Searching for Jack Herer, the ‘Emperor’ of American Cannabis

Herer’s historiography is still debated today, and his legacy remains unfinished. Herer, who liked to say his last named rhymed with “terror,” will be remembered among those historic legions of misfits, holy fools, and single-minded obsessives whose refusal to give up on their ideas eventually pushed them in front of the establishment gatekeepers, where their arguments could no longer be dismissed.

Keith Stroup, founder of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, recalls Herer as “a larger-than-life cultural phenomenon” and “the single-most important person in the legalization movement.” In the same breath, Stroup will admit that Herer also could be his own worst enemy. Herer’s style did him no favors. His passion slopped into zealotry. He could rub people the wrong way—opponents as well as allies like Stroup.

This was an unlikely outcome indeed for a hirsute electric sign repairman, who a friend described as “like a moving mountain, 6’1″ and 250 pounds, with a big voice, big heart and big appetite,” and who lived out of a shabby apartment reeking of weed in Van Nuys, Calif.

Here’s a clip of Herer speaking just before he went onstage at the the 1994 Gainesville Hempfest in Florida:

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Not a natural hippie

Jack Herer was born in New York City in 1939, the second son of a bill collector who moved the family to Buffalo at a young age. Buffalo being Buffalo, young Jack fled town as soon as he was able, enlisting in the US Army at age 17. He served a hitch as a military policeman in South Korea immediately after the Korean War. Herer credited the experience with toughening him up and giving him a respect for America’s democratic tradition. “I believed America was always the good guy; always the most decent right-on people on Earth,” he would later tell an interviewer.

After his discharge, Herer took a job with an electric sign maintenance company in California’s San Fernando Valley. He married Vera Donato. They had three children. Herer’s politics were conservative, reflected in his short-cropped hair and office necktie. He supported Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election and backed America’s military escalation in Vietnam. Herer felt nothing but contempt for hippies and their marijuana. For one thing, they were breaking the law. For another, Herer believed what he had been told in newspapers and the exploitation movies of his youth: Marijuana was a dangerous drug peddled by shifty people with bad agendas. “He thought it was like heroin,” recalled Ellen Komp, a close friend of Herer’s later in life.

By the age of 30, he had gotten divorced from his first wife when a new girlfriend—whose name has been lost to history—asked him a question. Had he ever smoked weed?

Of course not, he said.

“You should,” she suggested. Perhaps out of a desire to please her, Herer  shrugged and inhaled. His life would never be the same.

“I was feeling sensations that I didn’t even know a human being could even experience,” he said years later. Ellen Komp recalled him comparing the experience to “the best meal he’d ever had, the best sex he’d ever had.”

And then Jack Herer had an overpowering thought: “Why is this stuff illegal?”

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George Washington grew hemp, man.

Soon thereafter, Herer became a dedicated cannabis consumer. The man averaged four joints a day. And he began campaigning for legalization.

In the style of the revolutionary propaganda of the early 1970s, he helped author a satiric marijuana-themed coloring book for adults called Great American Standard System, or G.R.A.S.S., and sold it in underground bookstores around Los Angeles.

Fans would give Herer all kinds of cannabis facts he’d never heard. Many eventually made it into the book.

During promotional appearances for the book (and the bongs he made), fans would drop all kinds of facts about the hemp plant that Herer had never heard.

Did he know that George Washington ordered hemp grown as a cash crop on his Mount Vernon estate? Or that the riggings and sails of the USS Constitution battleship were made of hemp fiber? Or that America’s campaign against hemp was launched in the 1930s as a paranoid reaction against Mexican migrants and black jazz musicians?

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Herer collected friends as well as facts. He and Ed “Captain Ed” Adair, a fellow cannabis enthusiast, swore an oath that neither would rest until marijuana was legal. Herer also befriended Michael Aldrich, the author of the first known American Ph.D. dissertation on cannabis history, Marijuana Myths and Folklore, awarded by the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1970. “I introduced him to the idea of hemp doing something other than smoking it,” said Aldrich, the founder of San Francisco’s Fitzhugh Ludlow Memorial Library dedicated to drug literature.

