In Memoriam

John Bailey Urner

May 20, 1930 -- October 13, 2000

Jack, as he was usually known, was born and grew up in Seattle, Washington. His was a happy childhood. He early learned the value of friendship, and kept in touch with most of his childhood playmates throughout his life.

Those were the years of the Great Depression, difficult for his parents, and Jack remained an only child. However, his mother Esther, the oldest daughter of Swedish immigrants, came from a large family and Jack always cherished relationships with his many cousins, uncles and aunts. Reunions with each of them have always been a highlight of his return trips to Seattle.

After 15 years of marriage, his parents divorced. His mother was an intellectually curious woman, a voracious reader, a talented artist, and a woman who needed her freedom to develop and grow. His father Carl, a good and gentle man, probably never reached his full potential, and remained for his lifetime a wholesale grocery clerk. His father was certainly hurt by the divorce, but it was never acrimonious. His parents continued to get together for Jack’s birthdays, holidays and other special occasions. Jack split his living time between the two households and was very close to both parents.

Jack began working when he was still in high school. And since neither parent had a large income, he always paid most of his own expenses, including his own education. His high school years were also rich in friendships and a highlight, in 1998, was a 3-day 50th Queen Anne high school reunion in Seattle.

While attending the University of Washington, Jack had two important life-changing realizations. The first occurred in a political science course on developing countries, and at that time he felt what he referred to as his calling, to become a "doctor to sick countries." Jack pursued this goal with relentless determination. The second realization was that he was a pacifist and could not kill or participate in war. He wanted to heal and build rather than destroy.

Jack was one of those bright, seeking young students who gravitated to the college YMCA/YWCA. There the young seekers engaged in community service, theological studies, and long discussions on religion and the meanings of life. Also while there, Jack heard a moving talk by Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader, on active non-violence. At that point, his life-long commitment to non-violence began. He had earlier served as a clerk-typist on a troop ship to Japan. He had also been a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and this had been helping to finance his way through college. He turned in his uniform, repaid all his debts and embarked on a new life journey.

A third event might be mentioned. He found more life-long friends in "the Y," and gradually he and one of them, Carol Reilley, came to realize that they belonged together. They were engaged on Valentine’s Day, 1952, and married June 21st, the day after Jack’s graduation.

Jack’s preparation for his chosen career then began in earnest. Only two universities in the country, Tufts (Harvard), and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies (SAIS) in Washington DC, offered masters degree programs that could in any way help prepare him for his future work. He chose SAIS in DC. The young couple had few financial resources, but managed to pay for a first class graduate education by working, living very frugally, and scholarships.

An important part of their Washington experience was their decision to join the Religious Society of Friends there. Jack had found his religious home, and for the rest of his life some of his closest friends were members of Florida Avenue Meeting.

Next came the doctorate, and this time, there was only one university in the country that offered a cross-disciplinary course in planning for developing countries. The University of Chicago was also an expensive challenge for a young couple without resources, but again they managed in the same way. During this period, Jack tried to establish his status as a conscientious objector. His draft board would never accept his applications, despite the support of the Friends Meeting in Chicago and other fellow pacifists around the country. Those were the days of universal conscription and he realized that his position could result in imprisonment, as it had for other young Quakers.

Again, he formed many rich, lifetime friendships. He received his doctorate in 1958. He was always a good student (Phi Beta Kappa) despite the fact that he also worked maximum hours out of school as a postal clerk, a bus and truck driver, a Chicago port planner, and in a wide variety of short term jobs. One summer, he even worked in the gold mines of Alaska.

During the long years of graduate school, he had rather ingeniously arranged road trips back to be with friends and family in Seattle, usually by driving new cars for dealers, expenses paid.

Jack was eager to begin his planned career in developing countries, but by this time he had a small son, and his wife had suffered some severe medical problems. He took his first job in metropolitan planning in Portland, Oregon, fully enjoyed the work, and eventually became acting director.

