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Q&A: Author Dr. James Hecht on His Life of Public Service

In Making A Difference, Denverite Dr. James Hecht writes about how his commitment to helping others has shaped his view of the world. 

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For people like Dr. James Hecht, volunteering is a lifelong commitment. The local author, activist, and retired chemical engineer spent much of his life giving back to communities both local and international. His efforts have helped reverse racial housing discrimination at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, enact better safety standards in the National Park Service system, and improve hospital conditions in Nepal, ultimately saving thousands of lives. Now 89 years old and living in Denver, Dr. Hecht has released a new book, Making A Difference: Reflecting on the Past, Thinking of the Future, which charts his involvement in an eclectic mix of advocacy groups and campaigns, and how they’ve helped shape his opinions on public policy and foreign aid.

After decades of working on many diverse issues, Hecht and his wife Amy Blatchford Hecht now help oversee the University of Denver/American University of Beirut Academic Partnership Endowment Fund, which they created in 2015 to support partnerships between the two universities. We sat down with Hecht to learn more about his book, what has motivated his drive for public service since the 1960s, and what keeps him going today.

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5280: Has the concept of “giving back” always been something that came naturally to you or is it something that you learned?

Hecht: As a child, I was never interested in public service. I think my parents gave me very good values, but they were never involved themselves. So it wasn’t until I met my wife, Amy, while I was getting my doctorate at Yale in the early 1950s, that I felt encouraged to do so. She always had her hands full with raising our three children and working as a nurse, but that allowed me the time and inspiration to give back.

How did you first become involved with fighting racial housing discrimination during the Civil Rights Movement?

I was appointed to chair a social action committee in our church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst, while we were living in New York. We decided that the most important problem in our country was racial discrimination. While most advocacy was about what should be done in the South, we wanted our church to do something in the Buffalo suburb where we lived, so we began advocating for equal housing rights. After New York’s anti-housing discrimination law passed in 1963, I joined the Niagara Frontier Council for Freedom of Choice in Housing, which we later renamed Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), and I went on to become a board member, executive vice president, and president by 1970.

How did you juggle these responsibilities with starting your family and building your career as a chemical engineer at DuPont?

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I’ve always believed in working hard, not watching television, and getting by on six hours of sleep a night. My job required a lot of my energy and time, but I think I’ve always enjoyed keeping busy. Of course, I could have never done any of this without Amy’s support.

As your new book details, you have helped address a number of diverse issues throughout your life. What has been the biggest source of guidance for you in choosing what issues to commit your time to?

I’ve always been guided by how I could make a contribution. Often, the cause presented itself. For example, when my nine-year-old son Andy died in a terrible accident at Yellowstone National Park in 1970, Amy and I started a safety campaign the next day to change the Park Service’s regulations and standards. When we moved to Denver in the late 1990s to be closer to our daughter and other son, Amy was appointed chair of the Global Mission Committee of Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church and that connected us to Patan Hospital in Nepal when it became the foreign beneficiary of the church’s fundraising. We ended up visiting the hospital where the medical director asked if I could form a committee to bring in more resources, so I became a founding chairman for the nonprofit Friends of Patan Hospital.

I retired at age 58, which was in 1985, so for most of this time, I was not working for DuPont and this was my retirement activity. It’s always been where I saw I could make the most impact.

When you reflect back on the full life you’ve lived, is there a cause or moment you are most proud of?

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It’s difficult, because you’re comparing peas and carrots, so to speak. How do you compare getting people a place to live and overcoming housing discrimination with saving lives through better medical care? Or saving people from accidents through better safety practices in the national parks? You can’t, in a way.

However, my work against housing discrimination is probably what I’m most proud of. Although all of these causes took a lot of time and money, fighting housing discrimination took a lot of risk. We used to get a lot of nasty letters and telephone calls in the middle of the night during that time. Amy was worried I would be killed, but I tried not to think about it.

What do you hope your new book, Making a Difference: Reflecting on the Past, Thinking of the Future, will inspire in readers?

I saw how the first book I wrote, Because It Is Right, had such an important impact on teaching others how to fight racial housing discrimination throughout the 1970s, and that was a big motivation. I also had been writing articles on public policy issues for a long time, and they’ve been in publications like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, but I didn’t think they were very effective. I hope with this book my experience and perspective will get out to a larger audience. In any case, I just thought it would be nice for my grandchildren and their successors to know something about our family, and the book does that in spades.

What advice do you have for people wanting to make the most of their time in order to do more for others?

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It’s hard, because you have to decide where you’re going to take time away from. I’ve never been one for television, so that’s saved me a lot of time. But you either have to do less in something else or sacrifice your sleep. That’s why a lot of people don’t do anything, because they’re so busy with family and work. At the root, it’s a very personal decision. You have to believe in what you’re doing.

How critically do you think one person’s efforts can affect the larger progression of an issue or cause?

It can make all the difference in the world; take my book as one example. I’m told statistics all the time of how many lives have been saved at Patan or through safety regulations in national parks. But ultimately, I think if there’s anything I learned in all of this, it’s that the best way to be happy is to make other people happy. It’s a very simple rule. The interesting thing is that I’m not in very good shape now and need caregivers, but I’m not stopping. Even if you have your own problems, you can still find a way to help others.

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