As those of you who have been reading this blog over the last few years know, Jason has been sick with pancreatic cancer since the summer of 2020. With chemotherapy, the advance of the disease was slowed, but early this year it became clear that the chemo was no longer working as it had been, and Jason decided to begin home hospice care. This last weekend, early on Saturday morning, he passed away, surrounded by Judy and his sons, David and Daniel.
This blog was an important part of his life for more than a decade – a creative outlet, a community, a tribute to his love of gardening and sometimes a place to reflect on other things in his life, including family – and so we (his family) wanted to share a little bit more about him here.
Jason was born and raised just outside New York City on Long Island. He was the youngest of four siblings, and his parents, Paul and Barbara, exposed him to a love of gardening early. (He wrote a little bit about his father and his father’s garden here.)
After high school, Jason briefly lived on a kibbutz in Israel. In addition to lots of valuable cultural exchange, this allowed him decades later to instruct his children on the best ways to load resistant, sharp-clawed turkeys into trucks for slaughter. This is one lesson his children have yet to put into practice.
After a few years in Queens, New York, and Madison, Wisconsin, Jason moved to Chicago in Spring 1983 to work for DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America. He met Judy in August 1983 when they went to a conference together (assigned to the same vehicle, which happened to be a small stick-shift pick-up truck, which Judy barely knew how to drive; Jason had no driver’s license at the time). Before the end of a three hour drive from Chicago to Madison, sparks were flying (actually, before they reached the Belvidere oasis).
Jason had a keen sense of social justice, and was always active, both professionally and in his personal time, in fighting to protect the dignity and rights of all people. In Chicago, he worked for the Metropolitan Tenants Organization; then organized families of nursing home residents; worked as a paralegal for the eldercare program of Cook County Legal Assistance; and became Executive Director of the Illinois State Council of Senior Citizens Organizations (now the Illinois Alliance for Retired Americans). He liked fighting for the rights of senior citizens, but he hated fundraising and administration (he was worried about tax reports for ISCSCO for years after he left, although he had done them as well as he could), and was glad eventually to transition to the political affairs department of AARP. There, he worked in the Dakotas and Nebraska (though based in Chicago), which led to further cultural exchange, such as the time he tried to get a haircut in Pierre, South Dakota, and his barber (who was not familiar with curly Jewish hair) refused to believe he hadn’t had a perm. Later, he worked in Wisconsin, where he helped pass legislation creating a new program to reduce the cost of prescription drugs for seniors (before the Medicare Part D drug program was launched).
He spent the last two decades of his career at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME Council 31, a union which represents 90,000 Illinois public and nonprofit employees. He masterminded victories for pro-labor candidates in important legislative and local government elections, and was a critical part of legislative lobbying efforts to raise wages for low-paid human services workers, especially those caring for people with developmental disabilities.
In his free time, of course, Jason loved to garden. It was the ultimate escape from lobbying in state capitols and fighting state and municipal bureaucracy to secure decent working conditions, and from the craziness that has overtaken our country in the last several years. Gardening brought him great satisfaction and joy (as well as the usual frustration of gardeners everywhere).
As readers here know, his love of gardens came as much from a sense of whimsy and simple appreciation for beautiful things as a love of working outdoors in the dirt and an appreciation for the scientific, historic, and cultural meaning of gardens and gardening. He was as likely to stop and appreciate a flower or wild grass in a park or on the side of a path as he was to spend hours flipping between garden catalogs and a sketchbook to fine-tune the next season’s plantings, or to make his way through stacks of books on the history of gardening in England or Japan, or the latest from Piet Oudolf. He kept Judy busy taking photos to document everything so that it could be shared with all of you.
And of course he loved to share his appreciation and knowledge. He did that here on his blog, with family and friends, and neighbors or anyone else who stopped by to admire his garden at home. He took writing this blog very seriously, and wanted to provide real information, along with a smile and a personal perspective. (We hear him over our shoulder telling us that this post is much too long; he would have broken it into two.)
Jason and Judy were both astonished and delighted by the number of good friends they made through mutual appreciation of gardens, through this blog, as well as people who stopped on the sidewalk to admire our garden, and people they met on Garden Blogger Flings and through the course of admiring other peoples’ gardens and public gardens. Even the hospice doctor who came to our house last week exclaimed that she had driven past our garden many times and loved it.
You only have to read through this blog to see how much Jason loved plants and gardening. He talked to and communed with plants. He was always sneaking in an extra shrub (without letting Judy know), but he also planted many flowers because Judy admired them (hellebores and tulips among others) and most of them, he came to love – and Judy even came to love most of the shrubs.
