Justin Dart Remembered — Humanitarian, Leader and Friend

ABILITY Magazine Archives in shiny silver and purple letters.Editor’s note: In recognition of a great humanitarian, leader and friend, we present “The Resurrection of Justin Dart Jr. : A Quest for Truth and Love,” which was written by Mari Carlin Dart and originally appeared in the Diahann Carroll issue of ABILITY Magazine. Also included are additional comments from Dr. Fred Fay and Fred Pelka, Justin’s Farewell Message and Remembrances. “I am proud to have spent time with Justin and Yoshiko. I think of Justin often and his ability to share his love toward people that often tried to silence his message. I still struggle with that capability. And thanks to Mari for staying by his side to help write his legacy.”—Chet Cooper.

Justin and Yoshika Dart

Dearly Beloved:

Listen to the heart of this old soldier. As with all of us, the time comes when body and mind are battered and weary. But I do not go quietly into the night. I do not give up struggling to be a responsible contributor to the sacred continuum of human life. I do not give up struggling to overcome my weakness, to conform my life—and that part of my life called death—to the great values of the human dream.

Death is not a tragedy. It is not an evil from which we must escape. Death is as natural as birth. Like childbirth, death is often a time of fear and pain, but also of profound beauty, of celebration of the mystery and majesty, which is life pushing its horizons toward oneness with the truth of mother universe. The days of dying carry a special responsibility. There is a great potential to communicate values in a uniquely powerful way—the person who dies demonstrating for civil rights.

Let my final actions thunder of love, solidarity, protest—of empowerment.

I adamantly protest the richest culture in the history of the world, a culture which has the obvious potential to create a golden age of science and democracy dedicated to maximizing the quality of life of every person, but which still squanders the majority of its human and physical capital on modern versions of primitive symbols of power and prestige.

I adamantly protest the richest culture in the history of the world which still incarcerates millions of humans with and without disabilities in barbaric institutions, backrooms and worse, windowless cells of oppressive perceptions, for the lack of the most elementary empowerment supports.

I call for solidarity among all who love justice, all who love life, to create a revolution that will empower every single human being to govern his or her life, to govern the society and to be fully productive of life quality for self and for all. I do so love all the patriots of this and every nation who have fought and sacrificed to bring us to the threshold of this beautiful human dream. I do so love America the beautiful and our wild, creative, beautiful people. I do so love you, my beautiful colleagues in the disability and civil rights movement.

My relationship with Yoshiko Dart includes, but also transcends, love as the word is normally defined. She is my wife, my partner, my mentor, my leader and my inspiration to believe that the human dream can live. She is the greatest human being I’ve ever known.

Yoshiko, beloved colleagues, I am the luckiest man in the world to have been associated with you. Thanks to you, I die free. Thanks to you, I die in the joy of struggle. Thanks to you, I die in the beautiful belief that the revolution of empowerment will go on. I love you so much.

I’m with you always.

Lead on! Lead on!

Justin Dart

Disability Rights Hero Completes His Mission

In an uncharacteristically quiet moment, Justin Dart, Jr., died with his wife and partner, Yoshiko Dart, at his side. Best known as the father of the Americans with Disabilities Act and often called the Martin Luther King of the disability civil rights movement, he thought of himself in much more humble terms—simply as a soldier of justice.

After nearly 50 years of advocacy for the civil rights of oppressed people in America and around the world, Mr. Dart spent his final days at home completing his manifesto. His tenacious impatience and unwavering voice of empowerment will continue in the hearts and minds of all who fight for justice.

“Death is not a tragedy,” wrote Mr. Dart. “It is not an evil from which we must escape. Death is as natural as birth. Like childbirth, death is often a time of fear and pain, but also of profound beauty, of celebration of the mystery and majesty which is life pushing its horizons toward oneness with the truth of Mother Universe. The days of dying carry a special responsibility. There is a great potential to communicate values in a uniquely powerful way—the person who dies demonstrating for civil rights.

“I call for solidarity among all who love justice, all who love life, to create a revolution that will empower every single human being to govern his or her life, to govern the society and to be fully productive of life quality for self and for all.”

Justin Dart Obituary

by Fred Fay and Fred Pelka, written at Justin Dart’s request.