The facts that Aldrich and others were feeding him constituted a shadow history of the cannabis sativa plant that had been, in Herer’s view, covered up for nefarious purposes. Everything he had learned as a teenager about marijuana, he decided, was officially backwards, and the facts were in plain sight if you just looked.

Venice and Van Nuys in the seventies

Venice Beach, CaliforniaVenice Beach, Calif., 2017.

To earn a buck, Herer bought into a Van Nuys head shop called High Country and began peddling hemp clothing from a booth on Venice Beach. With a goofy grin and intrinsic charisma (and usually nicely buzzed), Herer became a familiar part of the human carnival on Venice Beach between Windward Ave. and Horizon Ave., one of the most colorful open-air free speech zones in the nation. He would initiate conversations with anyone who looked like they would stand still for one of Professor Jack’s lessons on the glories of hemp and the tragedy of its effacement.

Herers’s other hobby was his Sisyphean attempts to get a marijuana initiative onto the ballot in California.

In 1972, an attorney named Leo Paoli spearheaded an attempt to gather 326,000 signatures to get decriminalization onto the ballot. Proposition 19 went down in Nixonian flames, with 33.5 percent for and 66.5 percent against. The only legislative district to support the measure was located in, unsurprisingly, San Francisco. Even so, the strength of the “yes” vote took most of the California political establishment by surprise.

California’s Prop. 19 loss in 1972 inspired Herer for the rest of his life.

The quixotic failure of Proposition 19 served as an inspiration to Jack Herer for the rest of his life. Nearly every year he tried—and failed—to get another cannabis measure on the ballot. With a group of hardcore allies called the Reefer Raiders, he began organizing sit-ins at the glassy internationalist landmark known as the Los Angeles Federal Building.

One favorite stunt involved dressing up his compatriots in tricorner hats and waistjackets to make the point that America’s founding generation—including George Washington—had grown hemp as a crop. Another involved a public breakfast where hemp pancakes were on the menu.

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These gatherings were usually ignored by the local media, but when the occasional reporter showed up, Herer and his friends would light up joints and smoke them openly. And just as he did at Venice Beach, Herer would offer confused passersby a chance to register to vote, all in hopes of electing pro-legalization candidates and passing a decriminalization measure, a tactic that made Stroup and other legalization advocates back in Washington—who believed in traditional Congressional lobbying strategies—shake their heads.

As an outsider with no connections, Herer “had a desire to go to the people rather than the politicians,” said Aldrich. “That was a huge difference in philosophies between the East and West coasts.”

Playing the democratic long game

Fans gather around Jack Herer’s bus on a tour in the 90’s. (Courtesy of Jeannie Herer)

This was no revolution, but rather a democratic long game. Herer never lost energy, even though none of his proposed initiatives came close to reaching the ballot. This willingness to suffer repeated failure may actually have been his greatest strength. By continuing in the face of certain defeat, Herer ensured a constant cherry of resistance was kept burning during an era when legalization was a dead letter and hippies were considered the spent shells of history.

“He used to say the most noble thing that a person could do was to register someone to vote,” Komp recalled. Years later, when Herer requested his FBI file, he wasn’t surprised to find most of it blacked out by redactors. But one section that survived included an agent’s assessment that Herer was “patriotic” and loved his country—flattering reading to the proud Army veteran.

He was arrested 34 times, but the one that stuck was a federal sedition charge for registering voters after dark.

After emerging from the seventies with a clean record, Herer became, fittingly, one of the first people arrested during the Ronald Reagan era. Politics, not pot, got him popped. Soon after a rally protesting Reagan’s 1981 inauguration, Herer was arrested under an archaic provision of the federal Sedition Act that made it illegal to conduct political activity near a federal facility after dark. This was only one of the 34 times he had been arrested, but it was the one that promised to be the most serious. The arresting officer shoved him into the police cruiser with a nightstick jab to Herer’s kidneys. His companions pleaded guilty and got light fines, but Herer opted to make a principled fight rather than pay the $5 fine he was offered as a plea deal. He lost. In 1983 he reported to Federal Correctional Institution, Terminal Island, off the coast of Long Beach, Calif. to serve a 30-day sentence.