Besides gardening, Jason applied his good humor and curiosity to a number of other subjects, including American and Russian history, geography, birding, and travel. (Here are some posts about travel to New York, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Russia, Turkey, and Japan.) In the last seven months of his life, he picked up a new interest: his granddaughter, Addie. He was particularly good at making her laugh with new “games” like using a blanket to cover her and then pulling it away.
Most importantly, Jason was a loving and supportive father, husband, and grandfather; friend and colleague. He instilled his values and love of learning in his children, and brought joy to many through his exuberant gardens and his writing. Thank you for being a part of the community he created here, and we hope you’ll stay as we continue to post occasional updates and photos of the garden and our family. As mentioned in an earlier post, we have hired a wonderful garden service, Vivant Gardens, to help maintain the garden.
For those who wish to make a donation in honor of Jason, we have two suggestions.
The labor movement and fighting for the rights and dignity of all workers, but especially low-wage workers, has been very important to Jason and his family. We know personally how important labor unions are. Jason was diagnosed with cancer at age 61, and was unable to continue working. Under many if not most circumstances, this would have been financially devastating. However, the union continued his health insurance for several years until he was eligible for Medicare, provided excellent disability insurance, and a defined benefit pension. In addition to how much we love all the colleagues Jason worked with, and who feel like family, we also appreciate the union movement as a whole. Every worker should have these benefits.
We have looked for a meaningful place for people to send donations in Jason’s memory. One of those we would like to recommend is Warehouse Workers for Justice, a workers center that organizes and fights for the rights of workers in distribution and logistics in Illinois. If you use Amazon or other online shipping companies but want to see the workers who make those deliveries possible receive the wages, safe working conditions and job security they deserve (or you don’t use those services because of the precarious nature of those jobs), WWJ is a great place to support. You can donate here. It doesn’t look like you can designate a donation in memory of someone through the online portal, so we would appreciate if you could drop a card to the PO Box below, or post in the comments, so that we can thank you properly.
Secondly, of course, we have a garden donation recommendation. Jason loved gardens far and wide, but he also really enjoyed the public parks right here in Chicago, such as the West Ridge Nature Center and Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary. In a few days, we’ll do a post about some of our recent visits to Montrose Point. We plan on collecting donations to the Chicago Parks Foundation, to be used to help pay for a memorial bench for Jason at Montrose Point and also support the programs and work of the Foundation. If you want to make this donation, we’re asking for checks to be made payable to “Chicago Parks Foundation” with “Jason Kay” in the memo line, and to be sent to:
Judy Hertz, 848 Dodge Ave, Box 348, Evanston, IL 60202
We’ll collect them and turn them in together, and arrange for a bench. We’ll post a photo when the bench is placed.
If you want to send a card to the family, Box 348 is also a good place, unless you have our home address.
Stay tuned, more to come — and we want to say again how much your participation in this blog conversation meant to Jason, and means to us.
Judy, Daniel and David
I just want to drop a note to tell you what a joy it was to get to spend time with Jason in his garden and to tell you we’re honored to keep his plants blooming on his behalf.
So much love to you Judy and to your family. If there’s any space you need from us or if there’s anything more we can do to help, please let us know.
My last interaction with Jason was a full smile and wave through the window as we worked on our first garden day of the year. I’ll never forget it.
I am very sorry for your personal loss, and the blogging community has lost a good friend and a tremendous gardener. Your post and photos are a wonderful tribute to a good man. I started seeds about two weeks ago, and one package was Tithonia which came from one of his posts, and I always think of him through the growing season as I trim them or just enjoy watching the bees and butterflies visit. May all these good memories keep your heart warm during the coming years. Thank you for letting us know.
I was so sorry to hear of Jason’s death. I found his blog just a few years ago and learned a lot, especially what a good person he was in addition to being a knowledgeable and passionate gardener. I will miss him as a good friend I had never met. Thank you for the notice and letting us know a little more about him.
My condolences to you and your family, Judy. Though I was a later follower, I was impressed by Jason’s gardens and his tireless tending of them, as well as his kindness and sensitivity. He is, and will be, missed.
Although I came very late to this blog, and was in no sense a gardener, I was continually impressed by Jason’s knowledge and his ability to create beauty in his gardens; his willingness to encourage others was equally impressive. Thank you for sharing the news of his death, and a bit more about his life. He was a good man, in every respect.
So very, very sorry! Jason made the world a better place, both in his work and right livelihood as well as his devotion to gardening and flowers. I was so pleased you were able to come visit us in Maine. How wonderful to make connections with two kindred spirits.
I’m so sorry to hear about Jason’s death. I loved his blog and his love of gardening and plant knowledge was evident. I felt we were kindred garden spirits: his native plants in Chicago, my native plants in Austin, sharing similar gardening style and taste.