June 22, 2002

Justin Dart, Jr., a leader of the international disability rights movement and a renowned human rights activist, died last night at his home in Washington D.C. Widely recognized as “the father of the Americans with Disabilities Act” and “the godfather of the disability rights movement,” Dart had for the past several years struggled with the complications of post-polio syndrome and congestive heart failure. He was seventy-one years old. He is survived by his wife Yoshiko, their extended family of foster children, his many friends and colleagues, and millions of disability and human rights activists all over the world.

Dart was a leader in the disability rights movement for three decades, and an advocate for the rights of women, people of color, and gays and lesbians. The recipient of five presidential appointments and numerous honors, including the Hubert Humphrey Award of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Dart was on the podium on the White House lawn when President George H. Bush signed the ADA into law in July 1990. Dart was also a highly successful entrepreneur, using his personal wealth to further his human rights agenda by generously contributing to organizations, candidates, and individuals, becoming what he called “a little PAC for empowerment.”

In 1998 Dart received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. “Justin Dart,” said President Clinton in 1996, “in his own way has the most Olympian spirit I believe I have ever come across.”

Until the end, Dart remained dedicated to his vision of a “revolution of empowerment.” This would be, he said, “a revolution that confronts and eliminates obsolete thoughts and systems, that focuses the full power of science and free-enterprise democracy on the systematic empowerment of every person to live his or her God-given potential.” Dart never hesitated to emphasize the assistance he received from those working with him, most especially his wife of more than thirty years, Yoshiko Saji. “She is,” he often said, “quite simply the most magnificent human being I have ever met.”

Time and again Dart stressed that his achievements were only possible with the help of hundreds of activists, colleagues, and friends. “There is nothing I have achieved, and no addiction I have overcome, without the love and support of specific individuals who reached out to empower me… There is nothing I have accomplished without reaching out to empower others.” Dart protested the fact that he and only three other disability activists were on the podium when President Bush signed the ADA, believing that “hundreds of others should have been there as well.” After receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Dart sent out replicas of the award to hundreds of disability rights activists across the country, writing that, “this award belongs to you.”

Justin Dart, Jr., was born on August 29, 1930, into a wealthy and prominent family. His grandfather was the founder of the Walgreen Drugstore chain, his father, a successful business executive, his mother, a matron of the American avant garde. Dart would later describe how he became “a super loser” as a way of establishing his own identity in this family of “super winners.” He attended seven high schools, not graduating from any of them, and broke Humphrey Bogart’s all-time record for the number of demerits earned by a student at elite Andover prep. “People didn’t like me. I didn’t like myself.”

Justin Dart recovered from polio in 1948
Justin Dart had polio in 1948—surrounded by family and friends, Justin Dart Sr. standing center with second wife, Jane Dart.

Dart contracted polio in 1948. With doctors saying he had less than three days to live, he was admitted into the Seventh Day Adventist Medical University in Los Angeles. “For the first time in my life I was surrounded by people who were openly expressing love for each other, and for me, even though I was hostile to them. And so I started smiling at people and saying nice things to them. And they responded, treating me even better. It felt so good!” Three days turned into forty years, but Dart never forgot this lesson. Polio left Dart a wheelchair user, but he never grieved about this. “I count the good days in my life from the time I got polio. These beautiful people not only saved my life, they made it worth saving.”

Another turning point was Dart’s discovery in 1949 of the philosophy of Mohandas K. Gandhi. Dart defined Gandhi’s message as, “Find your own truth, and then live it.” This theme too would stay with him for the rest of his life. Dart attended the University of Houston from 1951 to 1954, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science and history. He wanted to be a teacher, but the university withheld his teaching certificate because he was a wheelchair user. During his time in college, Dart organized his first human rights group—a pro-integration student group at what was then a whites-only institution.

Dart went into business in 1956, building several successful companies in Mexico and Japan. He started Japan Tupperware with three employees in 1963, and by 1965 it had expanded to some 25,000. Dart used his businesses to provide work for women and people with disabilities. In Japan, for example, he took severely disabled people out of institutions, gave them paying jobs within his company, and organized some of them into Japan’s first wheelchair basketball team. It was during this time he met his wife, Yoshiko.

