Jesus coming and the establishment of the New Jerusalem would mean the end of the suffering of children and other defenseless people. From my perspective, his life was a prayer for that day to come.
I am proud of my father, Howard Justiss.
I have lived away from him my entire adult life, so I haven't had a clear awareness of everything that happened in his life, but I am proud of him.
I told a co-worker, a man from New York City, the story about how Howard was a school principal in a small Texas town when he registered for the draft on the eve of World War II. He studied the Bible and concluded that he had to register as a conscientious objector, because one should not take human life or to even hate one’s enemy. This was not a popular decision at that time or place, but Howard had the courage to do what he believed and he served in the Army medical corps.
I told my co-worker the story about how Howard resigned his job with the State of Tennessee, giving up his state pension at the age of 60, to become the first Director of AGAPE. His passion to care for unwanted children gave him the courage to take that step.
These last few years I was puzzled about why so many of you have done so much for him. I asked my co-worker why you all would do that for my father. He said, "I know why. From the stories you told me, your father is a mensch." Mensch is Yiddish for "a person of integrity and honor", a particularly good person. And that clarified things for me. Even someone who didn't know Howard Justiss can take his measure from hearing about his life.
Howard Justiss is an inspiration to me. I admire the courage he had and I'll try harder to be as cheerful as he was.
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