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Harlan High teacher ran for president as a Socialist

J. Quinn Brisben

J. Quinn Brisben

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Updated: June 12, 2012 8:14AM

With his bushy whiskers and jaunty Western string tie, J. Quinn Brisben was mistaken at times for Col. Sanders or Orson Welles.

But he was more than a celebrity lookalike. In 1992, Mr. Brisben ran for U.S. president as the Socialist Party’s candidate, finishing 15th, with 2,789 votes.

It wasn’t a lot of votes, but Mr. Brisben was proud of his showing. He’d campaigned in every state except Hawaii and Alaska.

It wasn’t his first try for national office. He felt honored that former Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler — the last Socialist to run a major American city — picked him to be his vice presidential running mate in 1976. Till the end of his days, Mr. Brisben’s vanity license plate reflected his No. 2 role on the 1976 Socialist Party ticket: SP276.

Mr. Brisben, a longtime history teacher at Harlan High School on Chicago’s South Side, died April 17 at his apartment at the Breakers at Edgewater Beach. He was 77.

Dr. Claudia Fegan remembers Mr. Brisben from her time as a student at Harlan.

“There were students in my class who he gave money to because they needed it,” said Fegan, the chief medical officer at Stroger Hospital. “There were people he helped complete the applications for college. He convinced them they could go somewhere with their lives.”

Curtis Lawrence, a former pupil, said of Mr. Brisben: “I always knew I was going to college, but he was the first person outside of my family to give voice to it. One day, he read a portion of a book report I had done related to the Civil War aloud in class and said ‘This is college material.’ I will never forget that.”

You could not miss Mr. Brisben, friends said.

“In the Roseland neighborhood, Mr. Brisben was known as this big, white guy who rode his bike to school,” said Lawrence, a former Chicago Sun-Times reporter who’s now an associate professor of journalism at Columbia College. “By the early 1970s, most of the white families had left Roseland. But not Mr. Brisben.”

“That was quite a sight,” Fegan said, “seeing a 300-pound man on a bike with his cowboy hat and a poncho and his cowboy boots.”

At first glance, his African-American students might have thought they had little in common with him. But Mr. Brisben had taken part in the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Mr. Brisben traveled to Mississippi and Alabama a dozen or so times to participate in civil rights marches. In 1965, he walked with demonstrators at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in what became known as Bloody Sunday. When police attacked them, the violence repulsed many, pushing the surge for equal rights. In the 1950s, when he was a student at the University of Oklahoma, Mr. Brisben was roughed up for being a member of the NAACP, said Andrea, his wife of 56 years.

In the mid-1960s, the couple invited two African-American girls from the South to live with them and attend school in Chicago — the summer before the girls would go on to help integrate a Montgomery, Ala., high school. One of them, Gladis Williams, recalled how someone tried to burn down the Brisbens’ garage and threw firecrackers through the front window.

“Quinn was our daddy, and Andrea was our mama,” Williams said. “He stood by us. . . . They gave us a chance to be able to handle the situations we had when we came back and enrolled in Alabama.”

Mr. Brisben was arrested 18 times in all, according to his wife. In recent years, his arrests were at disability-rights demonstrations.

“He didn’t just have us read about the civil rights movement,” Lawrence said. “He told us real stories about it because he was there.”

Occasionally, an African-American teen might challenge Mr. Brisben on what he really knew about the black struggle. His standard reply was usually enough to silence them: “I was in Montgomery working with Dr. King, and I didn’t see you.”

His activism extended to gay rights and issues. In 1990, Mr. Brisben and his wife were scheduled to visit the Soviet Union. At the behest of a gay friend, they smuggled 3,000 condoms donated by the group ACT UP/Chicago to the Moscow Gay and Lesbian Union, his wife said.

Mr. Brisben grew up in Enid, Okla., an oil town hit hard by the 1930s storms that turned the plains into the Dust Bowl. He remembered his mother putting wet sheets over their windows to try to keep out the grit. He saw neighbors struggling to dig out farm equipment buried in sand and dirt. His father tried to explain the scene by telling his young son it was a “tractor mine.”

Mr. Brisben met his wife at the University of Oklahoma. “He was 6-foot-3, dark and handsome and had a brain,” she said. “Oh, I wanted someone with a brain.”

She said they “had 13 dates and had already decided how many children, and what kind of furniture” they would have.

They wed and lived early on in Madison, Wis., when he studied at the University of Wisconsin. He worked at a school in Gurnee before teaching in Chicago at Mason Upper Grade Center, Kelly High and Harlan.

The Brisbens lived for 43 years at the London Towne Houses Cooperative in Pullman before moving to the Breakers.

His famed writer-friend Studs Terkel interviewed him for four of his books, including Race and Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, according to Mr. Brisben’s wife.

Mr. Brisben published three books of poetry of his own, as well as a novel, V for Victory Blues.

He is also survived by a daughter, Becky Davis; a son, Michael; a brother, Joseph; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Brisben probably would have approved of the tune sung at a recent gathering to celebrate his life. His family and friends changed the words of “We Shall Overcome” to “We Shall Occupy.”

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