He live a worthy life and was clearly a man of honor and integrity. I wish you strength during this difficult and tender time, and peace always.
I have enjoyed Jason’s blog, and even learned many things from it. Please accept my condolences – he is missed by many.
I started following Jason’s blog several years ago before a planned move to southern Wisconsin. I wanted to learn more about gardening in the Midwest and Jason always provided that information as well as his wonderful sense of humor. I, too, started growing Tithonia from seed only because of his blog. My sincere condolences to you and your family. Thank you for sharing this posting.
Thank you for letting us know what has happened. So many times blogs just “end” and people who have come to know the blogger are left not knowing the why’s of the ending.
Your Jason, in the blog, seemed to be a wonderful gardener and free with his advice and information. I appreciate knowing a bit more about him as a person rather than a gardener and he sounds like kind and caring man.
Take care of yourself and know that your sorrow will lessen with time but the memories that you have of Jason will remind you of the good life you had together.
I am sorry for your lose. He will be missed by many.
Thank you for posting this. I know it couldn’t be easy. I am profoundly sorry for your loss and the loss of Jason to the blogging community.
I so enjoyed seeing your garden and reading about your garden travels. I am so glad that Jason mentioned in a reply to my comment or one of my posts that I should check out the novels of Donna Leon. I did and am happy to say that I read them all and thoroughly enjoyed them.
I enjoyed reading about Jason’s work experience. When I worked for the City of Detroit back in the 1970s, I was a union president – though a much smaller one than AFSCME. Even years later when I switched communities and became management, I still stood up for the rights of employees. So nice to know Jason’s values.
Know that I will think of Jason when my garden starts spurting forth and remember his wisdom.
Thank you again.
I join you and your family in your sorrow, Judy. Thank you for letting readers know what happened. Take comfort in the memories you have of him. We will all miss him.
I’m very sorry to hear of your loss. Jason was an impressive gardener and an even more impressive human being. Given the many people he reached and the many issues he addressed during the course of his life, he’ll never be forgotten.
So sorry for you lose. Thank you for taking the time to write about Jason’s very full and worthwhile life. He had the ability, through his blog, to teach fellow bloggers about gardening and the gardening world. As a new blogger from Australia, I felt Jason was very interested and kind and patiently offered constructive comments, always with a twinkle in his eye!
Through Jason’s lens I also learnt about Chicago, and the Lurie garden, and about life in the USA.
Best wishes to you Judy, and to Daniel and David
Jason was a special guy and a kindred gardening spirit, as many of the others have said. Touring gardens together at several Flings was delightful, and visiting more local Midwestern gardens as a group was special, too. We’ll have great memories of those times, and will look forward to visiting Montrose Point in remembrance of Jason at some point in the future. We will truly miss Jason.
So sorry to hear of Jason’s passing. I have been enjoying his posts for several years and wishing I could make my garden as successful as his obviously was. He will be an influence on me in the future. My condolences to his family Margaret Powis (Austin, TX)
There is a lot of life in the pictures that you have posted here, and what better tribute could there be? Jason brought a lot to life, and gardening was just part of it. I join with the others here in saying how sorry I am.
Such a beautiful tribute to a special man. Jason introduced me to tithonia, and I will always think of him when it blooms.
Deeply sorry to know about Jason’s passing. Extending my condolences to you and all of his loved ones. His home garden is one of my favourite gardens amongst all the ones I follow on this site. I remember showing my kiddo brother his lovely clemantis, I adored the lovely backdrop of the white house against the purple. I pray your garden lives and thrives for as long as your memories of Jason. Thank you for sharing your beauties and knowledge with us. God bless you all.
What a man he was – I remember how much his words and pictures inspired me on many, many occasions. Now that you tell his full story I understand why his blogging had such resonance. Thank you, Judy, for taking the time to share his life like this – my thoughts are very much with you all.
I’m so sorry to hear this news. Please accept my deep sympathy for your loss.
I loved Jason’s blogs and always read them before anything else in my inbox. I admired his garden and all the work that went into it.
After reading more about his life I have even more respect for who he was and all that he believed in and stood for. The world is a poorer place for all now that he is gone.
Thank you for letting us know of his passing and for creating a memorial for him. He was a remarkable man.
I share your loss. Jason’s enthusiasm for gardening was contagious. I was happy to have a chance to meet him and Judy in person at the DC Fling and I appreciate this lovely tribute in his memory. Loving kindness to you all.
Susie Moffat @ pbmGarden in North Carolina
A beautiful tribute to a beautiful man. His life obviously touched so many people in a positive way. It was a pleasure to know him in the blogosphere…he opened my eyes to native plants. Blessings to your family. John @ A Walk in the Garden in NC
Thank you for sharing about Jason. We enjoyed getting to know you both via blog and GBF. He was so friendly and a joy to talk to. His passion for plants was inspiring. He will live on in our memories. Prayers to to your whole family!