The final turning point in Dart’s life came during a visit to Vietnam in 1966, to investigate the status of rehabilitation in that war-torn country. Visiting a “rehabilitation center” for children with polio, Dart instead found squalid conditions where disabled children were left on concrete floors to starve. One child, a young girl dying there before him, took his hand and looked into his eyes. “That scene,” he would later write, “is burned forever in my soul. For the first time in my life I understood the reality of evil, and that I was a part of that reality.”

The Darts returned to Japan, but terminated their business interests. After a period of meditation in a dilapidated farmhouse, the two decided to dedicate themselves entirely to the cause of human and disability rights. They moved to Texas in 1974, and immersed themselves in local disability activism. From 1980 to 1985, Dart was a member, and then chair, of the Texas Governor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities. His work in Texas became a pattern for what was to follow: extensive meetings with the grassroots, followed by a call for the radical empowerment of people with disabilities, followed by tireless advocacy until victory was won.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed Dart to be the vice-chair of the National Council on Disability. The Darts embarked on a nationwide tour, at their own expense, meeting with activists in every state. Dart and others on the Council drafted a national policy that called for national civil rights legislation to end the centuries old discrimination of people with disabilities—what would eventually become the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

In 1986, Dart was appointed to head the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), a $3 billion federal agency that oversees a vast array of programs for disabled people. Dart called for radical changes and for including people with disabilities in every aspect of designing, implementing, and monitoring rehabilitation programs. Resisted by the bureaucracy, Dart dropped a bombshell when he testified at a public hearing before Congress that the RSA was “a vast, inflexible federal system which, like the society it represents, still contains a significant portion of individuals who have not yet overcome obsolete, paternalistic attitudes about disability.” Dart was asked to resign his position, but remained a supporter of both Presidents Reagan and Bush. In 1989, Dart was appointed chair of the President’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities, shifting its focus from its traditional stance of urging business to “hire the handicapped” to advocating for full civil rights for people with disabilities.

Dart is best known for his work in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 1988, he was appointed, along with parents’ advocate Elizabeth Boggs, to chair the Congressional Task Force on the Rights and Empowerment of Americans with Disabilities. The Darts again toured the country at their own expense, visiting every state, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the District of Columbia, holding public forums attended by more than 30,000 people. Everywhere he went, Dart touted the ADA as “the civil rights act of the future.” Dart also met extensively with members of Congress and staff, as well as President Bush, Vice President Quayle, and members of the Cabinet. At one point, seeing Dart at a White House reception, President Bush introduced him as “the ADA man.” The ADA was signed into law on July 26, 1990, an anniversary that is celebrated each year by “disability pride” events all across the country.

Advocates including Judy Heumann and Justin Dart
Disability rights advocates including Judy Heumann and Justin Dart

While taking pride in passage of the ADA, Dart was always quick to list all the others who shared in the struggle: Robert Silverstein and Robert Burgdorf, Patrisha Wright and Tony Coelho, Fred Fay and Judith Heumann, among many others. And Dart never wavered in his commitment to disability solidarity, insisting that all people with disabilities be protected by the law and included in the coalition to pass it—including mentally ill “psychiatric survivors” and people with HIV/AIDS. Dart called this his “politics of inclusion,” a companion to his “politics of principle, solidarity, and love.”

After passage of the ADA, Dart threw his energy into the fight for universal health care, again campaigning across the country, and often speaking from the same podium as President and Mrs. Clinton. With the defeat of universal health care, Dart was among the first to identify the coming backlash against disability rights. He resigned all his positions to become “a full-time citizen soldier in the trenches of justice.” With the conservative Republican victory in Congress in 1994, followed by calls to amend or even repeal the ADA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA), Dart, and disability rights advocates Becky Ogle and Frederick Fay, founded Justice for All, what Dart called “a SWAT team” to beat back these attacks. Again, Dart was tireless—traveling, speaking, testifying, holding conference calls, presiding over meetings, calling the media on its distortions of the ADA, and flooding the country with American flag stickers that said, “ADA, IDEA, America Wins.” Both laws were saved. Dart again placed the credit with “the thousands of grassroots patriots” who wrote and e-mailed and lobbied. But there can be no doubt that without Dart’s leadership, the outcome might have been entirely different.