Prison becomes a writing retreat

Jeannie Herer enjoys a hand-rolled joint while looking through old photographs of her late husband Jack. (Ronda Churchill for Leafly)

“This was the first time he’d been alone,” his fourth wife, Jeannie Herer, told me in an interview recently.

With nothing to do but stare at the walls, Herer decided to write down everything he’d learned about hemp over the previous decade. From a thin sheaf of paper, the manuscript grew. When he was released, Herer hit local libraries to check facts and flesh out the details. He thought the Brothers Grimm fairy tale about citizens buying the Big Lie served as an apt metaphor for the American government’s anti-cannabis propaganda campaign. So he titled it The Emperor Wears No Clothes.

“He used to say that if he had never been to prison, he never would have written it,” said Jeannie. “It started out as a poster, and it grew.”

A polemic disguised as a scrapbook

A proud Army veteran and patriot, Herer envisioned an America set free from the lie of cannabis prohibition. (Ronda Churchill for Leafly)

The Emperor is arranged like a counterculture scrapbook in a style slightly reminiscent of his old G.R.A.S.S. coloring book, heavy with sidebars, news clips, art, and cartoons.

The message of ‘Emperor’ was bold and clear: Everything you were taught about cannabis is wrong.

The book, first published in 1985, lays out a kind of History According to Jack: Cannabis sativa was a beneficial medicine known to the Phoenicians in the fifth century BCE and by most cultures in ancient civilization, good for making rope, canvas, food, paper, clothes, and—when its female leaves and flower-tops were ingested—a relaxing and mystical drug. American farmers grew it until racist fears gave politicians a wedge issue in the 1930s. Aided by false fear-mongering stories in William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empire, a former railroad cop named Harry J. Anslinger took control of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1931 and, with the backing of DuPont Chemical and various paper companies, began a campaign to outlaw the growth and consumption of cannabis, ultimately resulting in the popular acceptance of his own view that cannabis was a “deadly, dreadful poison.”

If people could be educated to see through these lies, Herer wrote, hemp could be rescued from obscurity and save the world because it would stop pine forests from being harvested for paper and Earth’s fossil fuel from being refined into filthy gasoline.

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The message appealed to those who were already suspicious of authority and primed to look at the world in a new way. What if everything we were taught was wrong? And what if somebody was making a buck from our fear?

Emperor didn’t look like a serious book on the surface. But the research was backed up with multiple footnotes and Herer’s promise of a cash payout to anyone who could find a factual inaccuracy within it. Though his close research partner Aldrich acknowledged that Herer “stretched things a little bit” insofar as hemp’s world-saving properties, he never had to pay the bounty.

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‘Hemp for Victory’ and other myths confirmed

If nothing else, Emperor ranks as one of the more obsessive single-topic compendiums of recent years, reaching for both easily found documents and the unbelievably obscure to make its points. Among other lost treasures, Herer unearthed a 1900 portrait of rural life titled, oddly enough, The Reign of Law: A Tale of the Kentucky Hemp Fields by James Lane Allen, who wrote at times like he had sampled a fatty of his own subject material. “Warm they must be, soft and warm, those fields, its chosen birthplace,” went one typical passage. “Upturned by the plough, crossed and recrossed by the harrow, clodless, leveled, deep, fine, fertile—some extinct riverbottom, some valley threaded by streams, some tableland of mild rays, moist airs, alluvial or limestone soils—such is the favored cradle of the hemp in Nature.”

Herer and two associates found the suppressed film and donated copies to the Library of Congress.

Then there was the story of the missing hemp film. In 1942, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made one of the thousands of propaganda-heavy educational films pumped out by the government. “Hemp for Victory,” according to its thumbnail description, showed farmers at work in Wisconsin and Kentucky and related “how the war cut off our supply of East Indian coarse fibers, and the urgent need for American grown hemp for our Army and Navy, as well as for civilian use.” The USDA was aiming for 300,000 acres under cultivation within the year.

