Politics, diplomacy are personal, Jack J. Schramm shows in memoir

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Native St. Louisan Jack J. Schramm chronicles his half-century as a public servant at state, federal and international levels in a comprehensive memoir, “Passionate Purpose: A Global Governance Journey” (New Insights Press, $20). Schramm, who now resides with his wife Dorian in Alexandria, Va., is a familiar figure to the St. Louis Jewish and general communities, known not only for his acute political and diplomatic skills but for his warm and engaging people skills. 

Schramm credits his late parents, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, for instilling in him a system of values and ethics that have served him well. Local Jewish readers will enjoy his frequent references to growing up in the Delmar Loop area of University City, and attending the Delmar-Harvard Grade School, which he says helped launch his public service: 

“My political career started in kindergarten, where my teachers (Miss Olmstead and Miss Isley—I’ll never forget them) appointed me the fire chief of a red fire wagon that we had built.”

Schramm, who was born in 1932, recalled that during the Great Depression, “times were tough for everyone in the Loop.” His father, a violinist, worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Symphony Orchestra, which played every week in University City’s Heman Park. “My father earned about $90 a month, which helped with the rent, while my mother earned the grocery money,” he writes. Schramm lived in the same humble U. City Loop apartment all the way through his first year of law school at Washington University.

He was inspired not only by the way President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal responded to the Great Depression, but also by the blatant racism that existed even in liberal U. City during his formative years. He recalls that his mother hired an African-American house cleaner named Margaret. During an outing with Margaret to a popular A & W Root Beer Stand in the Loop called Blondie and Dick’s, young Jack ordered a frosted mug of the foamy beverage. When he could not finish the large mug, he handed it to Margaret, who smiled and put the mug to her lips “and no sooner had she done that, when Blondie appeared—she startled me—and snatched the mug right out of Margaret’s hands, saying ‘Sorry.’ ” 

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Those formative years influenced Schramm throughout his career, causing him to become a liberal Democrat in state politics. Schramm earned a bachelor’s degree in politics and philosophy from Colgate University, and a Doctor of Law degree from Washington University. He served in the U.S. Army with the 82nd  Airborne Division. 

Schramm officially launched his political career as an elected member of the Missouri House of Representatives, where he specialized in complex, innovative leadership.  He was cited by the Wall Street Journal as “one of a new breed” of state officials in a national Page One feature story, and as “one of the most effective legislators ever to sit in the Missouri House,” by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Schramm lost a primary election to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives to one of his Missouri colleagues, Bob Young.  The loss coincided with a plane crash that killed Jerry Litton, the Democratic candidate for Senate in 1976, along with his wife and their two small children.  That tragedy gave Schramm a close look at his priorities. 

“Not lost on me in those terrible moments, where both self-doubt and self-realization were at war with one another in my fevered mind, was the unambiguous thought that I, unlike Jerry, could wake up from my own nightmare (of his loss to Young) the next day and move on,” Schramm writes. 

After recovering from the initial shock of his loss to Young, Schramm bounced back and continued his career in several federal agencies and departments. He was tapped by the Carter administration to serve as regional administrator in the newly established Environmental Protective Agency, where he was responsible for administering federal environmental laws in the Mid-Atlantic States. He was also involved in negotiating several major cases, including handling the Three Mile Island Disaster.  To describe Schramm as a “trouble shooter” is no exaggeration.

For the past 25 years, Schramm has served as a consultant, including engagement by USAID, the World Bank and other entities for senior assignment in 26 countries. His work included a recent review of democracy and governance in Iraq, where he discovered Iran-sponsored Shia efforts to sabotage American programs, which as a result were shut down.  He has consulted in numerous other countries on industrial policy, including Russia, China, Egypt, the Philippines and Afghanistan, where he worked to assist the post-war government to improve and upgrade their governance and root out terrorism and corruption.

As the keynote speaker at the first Iraqi National Legislative Conference, Schramm laid out a strategy to Iraq’s leaders, which he reinforced in private meetings, to realize the power-sharing provisions contemplated by the Constitution of 2005.  Iraq’s overly centralized national government, the only kind they knew, was reluctant to share power with the Provincial Governments.  If it could be persuaded to do so. it would enhance the country’s problem-solving capabilities, which were desperately needed in the war-torn Middle East of the time.

Now in his mid-80s and recovered from a serious bout of pneumonia, Schramm shows no signs of slowing down.  He continues to be actively engaged with governmental reform programs. 

His book includes an interesting epilogue, which updates his narrative to include the 2016 election and the implications of a Trump presidency on domestic and foreign policy. 

Future editions of “Passionate Purpose” would be well-served to include an index to make it easier to locate specific items of interest.  The book manages to combine a warm and thoughtful memoir with a work of serious scholarship on domestic politics and foreign policy—areas in which Schramm has excelled throughout his long and distinguished career.