February 19, 2008
Russel Jordan 1919 – 2008
Jeannie’s dad Russ died this morning. He had been in a nursing home this year, getting slowly weaker. Last night, he was in good spirits and said, “I think I’ll sleep good tonight.” He was still breathing early in the morning, but never awoke.
Russ always said he didn’t know what was in store when we die, but he was sure we’re in for a great surprise. We’re hoping his surprise involves Mary Jane.
Steve’s Eulogy from the Funeral Service:
I’m Steve Ascher, Jeannie’s husband. Russ wanted people from the family to say something today. It’s asking a lot of a child to speak at their parent’s funeral; it’s maybe a little easier for a child-in-law. So I’m kind of representing everyone, I hope, in what I say. Also, miraculously, Russ wrote an over 400 page journal about his life, which gives us a chance to hear directly from him – still talking to us, as he will be for the rest of our lives.
I met the Jordans in 1988. I had fallen in love with Jeannie in Boston, and this was my first chance to see her Iowa world and meet her folks. Russ was more than a little intimidating, what with the eyebrows and all–you husbands know what I’m talking about. But Mary Jane couldn’t have been warmer and it seemed like I’d passed muster. Jeannie and I got married the next year, but it wasn’t until 1990, when Russ and Mary Jane agreed to let us film what would be their last year of farming that I really understood who the entire Jordan family are. We were filming one of the most difficult moments a family could face, and we saw them demonstrate incredible resilience, strength and love. It’s an astounding act of trust to let someone film you, and because they did, we embarked on one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, and – I know because they tell us so– just as meaningful for a lot of people who see the film.
Russ was a man of contradictions. Read his journal, you’ll hear his inner doubts and deep modesty, beginning in his teen years. “By this time, I was pretty well convinced I wasn’t too popular and also that I wasn’t too bright.” This from a man many of us consider one of the most charismatic, wise and able people we’ve ever met. Spend an evening with Russ, and you’d hear an ace storyteller, with unbelievable comic timing, the driest delivery and word-for-word recall of conversations that took place sixty to eighty years before. Spend another evening and you could see him sit silently for hours while life swirled around him. Was he thinking, dreaming — brooding? Did he just need a private place to escape to, even if it was just a chair? He wrote in his journal, “When you find yourself married twelve short years and already six kids sometimes plotting against you it’s a rather sobering thought.”
Russ’s contradictions made filming him so fascinating. He had opened his life to the camera, but would only reveal himself in glimpses. Ask him a simple question, like “how are you doing” and you’d get back a joke about that banker with one glass eye. Jeannie and I always felt bad about bringing him and Mary Jane back to see the house in Rolfe, which was so destroyed. But Russ channeled his pain into that incredible line, “Well, actually I’ve enjoyed about all of this I can handle.” Would that we all had that much dignity and wit to call on when times are tough. His ability to turn what some might see as failure or defeat into a moral, and then financial, victory is at the heart of the film. For all the ways that heroes from old Westerns were an inspiration to him, he can take his place among them as a leader who inspired his family with deep reserves of courage, tactical shrewdness and pure poise.
Russ and Mary Jane thought we were crazy to throw so much time and money away on a film about them, which they couldn’t imagine would interest anyone outside the family. Fortunately they were wrong. Really wrong! Audiences fell in love with them, and identified strongly with the story of the Jordan clan from 1867 to 1991. So did the juries at the Sundance Film Festival and the Academy Awards. It was crushing to all of us that Mary Jane didn’t live to experience how much her life meant to people around the world. But, though he missed her deeply the whole time, Russ came with us to Sundance and to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and got to see the impact he was having. He may have gone just a little overboard in the modesty department when he wrote: “I was very fortunate to be able to have a very small part in it.”
At the Academy Awards he describes seeing actress Laura Dern: “The high point for me was when Laura Dern and her escort Jeff Goldblum came up and she told me how very much she liked the family movie. Also about that time a man asked if I was Sean Connery. I didn’t tell him I was but I didn’t tell him I wasn’t either.”
Russ goes on: “By the way, our film was beaten out by Steven Spielberg and Ann Frank’s diary but it did take an impressive film with a millionaire’s backing to get the job done. It was an event that I never in my wildest dreams would ever have anticipated I would even be a part of. If anyone can imagine a crude Iowa farmer in this setting, you’ll have to use your imagination to the fullest. I missed my long time sweetheart but I was beginning to be resigned to that by this time.”
For Jeannie and me, the awards were great, but what’s most powerful is that Troublesome Creek may take a place in history as a document about a way of life that was once everything in America but may someday be gone altogether. Russ’s death makes that so much more real. But as he wrote: “Some people that seem impressive say that the Jordan family film will be used for many years to come to document the changing of the agricultural scene and hopefully might have a bearing on the outcome, which will affect everyone who eats.”
Though Russ had a public side—the film star, the school board president—everyone knew that the private side, his wife and family were everything to him. He dedicated his journal to his family “with unconditional love.” He wrote: “With a partner like Mary Jane you could expect to have kids that couldn’t be surpassed. I’ll freely admit that Mary Jane raised the family as I was fully employed trying to make ends meet and that wasn’t always easy. One thing I noticed is they didn’t move to Australia to get away from us. That’s a comforting thought.”
Russ was comforted not just by thoughts, but by the most amazing group of children and grandchildren who loved and cared for him until his last day. They all gave so much. I want to mention in particular two: Judy, who organized and wrangled his finances and practical life, and Jim who showed up devotedly day after day to feed him, make him comfortable, and enjoy his company. If Russ wanted something, Jim made it happen. Because of the children, Russ could stay in his home as long as he did, which meant the world to him.
I’ll close with a song that Jeannie asked to be played: I See the Moon. Mary Jane sang I see the Moon to the kids when they were little, and when she was dying and could barely speak, singing it was one of the last things she did. The song is about lovers who are separated by distance but, the singer hopes, drawn together by the same light. Like Russ and Mary Jane, who fell in love on a Ferris wheel on an August night in Wiota in 1939, but after only one date went nearly a year without seeing each other, each shyly hoping the other hadn’t forgotten them. The song might have another meaning too. The last thing Jeannie asked Russ was if, after he was gone, he could try to send some kind of signal to let us know he was ok. If any of you saw that incredible lunar eclipse on Wednesday night, the moon glowing with the most luminous warm light… he may just have found his sweetheart again.
Paul Byrnes, film critic and former Director of the Sydney Film Festival reflects on the impact of the film on Australia, and vice versa. Sydney Morning Herald