Daughter Julie joined the family, and in 1963 the Urners moved into their "dream house" in Portland. Like many young men, Jack may have seemed to be giving up his original dream, but he continued to seek for openings for overseas work. In 1966, the opening came and he moved his family to Rome, Italy, and began six years of supervising a 50 person team involved in developing comprehensive, 20-year plans for the western third of Libya, including the capital Tripoli, and many small oasis villages in the Sahara desert.

The first years of the project in Libya were during the reign of King Idris, when relations were good with the US, with Wheelus AFB the largest US facility in the area. At that time, Libya was a poor country with many shantytowns, contrasting with the sumptuous palaces of King Idris. Then oil was found, Khaddafy took over, relations with the US quickly deteriorated, and Wheelus was forced to evacuate. The project continued however, and though for political reasons Jack was never able to revisit, he was told that Khaddafy carried out most of the plans. Khaddafy’s international reputation may be justified, but he certainly did much to raise the living standards of his own people, and to revolutionize the status of women in that strict Muslim society.

During that period, Jack made 57 round trips to Libya, but was able to spend the majority of his time with his family in Rome. Jack, as usual, fully enjoyed opportunities to explore Italy in depth with his family, and eventually every country in Europe except Albania. This family came to feel as much at home in their large German tent as in their Roman apartments.

During the Roman sojourn, Jack and his family were sustained by a small but close Quaker worship group, and at its end, Jack and his wife, accompanied by son Kirby, led a six week AFSC work camp in Israel and Palestine. Jack had always had a feeling for the suffering of the Jews, but from that time forward, his feelings for the Palestinians were equally strong, and he took every opportunity to help move forward the process of reconciliation between those peoples.

After several months in the United States where Jack established his family’s residency in Florida, the next opportunity came with a year’s contract with the United Nations teaching planning at the University of the Philippines. He then moved into a five-year project with USAID developing provincial planning capabilities throughout the islands. Part of this work was an extensive road-planning project for the entire nation. He spent most of his weeks away from home, traveling the length and breadth of the islands by road, plane and ferry. He regretted the USA’s close relations with Marcos during that time, but found the project itself an exciting one, contributing to the development of democracy at the local level.

He loved the Philippines and formed many friendships there, and did not want to leave. However, the way to stay did not open, and his next assignment was monitoring international aid projects on behalf of the government of Egypt. Among those he monitored were projects of USAID and many American contractors, and because of his honesty and thoroughness, he probably closed the doors on many future job opportunities.

He and his wife spent four and a half years in Egypt. By this time both children had completed their primary and secondary educations in excellent international schools in Rome and Manila, and both were attending universities. Jack began the pattern of funding their visits to each country in which he worked, providing them with rich travel opportunities. Most of his jobs offered long home leaves every two years, and he became expert at planning around-the-world trips and many forays into new countries and cultures.

He was warned that his next job in Bangladesh for the United Nations would be a difficult one, largely because of internal political struggles within the local Bangladeshi United Nations office. He quickly won the confidence and cooperation of his Bangladeshi counterparts, but did not have time to win either the trust of his staff, or to work through the tangle of UN politics. He enjoyed the challenge of administering a project to develop comprehensive plans for the whole country of Bangladesh, and was dismayed when his contract was terminated after less than two years. Bangladesh was the only country in which there was not time to establish a supportive Friends worship group, and that contact was missed. Jack and his wife loved much of what they found in Bangladesh and it was difficult to leave.

Finding a new and challenging task now became more difficult, and Jack even feared his career as a planner for developing countries might have come to an end. However, he shifted emphasis slightly to education planning, and the way opened to what was perhaps the most exotic and exciting experience of his career. The government of Bhutan hired him to oversee the planning and management of the primary education development project for the whole country. The project was a pioneering one, financed by the World Bank and the Swiss government. Bhutan, situated on the forested side of the high Himalayas, is certainly one of the most beautiful and most isolated countries of the world. Its culture is derived from the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet, and it is governed by one of the world’s last absolute monarchs.

During the Bhutan years, Jack and Carol hosted as many guests as their very limited annual quota allowed, plus close family, now enhanced by Dawn, Kirby’s wife to be, and her teenage daughter Alexia.