In 1996, confronted by a Republican Party calling for “a retreat from Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln democracy,” Dart campaigned for the re-election of President Clinton. This was a personally difficult “decision of conscience.” Dart had been a Republican for most of his life, and had organized the disability constituency campaigns of both Ronald Reagan and George Bush, campaigning against Clinton in 1992. But in a turnabout that was reported in the New York Times and the Washington Post, Dart went all out for Clinton, even speaking at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The Darts yet again undertook a whirlwind tour of the country, telling people to “get into politics as if your life depended on it. It does.” At his speech the day after the election, President Clinton publicly thanked Dart for personally campaigning in all fifty states, and cited his efforts as “one reason we won some of those states.”

Dart suffered a series of heart attacks in late 1997, which curtailed his ability to travel. He continued, however, to lobby for the rights of people with disabilities, and attended numerous events, rallies, demonstrations and public hearings. Toward the end of his life, Dart was hard at work on a political manifesto that would outline his vision of “the revolution of empowerment.” In its conclusion, he urged his “Beloved colleagues in struggle, listen to the heart of this old soldier. Our lives, our children’s lives, the quality of the lives of billions in future generations hangs in the balance. I cry out to you from the depths of my being. Humanity needs you! Lead! Lead! Lead the revolution of empowerment!”

Today, disabled people across the country and around the world will grieve at the passing of Justin Dart, Jr. But we will celebrate his love and his commitment to justice. Please join us at in expressing our condolences to Yoshiko and her family during this difficult time. Keep in mind, however, that it was Justin’s wish that any service or commemoration be used by activists to celebrate our movement, and as an opportunity to recommit themselves to “the revolution of empowerment.”

Comments sent to ABILITY Magazine

“Justin’s commitment to helping others will live on for years to come. He was a courageous, good man. We Bushes will miss him.”
—President George Bush

“Hillary and I are deeply saddened by Justin’s passing. Justin was a rare person of tremendous courage and willfulness. Never once did he allow his disability to limit his life; instead, Justin turned his disability into a source of incredible strength not only for himself but for millions of Americans. His spirit was relentless and his heart was always full of love. The contributions he made to our lives and the life of this nation will thunder on long after he is gone. Hillary and I will miss him very much. Our thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family at this difficult time.”
—President Bill Clinton

“Justin Dart was a pioneer in the disability field who never tired working to improve the lives of those with severe disabilities. He will be greatly missed but never forgotten.”
—Senator Bob Dole

“Justin Dart was the Abraham Lincoln of the disability community and no one could ever replace him. So many millions of Americans with disabilities never knew his name but they owe him so much. He was a champion who was at the forefront of disability rights for decades.”
—Senator Tom Harkin

“He was one of our country’s greatest warriors in the fight for civil rights for people with disabilities. He was a friend of mine, and I will miss him very much.”
—Senator Edward Kennedy

“I feel so privileged to have had the honor of knowing and working with Justin. Many on Capitol Hill may remember him, in his cowboy hat, offering critical input as we worked to draft the Americans with Disabilities Act. On July 26, 1990, Justin was at the side of President George Bush when the president signed the bill into law. Justin referred to that event as “a landmark date in the evolution of human culture,” and we all have Justin to thank for his immeasurable gift to that evolution…
—Senator Jim JeffordsJustin Dart

The Resurrection of Justin Dart, Jr.: A Quest for Truth and Love

by Mari Carlin Dart

As a child, I did not know my uncle. Years ago when I asked my father about his older brother, he lowered his eyes and ran a heavy hand over his head with a sigh. Nothing. The old “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” approach. My mother was not so diplomatic. “Poisonous,” she said of Justin Dart Jr., “a heartless, caustic, sorry excuse for a human being.”

My father Peter W. Dart died, mercifully, in his sleep on January 27, 1988. Years of dealing with the effects of polio and a serious head injury had taken all of the fight out of him. Long gone were the days of fly fishing the Roaring Fork River propped up on metal crutches. Gone was the beloved airplane he piloted as deftly and gracefully as a skater gliding across the ice. Gone, even, was all short term memory, sharpness of sight and the ability to take a deep breath. The last to be taken from him, only days before his death, were his crutches (in trade for a wheelchair) and his driver’s license. The bleakness of the depression he had struggled with for years closed over him as he gave up the last vestiges of his independence.