But after the Anslinger crackdown, the USDA apparently suppressed the film and denied it ever existed. A search of the department’s archives in Beltsville, Md., was fruitless, but Herer and two associates found a reference in a catalog at the Library of Congress. He then made a show of donating two VHS tapes of the movie to the library, with the entire exchange documented in Emperor. And therein lay the peculiar genius of Jack Herer and the key to his book’s success: He fused patriotic ideas of American democracy with an eye toward conspiracy theories and villains wearing suits who didn’t want the trust exposed. Readers found it an irresistible mix.

A book that never stopped growing

Herer continually updated and expanded the book, eventually publishing 12 editions (not counting translations). A few of them are shown here on the mineral-deposited land outside Jeannie Herer’s home in rural California. (Ronda Churchill for Leafly)

The appendix was almost as long as the book itself, and was comprised mainly of press clippings about the war on drugs and its failings, followed by a long series of advertisements taken out by hemp-oriented businesses selling everything from lawn chairs, posters, twine, and soap.

Jack was very good at getting people to do his bidding. He wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Herer added new information as he learned it, putting out new expanded editions, recruiting friends to help him with the research and writing. Among them was Ellen Komp, a volunteer for the Los Angeles NORML branch and a talented writer who was recruited to help with the ninth edition. “It was a million-seller and it was done on the stump,” she said. “It was a living document we kept filling out.” She kept busy Xeroxing library references and wordsmithing large sections of prose under his watch, which was done at close range.

“Jack was very good at getting people to do his bidding,” she said. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer. And he weighed every word for certainty and clarity. I admired the way he did it.”

Pushback from fellow activists

It’s unclear whether Emperor actually sold anything close to a million copies. 700,000 is a lot of books, but there’s no way to verify the number. According to Jack’s son Dan Herer, the book was not sold only through conventional bookstores but also through loose channels not conducive to good accounting practices: out of vans at hemp festivals, for example, and from booths set up at neighborhood fairs or outside one of Jack’s many college lectures. Jack was also known for just giving away free copies when he felt like an unconvinced listener needed an education. Those who hadn’t actually seen it were likely to have heard of it. The book had a profound effect on a subculture yearning for hard evidence to support theories they had only batted around in herbally enhanced conversations. 

Still, while some of Emperor’s readers were delighted with its right-is-wrong spirit, the radical message didn’t go over well with everyone in the legalization movement. Some of Herer’s biggest critics were associated with NORML, who thought the author too often acted more like a hippie provocateur than an effective activist.

“We were trying to paint an image of marijuana smokers as mainstream, and that was not Jack’s strong suit.”

Keith Stroup, NORML founder

“Jack was into street theater,” recalled Keith Stroup, the head of NORML. “We were trying to paint an image of marijuana smokers as mainstream, and that was not Jack’s strong suit.”

Moreover, the claims that hemp was a world-saving crop were, as Stroup put it, “overdone, to say the least.”

“Hemp could well have helped tens of thousands of family farmers to stay on their land, but it’s not going to save the planet,” he said, adding that Herer’s absolutist views on legalization used to be called the “tomato model,” meaning a world where cannabis ought to be grown and sold as openly and blamelessly as tomatoes. This ran counter to the incremental approach favored by NORML, which involved chipping away with decriminalization and medical legalization—a path of compromise and slow steady progress that Herer deplored as selling out his grand, revolutionary vision.

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Yet Stroup has kind words today for the man who he said “inspired generations of people to get involved.” By the mid-1990s, Herer’s detractors within the movement began to soften their criticism, aided, perhaps, by relentlessly favorable press from High Times editor Steve Hager, who embraced the hemp-centered message. In 2002, NORML officially reversed its skepticism by presenting Herer with a lifetime achievement award.

Herer spoke at colleges, hemp festivals, and legalization rallies all over the country in what Komp called “a bell-clear voice” that cut through any crowd noise, “a commanding presence, like a Pavoratti.” He loved the attention.

He sold copies of his book from his truck, and verbally delivered a précis of the message that was even more bluntly stated. “No one has ever died from marijuana that wasn’t shot by a cop!” was one of his favorite punchlines, making one particular audience member roll her eyes.

