Remembering Jan Eichhorn
Jan Eichhorn, a Southwest political activist and public servant across four decades, died Monday at 71. She had cancer.
The list of groups and activities in which Eichhorn had been active—the D.C. Democratic State Committee, the Ward 6 Democrats, an advisory neighborhood commission, various voting-rights and statehood groups—doesn't quite describe the breadth of her legacy. Dating back to the 1970s, Eichhorn played a key role in securing home rule, remembers close friend Anita Bonds, bringing a "go-getter spirit" to the struggle for D.C. self-determination. It was a spirit, Bonds says, that she also brought to the long struggle to move patients out of the infamous Forest Haven facility for the mentally retarded and into more humane facilities—a process she oversaw in a post with the D.C. Department of Human Services in the 1980s.
"I felt like I had a partner in trying to make a difference to change things," Bonds says, "to accomplish something that could be beneficial for everyone."
One of Eichhorn's political legacies sits in the Ward 6 D.C. Council seat: "Jan, without a question, was my political godmother," Tommy Wells says. "She just adopted me and nurtured me."
More than her political work, both Bonds and Wells say, what will live on is her work mentoring children. She set up a tutoring and mentoring program that matched Hill residents with poorer kids that attended public schools in the neighborhood. Says Bonds, "Her love has always been working with kids and trying to make something happen to improve their lives." One of the mentors is Wells; Eichhorn had him start mentoring a 2nd grader, and today he's a college freshman. "She just knew to pair us up," he says. "Jan just made that happen and that story repeats itself."
Wells said he'd also fondly remember his time at "The Hut," Eichhorn's Shenandoah mountain retreat. "My best memories are after the heat of battle of a campaign...her taking me to the mountains and bring forced to chop weeks and stare at the pond."
Eichhorn had beaten an earlier appearance of cancer several years ago, Wells says, but the cancer recurred and she declined quickly after recent surgery. "She was very straightforward and very realistic about what was happening," Wells says. "She also had a sense that she was fortunate from her first bout of cancer."
UPDATE, 9 P.M.: Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, who knew Eichhorn dating to their days working together on mental retardation issues in the early 1980s.
He remembers being impressed by Eichhorn's commitment to getting patients out of Forest Haven and into community-based group homes—a process that meant appearing at years worth of neighborhood meetings full of irate NIMBYs intent on keeping troubled folks away. "She was really just incredibly dedicated and committed to the effort. She genuinely believed it was the right thing to do," Gray says. "She was very organized, very committed, generally on the spot at those meetings, which were generally very rancorous."
And Eichhorn, Gray says, "brought the same tenacity to her political life....Jan was certainly no shrinking violent by any stretch."
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