I was surprised and admittedly curious when Justin rolled through the wheelchair accessible front door for my father’s memorial service. I didn’t know that by this time Justin was already deep into his work crafting legislation to empower people with disabilities. Indeed, Justin had put in nearly 30 years of tireless and selfless work on behalf of the disability community, speaking out in all 50 states and circumnavigating the globe in a crusade to affect change. All I knew was that this man in a battered old cowboy hat and boots was the stuff of scary stories in my family. He was legendary for the swath of pain and destruction he had wrought. But when I looked into his clear blue eyes I couldn’t find any evidence of the arrogance and anger I’d heard so much about. On the contrary, when Justin took my hand for the first time and smiled gently at me in greeting, I recognized the stillness that comes from deep self-examination. I felt only love.

“How can this be?” I thought. What about the divorces, the trail of disgruntled daughters Justin had left in his wake? I felt as though a chapter of my family story had been ripped out. Suddenly nothing added up. I felt cheated. How could my father have denied me knowing this beautiful man—his only full brother—until now? And why did it take my father’s death for me to be able to put my hand in Justin’s? The answer, it turns out, was both simple and complex, as families often are.

Justin Dart, half brother John Jason Stephan and Peter Dart
Justin Dart, half brother John Jason Stephan and Peter Dart

Justin was born to privilege and power—the kind that breeds contempt and a sense of entitlement. I was sitting next to his adjustable, hospital-style bed in his crowded Washington D.C. apartment when he told me he and my father had grown up “in an atmosphere of hostility which totally dominated (our) childhood.” Life was full of fiery dinner table discussions, unrestrained emotional eruptions and quirky turns of judgment, such as the time his father arrived home with two lion cubs—pets for his young boys. “My father was a college football star” Justin said understating the elder Dart by a mile. “(He was) a super successful executive and conservative political activist.” Justin Dart Sr. climbed to the top at the Walgreen Company then left, eventually forming what would become Dart Industries, a multi-national conglomerate. As if the bar was not set high enough by the aggressive ambition of Justin Sr., his mother Ruth Walgreen brought to the mix a sharp artistic intellect that was tempered with dark and stormy episodes of depression. “My mother combined movie star good looks (with) wealth and a genius IQ to become a prominent author,” Justin said. It was a dysfunctional marriage. The two extremely driven and fiery parents had little time or inclination for child rearing, let alone parental bonding. “(We were) basically raised by maids and chauffeurs.” Justin stated bluntly. The ill-advised match didn’t last. In 1939 Justin Dart Sr. and Ruth Walgreen divorced, but not before subjecting their young sons to a very bitter and public custody battle.

“I decided the only way to establish my own identity,” Justin said of his youth, “was to become a hostile ‘super loser.’” To prove the point, Justin blasted his way in and out of some of the country’s most prestigious prep schools. “When I was 14,” he told me, “I broke the all-time demerit record at Andover.” At home, sibling rivalry turned violent when Justin threw a dart at my father, sinking it deep into the bridge of his nose. “I was an obnoxious kid.” Justin said. “I never met a person I couldn’t insult or a rule I wouldn’t break.”

As if in cruel cosmic response to his contemptuous attitude, the six-feet-tall handsome and rich 18-year-old Justin Dart Jr. was stricken with polio in 1948. “The doctors at Los Angeles County hospital told my parents I was going to die in a few days,” Justin explained, “but not to worry, I’d be better off dead than crippled.” Without waiting to see if the doctors were right, Justin’s family quickly had him moved to White Memorial Hospital, operated by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. In one fell swoop, the course of his life was altered forever. He not only lost the use of his legs, but because of a hospital staffed by employees “to whom every human life was sacred,” Justin found something he didn’t know he had. “I measure the good part of my life from the time I got sick,” Justin told me, not losing any of the irony of the statement.

“Even though I was rude to them,” Justin said of the hospital staff, “(they) were passionately dedicated to expressing love for each other (and) for me.” It was a completely new experience for a young man who had for most of his life expressed himself only through deep anger and malice. “I could feel the warmth of their love,” he related. “For the first time. . .I knew the joy of life.”