The Bhutan experience was a successful venture, and the next opening was management of a similar project in another little-known mountain kingdom, Lesotho in Southern Africa. This time Jack was contracted by USAID to manage a massive, nation-wide primary education project carried out in cooperation with the World Bank. This was an innovative and satisfying project, because in this case few outside experts were used and most of the money was released directly to the Lesotho government, for the Ministry of Education to administer in carrying out their own education plans.

Jack’s task was to see that the Lesotho government met its commitments. The ministry did this well and responsibly, and Jack enjoyed his developing relationships with his many Lesotho government counterpars. USAID ended the project prematurely when they withdrew all aid to Lesotho in 1996, and shifte support to South Africa. Jack was the last USAID American contractor in Lesotho, and was left with the task of "locking the doors and turning off the lights."

Jack was now 65 but not really ready to retire. By this time, his wife Carol was doing small development and human rights projects for the American Embassy. Both Urners were happy to be in Southern Africa, and they decided to stay on, even after Carol’s work ended in 1998. Both Jack and Carol mixed small consultancies with considerable volunteer work for Lesotho NGOs. For the first time in their overseas career, they were actually members of a Quaker Yearly Meeting, and in 1998 became co-clerks of the 10-nation Central and Southern African Yearly Meeting (C&SAYM). They fully enjoyed this opportunity to work in partnership, attempting to draw Friends scattered across the region into a loving, functioning community.

Jack’s last year was a remarkably happy one. It began with the purchase of a small Kia 4x4, which served them well in the dizzying mountain roads of Lesotho, where Jack drove Carol while working on small contracts for Irish Aid. Kirby, his wife Dawn, and grand daughter Tara, then 5 years old, were able to come for a second time to Southern Africa, to enjoy the heady experience of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, and encounters with the Dalai Lama. This was followed by a wonderful family experience at Quaker Yearly Meeting at the beautiful conference center just across the border from Lesotho. The family spent Christmas and New Years together in Maseru. The visit ended with a road trip via the Garden Route back to Cape Town, and back through wine country to Maseru.

Another high light was daughter Julie’s first visit to Maseru and Southern Africa. This included two rather exciting game park experiences, and 10 wonderful days at the annual Grahamstown International Arts Festival. Julie, like the rest of the family, fell in love with South Africa, and had already begun begging to return. Carol and Jack also made an extensive trip through the United States, attending a Quaker world conference and visiting family and old friends across the country. They ended the trip with a visit to the spectacular Iguazu Falls on the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.

Jack had several interesting job contracts, and was looking forward to managing the Leland Initiative for the US Embassy in Maseru. This initiative will improve internet connectivity around the country. He was also happily planning a 50th wedding anniversary cruise with the entire family, probably to Alaska through the Inland Passage. Jack loved this planet and always enjoyed traveling, and over the years had significant sojourns in over a hundred countries.

Jack was killed on Friday, October 13, when driving from Maseru to the South African city of Bloemfontein, on a wide, virtually four-lane highway. He was driving at moderate speed when an oncoming pickup truck, for unknown reasons, suddenly swerved into his lane. Witnesses say there was absolutely no way Jack, an expert driver, could have avoided the head-on collision. He took the full impact of the crash, but the death was rapid and painless when the safety belt disconnected his pacemaker from his heart.

He died with his head on his wife’s shoulder, and she says it was worth the suffering and pain to be beside him in the last moments of his life. She was also injured critically and was not really expected to survive, but her internal organs were protected by the safety belt. Although she has multiple fractures in both legs, arms, ribs, and a punctured lung, she is making a strong, slow recovery in an excellent hospital in Bloemfontein.

It seems that Jack left us prematurely, in what for him was his prime. But he lived a rich, full life, achieved much good in the world, doing exactly what he felt called to do. Jack was a good and gentle man who truly sought to be a friend to everyone he met, and to the whole world.

We will all miss him, but some will take comfort in the thought shared by early Quaker William Penn that those who live in ways eternal cannot be separated from one another by death, any more than they can be separated by oceans.