“I was always afraid for him when he would say that, especially when there were cops around,” said Jeannie Herer. “And if I warned him not to say it, he was sure to say it.”

A new life with a new wife

Jeannie Herer sits next to a canvas print she had made of her late husband Jack Herer outside her home in California. (Ronda Churchill for Leafly)

Jeannie, a former legal secretary from Phoenix, had become Jack’s fourth wife in 1999 after an intellectual romance that began when she read his book, which she picked up as swag at a NORML event. “I was never a political person, but I had to be after I read that book,” she said. She met him for the first time at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam. When she moved to Los Angeles in 1996, she tracked him down at his hemp booth on Venice Beach. Jeannie found him asleep under the table. A friend kicked Herer gently to announce a visitor. Flirtation ensued.

“We were inseparable after that,” she said. “I was in awe. I couldn’t believe this was the man who wrote the book that changed my life.”

The furniture was helter-skelter. ‘I was raided by the cops last night,’ Jack explained.

When he invited her to his apartment to smoke a joint, she was appalled to find the place in shambles. The furniture was helter-skelter, papers were scattered everywhere.

“What a slob!” she thought, and made a more tactful remark to that effect.

“No, no,” he insisted. “I was raided by the cops last night.”

That didn’t bother her so much. Of greater concern to the 39-year-old Jeannie was Jack’s age and fitness. He was overweight and 59. “I didn’t want to fall in love with someone who would friggin’ die on me, which is exactly what happened. But he won me over.”

Three months later she moved into the cramped apartment near the corner of Burbank Blvd. and Kester Ave., an undistinguished junction anchored by two gas stations, an auto-body shop, and a strip mall. He started calling her “Mrs. Herer.” Then he got on the phone with her father, and in his courtliest manner requested her hand in marriage. But he didn’t follow through for three years.

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The psychedelic theory of religion

Many fans assumed that his book sales made Herer a wealthy man. Jeannie saw little evidence of that. He plowed most of his earnings back into the cause. Besides his daily intake of weed, his only other indulgence had been playing the arcade version of Ms. Pac-Man, which he did with such quarter-slugging regularity that he developed carpal tunnel syndrome. Having suffered an unpleasant vomiting fit after a drunken Purim holiday during his teenage years, he rarely touched alcohol. About one beer per year was his average.

Besides a cultural residue of Judaism that led him to say Kaddish prayers for his friends and eat gefilte fish on holidays, there was a side of his spiritual life he kept mostly private. “The mushroom and religion thing,” as Jeannie called it, involved a belief that Christianity sprung into existence because some of its early adherents were shamans who took psychedelic mushrooms.

He had read a 1970 book by the discredited University of Manchester scholar John Allegro called The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: A Study of the Nature and Origins of Christianity Within the Fertility Cults of the Ancient Near East. Herer was enchanted with Allegro’s thesis. He had to stifle his urge to talk about the origins of the Bible because he knew, as Jeannie put it, “pot was an easier sell.”  

A final rousing speech in Portland

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Theirs was an affectionate marriage, leavened by teasing. Jeannie knew how to put him in his place. “If you put your finger in his bellybutton, he would go apeshit,” she said. “An uncle once told him it was the most vulnerable place on the body, and he never forgot it.” When he wanted to playfully get on her nerves, he would drag her over to a spot called Western Bagels late at night where LAPD officers patrolling the Valley were known to hang out. Jack loved walking past them and giving them a big whiff of his weed-scented clothes.

He usually talked himself out of arrest through a combination of legal knowledge and roly-poly charm.

“He was confident in himself and what he could get away with under the law,” she said. When police pulled over his vehicle, he usually talked himself out of arrest through a combination of legal knowledge and roly-poly charm. Many compared his bearing to late-era Jerry Garcia. “He always had a smile for you, and great big hugs and kiss,” said Michelle Aldrich, the wife of Dr. Michael Aldrich. “You couldn’t be mad at him.”