Justin remembered singing hymns with the nurses when nothing else would quell the pain of his condition. “They resurrected my spirit—the sick spirit of a young man who had lived a short, lonesome life of failure, hostility and self hate.” Convinced he had only a few days left to live, Justin recalled, “I sort of went wild experimenting with love. Love lifted me. And it did. . .it did. The love—and the loving science of (those) strangers—saved my life.”

Justin reentered the world two years later, looking at life from a new vantage point—the belt level of a wheelchair. Even though he’d regained enough strength and control to wear leg braces, he decided to use a wheelchair after the first time he tried to climb a stone staircase. “I was terrified I was going to fall and hit my head,” he stated evenly.

Leaving the safe haven of White Memorial had its drawbacks. Thrown back into contentious family dynamics, Justin was lost in a parental tug-of-war. His father wanted him to continue on the fast track to financial success and his mother had her own agenda. “I was desperate for a formula to live,” Justin said. But he was stuck repeating old stereotypes and behavior. “I felt the power of love,” he recalled, “but I didn’t have the slightest idea how to use it.” Justin then quoted Gandhi from My Experiments With Truth: “You can reach greatness. You don’t need a lot of money, a title or anyone’s approval.” The first time Justin read those words he was 20 years old and searching for answers. “I found my truth in advocating a united, loving society with justice for all,” he told me. “You find your truth and then you live that truth. I have spent the rest of my life trying to understand exactly what my truth is, and struggling to overcome my addiction to the old ways.”

It is true that change usually does not come easily nor very quickly. But once the seed is planted, it must grow—in it’s own time, in it’s own way. Reading Gandhi’s book did not fix everything for Justin, but it gave him a new paradigm. “I attacked life with passion,” he said “and a crude statesmanlike effort to use the power of being positive.” He started several businesses, even drawing my very conservative father into a bowling alley venture in Mexico. Justin managed to find success, but not the respect he craved. “I asked my lawyer why I didn’t get more credit for all the great things I did,” he recalled, “why people criticized me.” Voicing the sentiment many around Justin felt, his attorney replied, “Frankly, you’re a real son of a bitch, but you’ve got potential.”

Justin and Yoshiko in Japan
In 1963 Justin took over Tupperware Japan with 4 employees and grew it to 25,000. Yoshiko Saji, standing, distinguished herself in the company as well as Justin’s heart. They married in 1967.

By 1968, Justin was living the high life in Japan. “I made every fashionable mistake,” he said of himself. “Alcohol, prescription drugs, womanizing, divorces, big mouthing, bad parenting and outrageous self-advertising.” In a bold public relations sweep he even made the cover of Shukan Asahi, Japan’s equivalent to Time magazine. Justin was living the epitome of material success and riding the wave with reckless abandon. He’d been seduced by the drugs of money, fame and power.

During a trip to Saigon, Justin made a casual visit to a Catholic orphanage for children afflicted with polio—a perfect photo opportunity for the man who had been dubbed “St. Justin in a wheelchair” by the press. He was utterly unprepared for the barbarism that unfolded before him. Twisted bodies of children with pleading eyes lay strewn about the concrete floor of a 15,000 square foot pavilion, “lying in their own urine and feces, covered with flies.” Justin recalled. The draconian conditions shook him to the core. “I was engulfed by the devastating perception that I (had) met real evil and I (was) a part of it—the way I’m living and dealing with disability is killing (these children).” After a sickening drunken binge in the hotel, Justin left Vietnam with a new focus. “I told Yoshiko (his fiancée at the time), ‘We cannot go on as we have been. Our lives have got to mean something. We have got to get into this fight and stop this evil.’”

The images of the orphanage haunted Justin for years. He never lost his concern for the children and the scene that had brought him to his senses. Twenty four years after Justin’s fateful visit, I participated in a humanitarian mission taking medical instruments and supplies into (still embargoed) Vietnam. When I told Justin I would be traveling the length of the country visiting hospitals, he asked me if I could return to the orphanage in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in his stead. Sister Marie, who had shown my uncle the sight that sobered him, silently nodded recognition when I spoke my name. She reached across the table where we sat drinking tea and placed her weathered old hand over mine. She had no words for me. Tears spilled from her dark eyes. We watched a tiny little girl wearing impossibly small leg braces pull herself into my lap with a victorious grin. “Things were different then,” Sister Marie said finally. “(They’re) better now. We have a school now.”

