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Mendocino Talking: Janie Sheppard

(Janie is an attorney who spent many years working in the Federal Government in Washington D.C., drafted our anti-GMO initiative Measure H, and tried to impeach Dick Cheney.)

I was born in Los Angeles in 1943, the first born, with two brothers who came along later. My father, an easterner, was in the Army Air Corps stationed overseas. After graduating from Harvard he moved to California to work at MGM. Then the war came along. After the war he went back to MGM for a while and we lived in Culver City, fairly close to MGM.

I realized when I was 5 years old that my mom, a very intelligent and attractive-looking woman, was crazy: I found her in the kitchen playing with pots and pans and flooding the kitchen floor. So I don’t think I really had a mother because I stayed away from her as much as possible. I didn’t know what that really meant for me until I heard an interview of Gerda Lerneron on Barry Vogel’s program. Lerner, a Jewish refugee from Austria, said that she became interested in social justice issues because of her crazy family. My mother, despite her craziness, had a graduate degree in English and taught school wherever we landed.

My father eventually joined the Foreign Service. So in 1957 we went overseas and he took a hardship post as the motion picture officer in Karachi, Pakistan. For a 13-year-old girl that was a terrible, god-forsaken place. I couldn’t believe he had done that to us. We lived in a neighborhood where rich Pakistanis and foreigners lived. There wasn’t any terrorism at that time, and the only terror I suffered was from Muslim men.

To this day it is hard for me to accept Muslim men. I embarrassed my father terribly when he took me to a movie. We were standing around waiting to get into the movie and some little guy came up and pinched me on the butt. As an automatic reflex I turned around and clobbered him… sending him across the room. My father was mortified, but he didn’t know whether to be mortified on my part, or on his part because I had caused an incident and he was a diplomat… it was just awful for both of us. The incident left an indelible impression on my brain that Muslim men were just not to be trusted. So instead of a more international outlook from my 2-1/2 years in Pakistan, I acquired a prejudice.

Then, in 1959, my father was assigned to Saigon. America had some advisors there, but for us kids it was pretty safe. I found it absolutely wonderful. There was an overlay of French culture; I immediately acquired a French boyfriend. I led a pretty charmed life there for almost two years. I hardly ever went to school because we took correspondence courses through the local American school. My mother was a teacher there and never complained about my playing hooky. Unfortunately, because I had no American high school to which I could transfer my correspondence school credits, my father decided the solution was to send me away to prep school for a year. I didn’t know what that meant. I was one of these kids who could do nothing and get decent grades, but my lackadaisical attitude caught up with me in prep school. I crammed for two weeks to complete my junior year high school correspondence courses and then went off to prep school in Boston.

At prep school I was embarrassed because I didn’t know anything about anything, and my study skills were miserable. Most of the women in my class were debutantes, and they were coming out at big fancy debutante parties in December. I had no idea even what that was. I struggled through that year and got some pretty terrible grades. But I applied to and got accepted by Berkeley in 1961, no doubt because my mother had graduated from UCLA and had a Master’s degree from Berkeley.

There, I was also pretty lost too. I wasn’t going to fit in with the Sorority crowd so I just went my own way. I was overwhelmed with the academic work and it was just too big for me. The next year I was determined to be studious, and I was, for a whole semester. I lived off campus, and studied continuously. Then I met a Vietnamese student whose father was a Vietnamese Christian preacher in North Vietnam who had moved his family to South Vietnam when the country was divided. We were both very concerned about the Diem regime at that time. So he and I organized a little protest march in Berkeley and I think it was the first anti-Diem and anti-war march in the country. This was before the coup which the Americans engineered and as a result Diem was killed. Following Diem, there was a succession of Vietnamese generals who ran the country.

In 1964, a whole lot of students went to the South to register voters for the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, I went to Mauritania in Africa with a program called Crossroads Africa. My group of 12 was the first group of Americans to visit Mauritania after WW II. When I came back to Berkeley I had gotten some kind of feeling of who I was and that I didn’t want to lead a narrow life in the United States.

