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Obituary of James B. McGinnis III: Teacher of Peace, conscientious objector

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 18, 2009 - When some people in the University Hills neighborhood of University City go out to get their paper each morning, it's often found very close to their front door. Until Friday morning, many people thought it was just good aim by their newspaper carrier. It was not. It was because Jim McGinnis had put it there.

"He went about doing random acts of kindness," Joan Falk, a longtime family friend, wrote to Mr. McGinnis' neighbors after he died, apparently of a heart attack, during one of his early morning walks on Thursday. "It was a daily commitment that was as natural for him as breathing. Our neighborhood was blessed by his nearly daily presence on our streets.

"He was the closest thing to a living saint that I knew, because he cared passionately about peace and justice," Falk said.

In fact, James B. "Jim" McGinnis III, in an interview with the Peacebuilders Initiative, admitted to carrying a "pebble of love" in his pocket "as a symbol," he said, "of all the tiny acts of kindness and love I can commit every day as a way of offsetting the impact of the "boulders of violence" on our lives and world.

A visitation and memorial service for Mr. McGinnis, who was 66, will be Tuesday evening at the "Rock" Church.

The Making of a Nonviolent Ministry

The war in Vietnam, the killing of students at Kent State and Jackson State, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, civil rights marches, and all of the upheavals of the 1960s, caused many people to be troubled.

It caused Jim McGinnis, who served in the military for six years -- he was on National Guard duty in Memphis when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed -- to become a conscientious objector, then to dedicate his entire life to peace and justice. He formalized that commitment by founding the Institute for Peace and Justice in St. Louis in 1970 while he was a graduate student and faculty member in the philosophy and education departments of Saint Louis University.

"In the face of escalating violence, escalate love," Mr. McGinnis said. He was emulating three of the people who inspired him: King, St. Francis of Assisi and Mohandas Gandhi, whose grandson Mr. McGinnis had befriended.

"Jim worked to reshape and popularize Gandhi's thoughts," said Bill Ramsey, a fellow peace activist and the coordinator of Human Rights Action Service. "He would look at the long run of educating people on behalf of peace; he held up the ideals of Gandhi and Dr. King.

"Jim really was seized by the pain of others and couldn't let go of it; he had to do something about it. There was just an intensity and persistence that wouldn't let go of him and he wouldn't let go of it. He was always thinking of the next way to take the message of peace and justice out to people."

Reaching Out to the Community

Mr. McGinnis was always serious about his work, but he wasn't above clowning around to further his message. He would take on the persona of "Francis the Clown," in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, and enlist grade school students to take the School Pledge of Nonviolence.

Susan Talve, rabbi at Central Reform Congregation, called Mr. McGinnis a community hero.

"He changed the tenor of discourse with the kind of peace work he and (his wife) Kathy brought to St. Louis," Talve said. "He was just a wonderful, wonderful presence. He absolutely lived peace and justice. By listening to all our voices, he treated everyone with infinite worth. He and Kathy taught in a way that truly honored even their adversaries; they won over a lot of hearts.

"His family is a blessing for the community," Talve said. "I felt safer, better that the McGinnises were doing their work. The little bit of peace we can be proud of in this community, comes from people like Jim McGinnis who stood at the front line -- didn't yell and didn't scream -- and told us that he loved us."

Preparing for the Mission

Mr. McGinnis earned a master's degree in philosophy from Catholic University of America in 1965 and his Ph.D. in philosophy (ethics) at Saint Louis University in 1974. He wrote his dissertation on Gandhi's understanding of freedom and nonviolence.

In 1970, while working on his doctorate, he was named the director of the Institute for the Study of Peace, which evolved into the Institute for Peace and Justice, on the campus of Saint Louis University. The program was a faculty response to the university's ROTC program in light of the events of the day. It was one of the first such programs in the nation, and 30 students enrolled for the fall semester.

The program grew to national prominence, spurred by the diligent efforts of Mr. McGinnis, who was soon joined by his wife Kathleen (Kathy) McCoy McGinnis, whom he met at the university, and an appearance on the Phil Donahue Show in 1983.

Teaching Peace and Justice

Mr. McGinnis subscribed to the same philosophy as American journalist and critic, H.L. Mencken, "If you want peace, work for justice."

The Institute worked in partnership with schools, other nonprofit organizations, people of all ages and races, and people who were regaining their freedom. That's where Mr. McGinnis enlisted the services of his longtime friend, Dickson Beall, the husband of Joan Falk.

"I was a mentor in the prison program," said Beall, tearfully remembering his friend. "The men can come out pretty damaged, but the way that program was designed, the careful training, made it a very effective program.

"I have never known anyone who worked so hard behind the scenes to make a difference in people's lives. Jim worked directly with prisoners and did constant follow-up. He even followed up on me," Beall laughed.

While Mr. McGinnis' life's work centered on the Institute, in addition to Saint Louis University, he also taught at Kenrick Seminary, Seattle University's SUMORE Program, Loyola University Institute for Pastoral Ministry Program and Eden Theological Seminary.

Mr. McGinnis's many honors included the Peace Abbey "Courage of Conscience" award, the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers' "Recognition Award," the Pax Christi USA "Teacher of Peace" award, and he and Kathy were recently named two of the NAACP's 100 "Most Inspiring St. Louisans."

The two earned the award together because they kept the nonprofit, interfaith organization strong, while moving in a thousand different directions.

They did things differently "but they were trying to accomplish the same thing," said longtime friend, Pat McAllister. "They were always on the same plane. I think their deep faith was at the root of their commitment. They always looked at people as individuals, not as groups, and they were always able to see the good in people."

Jim and Kathy McGinnis spent the evening before he died with Ed and Pat McAllister, first at the pool at Heman Park, where they often went to walk in the water and talk, then at the McAllisters for "Thanksgiving" dinner, celebrating their 42nd wedding anniversary.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a daughter, Theresa McGinnis of Overland; two sons, Thomas McGinnis of Overland and David (Erica) Rosen-McGinnis of Wildwood; two sisters, Mary Anne James of Aptos, Calif., and Susan James of Clearwater, Fla.; and three grandchildren, Bria, Aidan and Maddex. He was preceded in death by his parents and a sister, Patricia Ryan.

Visitation will be at 5 p.m., Tues., Aug. 18 at St. Alphonsus "Rock" Church, 1118 North Grand Boulevard, followed by the funeral Mass at 7 p.m. at the church. His body was donated to the Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Institute of Peace and Justice, 475 East Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves, MO 63119.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.