Selflessness Was His Vocation, Friends Say

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2007

Even to those who saw him every day, Ken Jacques could be something of a holy mystery. He had the qualities of a saint and was a memorable, often inspirational presence in the lives of those who knew him, many people say. He was well-informed about politics, baseball and theology, and he seemed to be everywhere that people were in need.

For more than 35 years, Jacques worked for little or no money to improve the plight of the homeless in Washington. He was a nighttime supervisor at shelters, he distributed food to the poor and he volunteered all over the city.

"That was his vocation," said Dave Christian, who met Jacques at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown. "He was steady, he was focused, he was modest, he was reliable, he was ubiquitous."

Jacques attended Holy Trinity several times a week and was co-chairman of its social justice committee. He also went to a weekly Bible study at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in the District and counseled friends through divorces and other problems.

He rode his bicycle throughout the city and knew the bus schedule down to the minute. He loved baseball, particularly his hometown Detroit Tigers.

Everyone knew these things about Ken Jacques when he died Aug. 4 of congestive heart failure at George Washington University at 62. Five days later, hundreds of mourners, including priests and the homeless, filled Holy Trinity for his funeral.

As people began to share stories about Jacques, they discovered how little they really knew about him. With his selfless devotion to others, he had all but erased the outlines of his own life.

Ed Guinan, who met him in 1971 at the Newman Catholic Student Center at George Washington University, knew him longer than anyone else in Washington.

"I don't know where he lived or how he made his living," Guinan said.

Jacques never married and was not known to have had a romantic relationship with anyone. One friend, Jo Owen, once asked him how he earned his money.

"He'd just smile and say, 'How do you get your money?' He'd never answer. He'd always pivot and parry."

Kenneth Richard Jacques was born in Detroit, the oldest of five children. He was nicknamed Mickey, after Tigers catcher Mickey Cochrane. He attended Catholic schools, was an altar boy and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Detroit, a Jesuit college. He edited the university's yearbook as a freshman.

"Growing up, he could have been anything he wanted," said his sister, Renee Jacques. "I always knew he would do something incredible. My brother was brilliant."

He did graduate work in history at Kansas State University and supported Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential bid before being drafted into the Army. Although he opposed the war in Southeast Asia, his sense of duty prevailed, and from 1968 to 1970, he held a desk job in Vietnam.

He may have been far from the battlefield, but the echoes of the war never stopped ringing. He returned to Detroit, had episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder and, for reasons no one seems to know, came to Washington.

He felt at ease among the city's homeless from the start, working alongside Horace B. McKenna, a Jesuit known as the "priest of the poor" and the founder of So Others Might Eat (SOME).

For 12 years, until not long before he died, Jacques worked for $10 an hour as the nighttime supervisor at the Crossroads Shelter at St. Alban's Episcopal Church near the National Cathedral. He also supervised the Georgetown Ministry Center's shelter, sleeping on a cot among the homeless, and every fourth Sunday organized volunteers from Holy Trinity to prepare 400 meals for the SOME soup kitchen.

Sometimes wearing unkempt secondhand clothes, Jacques was occasionally mistaken for a homeless person himself. He lived for years in a book-filled room on the third floor of a house on Swan Street NW. Some friends once chipped in to buy him a computer, but he did not own a television.

"He believed the most important things in life weren't things, but helping people," said Peter Spalding, coordinator of the Crossroads shelter.

"He's one of the few people I knew who were not afraid of the poor and homeless," said the Rev. William Byron, the former pastor of Holy Trinity, who nominated Jacques for the Washington archdiocese's Order of Merit award in 2002.

At the shelters where he worked for so long, Jacques didn't have to talk about himself. He had the gift of listening, of drawing people out of their troubled silence.

"They all recognized him as a kindred soul," Spalding said. "There are hundreds of people who have come in contact with him and who have lost a friend."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company