So I hit the campus along with the Free Speech Movement. The campus was in an uproar as the school administration was trying to regulate political activity. The administrators were trying to shut down Civil Rights demonstrations because students from Berkeley were going to Oakland to picket the Claremont Hotel, banks, and other places that were part of the sacred business community of Oakland that wished to continue discriminatory hiring. The powers that be went to the university administration and told them to do something about the picketing… which they tried mightily to do… but, as we know, it didn’t work out for the powers that be. I was quite taken with the Free Speech Movement and Mario Savio, and although I didn’t become anything but a foot soldier, I was arrested along with 800 other students by sitting in at Sproul Hall. To this day I feel good about that. How could anybody not want to be arrested for trying to protect free speech?

That year, I went home for Christmas to Washington DC where my father was going to the War College and hoping to be promoted to an ambassadorship somewhere. He informed me that he was disappointed that I had gotten arrested and that I might wreck his career. So I looked at him and said I would get arrested again if I had to. Then an old friend of his from Saigon days, Journalist David Halberstam, author of the book “The Best and the Brightest,” called him. He said to my dad, “Janie went to Berkeley, didn’t she? I bet she was in that Free Speech Movement and I would like to talk to her.” Halberstam came over and interviewed me while my father listened as I told Halberstam why I had gotten arrested, what it was like, and why I’d do it again. Then, as he was leaving, he said to my father, “You know, I knew Janie was going to do this… you were either going to raise a communist or a nun.” To this day, I puzzle over that remark. After Halberstam left, my father came over and said “I’m really sorry, I shouldn’t have gotten on your case about that… you did the right thing and I’m proud of you” and gave me a big hug. That’s how I became intrigued with politics.

Shortly thereafter I got married to a graduate student in Physics. After a painful year of living in suburban Maryland, he got a job teaching Physics at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where my daughter was born. We lived there for six years, but it was also the beginning of the end of old-style academia, so he didn’t get tenure and we had to move again. It was very hard for either of us to get jobs because we had both been arrested during the Free Speech Movement and therefore had criminal records. He finally ended up getting a job in Washington, D.C. and I found a really good staff job through a friend of mine at the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. That was a wonderful place to work right across the street from the White House. We were doing important work and I knew I would succeed and be okay. We lived in Columbia, Maryland, a new town halfway between Washington and Baltimore. Soon after we got ourselves established we split up, and I moved into the Adams-Morgan area of DC.

I worked quietly during several Republican administrations, but when Reagan was elected, I was branded as a feminist, Democrat, environmentalist. That meant there would be no promotions… and I realized I didn’t really want to do the bidding for Reagan political appointees. At night, while I continued working for the government, I went to law school, joking that I did so on a government scholarship.

Before Reagan’s election, during the Carter Administration, I worked on strip mining policy, first for the Council on Environmental Quality and then for the Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining. There, I wrote regulations allowing citizens to designate certain lands as unsuitable for mining. Later, I ran the office that assessed civil penalty fines on surface coal mining operators.

Then Reagan was elected. Republicans did not want to assess penalties on coal mining operators who were busy dumping crap into the rivers. Well, imposing the fines was my job, and I couldn’t stop doing it. My friends in government all realized there would be consequences for trying to do good in our government jobs. Before the election, I had a run-in with J. Steven Griles, a totally dishonest sleazebag who became an important official in the Interior Department during the Reagan Administration and later in the George W. Bush Administration.. he could not get appointed to a government position during the George H. W. Bush Administration. I knew, or at least fervently hoped, that he would end up in prison, which eventually happened during the George W. Bush Administration. Anyway, I needed to find another job.

Eventually, thanks to some very generous officials during the George H. W. Bush Administration, I clerked in the Interior Department’s Office of Solicitor in the Division of Indian Affairs during my last year in law school. In 1988, Congress enacted the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to regulate casinos on Indian lands and I became a staff attorney at the newly created National Indian Gaming Commission. My boss, the General Counsel, and I put together the first gaming regulations. I worked there for 2-1/2 years. That was long enough to make me realize that I enjoyed practicing Federal Indian law but that I wanted a broader exposure beyond gaming. Trading jobs with a friend in the Office of the Solicitor, I became an attorney there, working on oil and gas issues and Indian lands issues.