Years of eating bad convenience store snacks and takeout Chinese took their toll. His first stroke, suffered in the year 2000, caused half his face to droop. He lost his famous ability to always find the right word, whether in public speech or private conversation. He recovered some of his articulation by singing old songs—”Truckin’”, by the Grateful Dead, was an unsurprising favorite—and reciting the entirety of narrative poems like “Casey at the Bat.” Jeannie remains convinced that he also helped restore his health through ingestions of insulin, cannabis oil, and the times when she would shotgun pot smoke into his mouth. He eventually recovered enough to smoke it on his own.

Within a few years, he was back on the festival circuit. And that’s where it all came to a final and perhaps fitting end. Herer was speaking at the Hempstalk festival in Portland, Ore., in September of 2009 when he roared out a characteristic declaration. “You’ve got to be out of your mind not to smoke dope!” he yelled. “It is the best thing the world has ever had.” Those would be among the last words he spoke to a crowd. Herer suffered a heart attack next to the stage and, after a long period of disability, died the following April in Eugene.

The Herer legacy

A friend described Herer, here in a 1997 snapshot with friends, as “a moving mountain with a big voice, big heart and big appetite.” (Ronda Churchill for Leafly)

What is the legacy of this renegade author who refused to accept the official story?

“His great gift was to pull all the information together in a digestible format and provide something to go on the road with,” said his friend Ellen Komp. “You have to give the information to change people’s minds.”

Herer “exposed falsehoods in a fact-based fashion. He went about it like a trial lawyer. The content was revolutionary and the subject was revolutionary.”

Brian Vicente, co-author of Colorado’s Amendment 64

Herer was “a man who was of the belief that the whole world would fall into place if only it could understand,” according to Brian Vicente, a prominent cannabis attorney who led the fight to pass adult-use legalization in Colorado. “He was writing about things that nobody else was—exposing falsehoods about hemp in a fact-based fashion. He went about it like a trial lawyer. The content was revolutionary and the subject was revolutionary.”

He wasn’t, and still isn’t, revered without reservations. Herer’s overriding thesis that “hemp can save the world” remains a contentious idea within cannabis culture. Most researchers don’t believe, for example, that the world’s gasoline needs can be satisfied with hempseed oil, or that all the world’s clothing can be made from hemp fibers, or that its demand for paper could be satiated by hemp. Even some of today’s strongest commercial hemp advocates shy away from the kind of sweeping claims that Jack Herer made on Venice Beach in the 1980s.

“I am very cautious about these kinds of all-encompassing statements,” said Anna Owen, a hemp advocate and researcher in Redding, Calif. “It is not the best approach to call hemp a panacea. It’s like a ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ scenario, where you’re promising all these things from magic beans.” She said the best physical comparative to hemp seed is linseed, which is useful for oil paint and perishable cooking oil, but not a planetary salvation.

As for biodiesel material, hemp is not as effective or economical as canola, which has a higher oil content and can give twice the seed-per-acre yield. And hemp fiber costs far more to process for paper pulp than ordinary wood.

Jack Herer’s vision of an emerald carpet across farmbelt states also comes in for criticism among those who would benefit most. “Any monoculture agriculture is not a good thing in terms of sustainability,” said Annalisa Rush, a partner in Hempx.net, an online exchange. “It would take up so much acreage, and I’m not sure it’s feasible.”

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His widow, Jeannie Herer, calls him her “all-time hero” and is trying to find a home in or near Las Vegas for a museum to her late husband, featuring posters, research materials, pipes, and other memorabilia. She runs the website JackHerer.com, which provides free downloads of The Emperor Wears No Clothes. The book has never gone out of print.

Despite their flaws and excesses, Herer’s quirky self-published book and his oversized, big-hearted personality created an international base of fans and admirers. By the mid-2010s his life was over but his legend kept expanding. A company in Amsterdam named Sensi Seeds a sweet-smelling sativa blend—said to be a cross among Northern Lights, Haze, and Skunk genetics—and named it for their late hero.

Reviewers say that the “Jack Herer” strain offers an energetic morning high, light and mellow and non-sleep-inducing. It allows the user to get some necessary things done instead of lying on the couch watching TV. And that, said Ellen Komp, “is Jack in so many ways.”

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