Thank you so much for sharing. I have enjoyed the blog, so I’m glad to read more about Jason’s life. It sounds like he led a very good one, doing many good things for many people. I’m very sorry for your loss.
So sorry to read of Jason’s passing. Thank you for including me
Dear Judy and all the family, my heartfelt condolences to you all. I was so sad to read this news, but your tribute to him was lovely and it was good to learn more about him. So thank you for that. He was an inspiration to me and no doubt many other gardeners, with his passion for native plants and his wonderful sense of humour which came through in his writing. I enjoyed his blog so much. My Kaufmannia tulips are starting to flower and I believe he introduced me to them as well as Tithonia. I will always remember him when I see these flowers bloom. My thoughts are with you.
I’m so sorry to hear about Jason. I loved his blog and have followed it for many years. Thank you for letting us know and for sharing so much in words and photos about his life. I was delighted to learn how enthusiastic he was in praise-worthy work outside of gardening, truly a remarkable person.
Thank you so much for letting everyone know. I am very sorry. Although I managed to refrain from adding Tithonia to my garden, I was compelled to reinvestigate some of what I knew about horticulture, particularly the Sharon fruit, and perhaps the ‘Etrog’ citron. It was the tradition and cultural significance that was more compelling than the horticulture.
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To all who loved Jason, our hearts go out you!
The loss of Jason is so sad for his family and friends, and for all of us who loved his delightful blog posts and his gardens. Judy, you wrote beautifully about Jason and it was interesting to learn about the non-gardening aspects of his amazing life. He’ll be sorely missed by all who encountered him.
A great loss, an exemplary man and gardener, a beautiful tribute.
My sincere condolences. He touched many lives in a positive way.
I am so very sorry for your loss. I got great joy from reading Jason’s posts, whether about the garden or your beautiful family. I remember especially a Thanksgiving a few years ago (I believe it was Thanksgiving) with candid shot of your son and his partner cooking, and how much they reminded me of my oldest son and his wife.
Again, please accept my condolences.
I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for all the information on Jason’s life, a life well lived indeed.
Jason led a good life, one of service to humanity, and he will be missed by his readers, his friends, and his family. I am sorry for your loss. Pancreatic cancer has taken three relatives of mine and my heart goes out to you and your family. May Jason’s memory be a blessing and may your memories of him help to comfort. Alana ramblinwitham
I have visited this blog often, reading deep into the archives, finding answers and ideas, learning much, and always enjoying Jason’s warm, hilarious, singular voice and perspectives. Thank you for sharing some of his life story with us. No surprise but how wonderful to hear that Jason was as principled and energetic and human in his life and work as in everything else. So sorry for your loss.
PS – I will be planting some Princess Irene orange tulips in my garden in memory of Jason, because his posts about them have convinced me they are marvelous. Xoxo
I’m so sorry to hear of your loss, my heart felt condolences.
What a loss, I’m so sorry to hear of it. Over the years you’ve shared so much of the garden and your lives and I’m glad you are planning to keep up the tradition. He will be missed by many who’s lives were touched along the way and my heartfelt condolences go out to you and your family.
Oh Judy and family- I have been so sad since reading this several days ago. I have needed time to let it sink in that Jason is gone. Such a loss to his beautiful family and his gardening family. He left such a legacy with this blog, his work and his family. He was a wonderful man who influenced me greatly. Sending you all much love.
I forgot to mention that I made a donation to WWJ and will be sending a check for the garden bench….both wonderful ideas of remembrance.
Oh, I am so very, very sorry to hear your heartbreaking news. I have thought of Jason often, wondering how he was doing. I will miss him but glad to hear you will still post re the garden. This is a beautiful tribute to a lovely gentleman. Condolences to you all.xxx
It was very sad and bittersweet to read this post. Thank you for having the strength to write it at a difficult time. I’m sorry for the loss of Jason to you and your family. We’ve been “blog pals” for many years and I’ve enjoyed reading his posts and seeing your pictures during that time, as well as the occasional posts about family holidays and new additions. His style and planting has influenced my own garden and there is a Clematis Jackmanii growing through and over a rose arch that now has his name. I wish you comfort and peace.
I hope that Jason knew just how many people he influenced in his life. I never met him in person, but felt he was a friend through his blog and have missed his wonderful presence. I know that you will have a huge transition to life without him, but what a legacy. He made the world a more just and beautiful place.
Judy, my sincere condolences on your and your family’s loss. I enjoyed getting to know Jason on the Garden Bloggers Fling tours, and he will be missed. His delight in gardening inspired many others. May his memory live on.