As the harshest winter snows in decades melted around his home in western Cass County Sunday afternoon, Jonathan Justice kept his sense of humor even as he struggled for words.
A respite of a wintry January unveiled landscaping around his home that you just don’t see anywhere else in the undulating countryside, dormant with flora and fauna.
Inside, there was his welcoming companion, Jimmy, his sister, Margaret, hospice staff, family members and his adopted pugs, immaculately vigilant with their faces mimicking Winston Churchill minus a cigar.
This is Jonathan’s homefront, but it is also the battlefront in the ongoing war against cancer. Quietly, he reflected on what may be the most visible crowning glory of his life — the landscaping of the Wabash River from the confluence with the Eel River five blocks east along the Little Turtle Waterway.
Justice, a Logansport High School graduate who went on to Cornell before graduating from DePauw University and pursuing an architectural degree, found himself, like many native Hoosiers, back home again in Indiana later in life. His father, former State Rep. Robert S. Justice, passed away in the early 1990s.
“I returned to Cass County to take care of my mother, only to find out she didn’t want to be taken care of,” he says of the late Catherine Leirer Justice, a former Purdue professor.
What he did find that needed to be taken care of was the stretch of donated railroad right of way — a wasteland that had once been the right of way for Harry Truman’s whistlestop campaign in 1948 that made the Chicago Tribune blush. That stretch that welcomed the last sitting president to visit Logansport was a barren wasteland chaffed by cinders and debris from a bygone era.
Justice, who had grown up near the Wabash along the Fitzer Farm in Clinton Townshp and remembered Sunday drives along the Wabash when he was a child, said his boyhood days along the wide expanses of the Wabash in the county didn’t have much to do with his adult volunteerism. His life took him to Milwaukee where Wisconsin trail advocates had taken on tasks similar to Little Turtle. He had worked on trails there and wanted to work on Little Turtle.
When he returned to the city and saw the project in its early stages, he thought of what it must have looked like when LaSalle became the first white man to see Indiana, or when famed Indiana artist George Winter painted landscapes in Logansport along the Wabash.
“There were so many invasive species that had a strong foothold,” he said of his early memories of what it was like to work along the north riverbank of the Wabash where so much of Logansport’s history unfolded. That stretch was where the city was named in a shooting match, and where a tavern served as an early meeting place on the south bank. An attorney named Horace Biddle settled on the island across from it, and established the largest library in the state there before he served in the U.S. Senate.
That was part of the glorious man-made past of Logansport, but 20 years ago, Justice began working on the natural part, the part settlers inherited around the time the city was founded in 1838, about the time the first of five Justice generations in the county settled here.
Justice became part of the most committed Little Turtle volunteers known simply as “The Hard Core Corps.” He could often be seen along with Craig Rennemann in a brimmed hat on the coldest of spring or fall days, pruning and planting. He taught volunteers what species were around when Logansport was first a city and what species had to go. When deer munched on seedlings, he worked to get trees that were too tall for deer to destroy.
“His idea was to bring about a landscape that had a high canopy of trees but a low underbrush like it was in Winter’s early paintings of Logansport,” Mercedes Brugh of Little Turtle says. “Back then, it was an open forest along the Wabash. You could see the water through the lower limbs of the trees.”
Justice’s pleasure has been watching newly planted hibiscus arrive in spring, and his fear is that it could be lost some day.
“It’s not permanent. It’s something that could be gone in a matter of a few years if it’s not maintained properly.”
What will be permanent along that stretch where couples hold hands, little boys fish and teens skateboard is a bench with an inscription written by Justice, who passed away on Monday. It tells those who are sitting there that he can’t be with them, but asks them to be kind to treat each other well, a thought that may do justice to the setting as much as a man named Justice has done for it.
Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.