While working for the Bureau of Land Management between the Office of Surface Mining and the National Indian Gaming Commission, I met my partner Bill Radtkey. When I took an early retirement in 1998, we moved back to California near where he had grown up in Cloverdale. I still needed to work, and was fortunate to find legal work on a contract basis for lawyers with Indian tribal clients.

JanieSheppardSoon after, I got interested in Measure H, banning GMOs through our county initiative, which I drafted, putting my legislative drafting skills to work for a wonderful cause. Els Cooperrider, Ron Epstein, and I sponsored the initiative, it passed by an overwhelming margin of 14% and Mendocino County became the first GMO-free County in the country. Today, local farmers proudly advertise that their produce and other products are produced in a GMO-free area. Local seed companies, especially, appreciate the fact that they can produce heirloom seeds that are uncontaminated by pollen from GMO crops.

My next big political foray was a total bust… trying to impeach Dick Cheney. I had no idea how difficult it would be. I did realize that we shouldn’t impeach George Bush for all the evil that was going on, because if we did that, Dick Cheney would become the President. And the only person who could be worse than George Bush was Dick Cheney. I thought we could do it by convincing our local officials to pass a resolution that spelled out all the harm the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had caused. Supervisor David Colfax agreed and presented the resolution to the Board of Supervisors. I figured many such resolutions would follow—just as had happened with GMO bans.

Even though I had gathered lots of signatures on a petition to the Supervisors, the resolution did not pass, gaining only Supervisors Colfax’s and Kendall Smith’s votes. Come to find out that Supervisor Pinches did not vote for it because in his district there was a parallel petition to impeach Bush instead of Cheney. I learned from that experience that you have to gather a lot of intelligence before launching any kind of movement, and get agreement about how to proceed before marching ahead. I had mistakenly thought that I could persuade people by doing some research and writing some opinion pieces for the Ukiah Daily Journal. But I made a lot of friends and later, Madge Strong was able to persuade the Willits City Council to adopt such a resolution. In any case, it was an entree into the complexities of county politics.

Now, I’m wondering what we’re going to do about the drought. That’s the most serious problem facing the county and the entire West. I serve on the water board for the Russian River Estates where along with my neighbors we have reduced our usage by 34%. In inland Mendocino County, we all depend on the Russian River and the Eel River which feeds Lake Mendocino. Although we have had more rain this year, the outlook is grim. No snow in the Sierras means no snowpack, means less water in the Eel River, means less water in Lake Mendocino… and so it goes.

(Coming Up: Sandy Turner — School Teacher, Environmentalist; Tom Brower — Farmer, Mendocino Lavender. Mendocino Talking archives:


  1. Penny Coleman February 19, 2015

    What a fascinating life!

  2. Dan Grabois February 19, 2015

    My family and Janie’s family were friends in Williamstown, MA, when I was a little kid and Janie’s daughter was a littler kid. Janie, you’ve done amazing things with your life! I didn’t know any of this. I associate you more with 1970s health food, a fad which thankfully went away as the Reagan years approached. What a wonderful article.

  3. Christine Lee February 19, 2015

    A woman of strong convictions, determination, and commitment who works energetically for what she believes in – so much to admire!

    • Mary Jane Sheppard February 20, 2015

      Thanks! I’m embarrassed and can only wish I could be so good.

  4. Mary Jane Sheppard February 20, 2015

    Dan, I’m afraid you would be shocked to know how much health food we eat around here. But fortunately I gave up a bad habit of drinking tigers milk along time ago. Wine is a better drink.

  5. Mary Jane Sheppard February 20, 2015

    It’s wonderful to have such good friends who are willing to listen to some life stories.

  6. adriana February 23, 2015

    What a story, Janie!!Almost as crazy as mine or crazier?, except I never reached higher than a B.A. after 3 years of U*. of Amsterdam,NL.
    You must give a lecture at Williams College: I’ll have to arrange it?

  7. Chanh Xuan Nguyen March 23, 2015

    We met in Saigon in 1962 at the wedding of a friend of mine – and fellow teacher at the U of Saigon law school. Despite your age you already had a responsible, mature set of mind – you made me read James Agee’s A Death in the Family.
    I am thrilled to read about what happened to you ever since – the life of a high achiever and a lady of conviction and courage.

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