After the traumatic trip to Vietnam in 1968, “I decided to stop and examine my understandings,” Justin told me, “and my values.” He and Yoshiko retreated to an abandoned farmhouse in the mountains of Japan for a kind of self-imposed exile. For six years they detoxed, not only from from the drugs and alcohol but also from the toxic society in which Justin had participated for so many years. “I looked hard at my life,” Justin said. “I began to truly experiment with my truth. It came as a profound shock to understand that I was the problem. . . (and also) that I was the solution—that I am responsible for myself and for all the problems. . .for all the solutions of society. Because I am society, I (was) determined to dedicate my life to the movement for a just society.” In a 1970 letter to my father, Justin wrote: “I call myself a radical, if that means trying one’s best to think straight to the point and to experiment with change (in a life-quality direction) which is possible now. . .now. I call myself a conservative, if that means opposing violence, magical ideas of the instant utopias by ‘revolution’ or otherwise. . . I call myself a fan of science, if science can be defined as having only one legitimate goal—the highest possible quality of life for all in the world.”

Justin and Yoshiko left the mountain and returned to America in 1974. Gradually at first, then more fervently as the years passed, they poured more and more of themselves into the disability rights movement, sacrificing money and family to the cause.

“You’re bound to make mistakes, but you’ve got to keep reaching out. I was too late, two years too late,” Justin said of my father. “I was out preaching to the world about empowerment and independence. My own brother needed my attention, didn’t get it and died.” Looking at a photo of my father pinned to the wall, Justin commented, “I keep it there to remind me I made a really ghastly mistake.” The brothers were estranged for most of their lives. Grim family dynamics had left deep chasms of distrust between them. They saw one another only at occasional family gatherings, weddings and funerals. Rarely were their visits anything more than polite and perfunctory. The climate between them was more like casual acquaintances than brothers. However, the depression that haunted my father’s last years drove him to contact Justin with a new earnestness. “I was skittish, I didn’t want to take the emotional risk,” Justin recalled. “Who knows, if I’d handled it differently, maybe we’d be going fishing together. I feel very guilty about (not being there for him).” Turning his eyes back to the photo, he continued, “I try not to get too involved in things like sitting next to the President. I keep my eyes on the prize—people who need me.”

“You aren’t born being a Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., some kind of a saint or angel—not that I am any of those things,” Justin stated frankly. “After decades of struggle, I still have addictions to overcome.” Each day he endeavors to live closer to the ideals and truths he came to understand on the mountain. “It’s important people realize I wasn’t always like this—I was no great communicator of justice. . .very seldom even of a smile. I didn’t always care about the well being of others.” There was even a time in his early advocacy when Justin was “just sort of doing it. I was geared to increasing my profits,” he said. Somewhere along the line—he’s not sure when—he gave up the need for monetary gain. “The relationships, the great people with whom I’ve gotten to work—those are the rewards. The rewards are far greater than I ever thought possible.”

The time is coming when Justin will not be a visible inspiration anymore. “There’s no delicate way to put it,” he told me with the characteristic sparkle in his eyes, “I’m dying.” When President Clinton inquired about his health recently, Justin deadpanned, “I just celebrated the second anniversary of my first funeral. Apparently I’m well, Sir.” But the fact remains his body is slowly succumbing to a litany of ailments. Justin knows his days on the planet are numbered. Soon his hat and his legacy of love will be passed to a new generation of leaders. Some who don’t yet feel the call will step forward. Reluctantly, even tentatively in the beginning, they will be drawn “into the greatest movement in the world, with the greatest people in the world,” according to Justin.

During a recent visit, Justin described his nightly ritual of looking up into the sky before sleeping to my mother Janneli Dart and me. “We are all a part of the vastness of the cosmos,” he told us. “An infinitesimal part, but a part nonetheless. And we are responsible for that part—to be a part.”

“I will never forget those words,” my mother later said. “People say you can’t change. But the truth is, you are what you want to be. You are what you believe you are—what you believe in. Justin taught me that.”

Justin ends every letter he writes, every speech he makes and nearly every conversation I’ve ever had with him the same way. At the culmination of a lifetime of personal interrogation and advocacy, he seeks to remind us all of the most important things in life: “You have the power. You have the responsibility. I believe in you. And I love you.”

Justin Dart quote in the DC ODEP office

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