John M. Slack Jr.

Charleston Gazette
March 19, 1980

Slack's death takes staff by surprise

By Dan Haar

WASHINGTON - It was John Slack's 65th birthday Tuesday and his staff had a cake waiting to surprise him. Then, the phone calls started coming in.

"We hadn't even been told yet that he had died," said one of the secretaries who took the calls. "They'd call up and ask, 'Did he die? When did he die? Where?' I just about fainted."

It wasn't until around 9 a.m. that Slack's staff was told the news: Slack, admitted to a hospital across the river from Washington during the weekend, had died of a heart attack Monday night.

Staff members busied themselves Tuesday morning with the details of their boss's death. Secretaries were given copies of a short statement to read to callers over the phone. Envelopes with details of the congressman's background were set out for reporters.

Meanwhile, Slack's son, John M. Slack III, sat at his father's desk and quietly made arrangements for a funeral in Charleston, W.Va.

"We all have to pull together," he could be heard saying into the telephone.

Beside him was Nancy Mankin, Slack's aide since the congressman was first elected in 1958. Her face appeared slightly swollen from crying, and she said very little as she arranged for relatives and friends to travel to Charleston.

Paul Becker, another aide who had been with Slack since he was elected, was more talkative. "This is an end of an era," he said. "Slack was a guy who fit the framework of the founding fathers.

"He had impeccable integrity," he added. "And he had a capacity to learn."

While Becker talked, two phone calls came through and Becker took them. Both happened to be about long-term projects Slack had been involved with in the district.

One was from Richie Robb, mayor of South Charleston, W.Va. He wanted to know the status of the city's request for government funds to help move a military installation to make room for an expansion by Volkswagen.

The other was from a person Becker declined to identify. He would refer to him only as someone interested in a "$3 billion synthetic fuel plant" that a consortium of companies has been considering to build in Slack's district. "It's a lot bigger than Morgantown (W.Va.)," he added, referring to a synfuel plant under way there.

Becker said Slack had been talking with the companies, helping them to locate, "For at least a year and a half. Now it's somebody else's" problem.

President Carter, in a statement from the White House, said Slack will be remembered for his dedication, integrity and sense of honor. "Throughout West Virginia, he will be long remembered as a congressman who helped the people of his 3rd District to solve their problems," Carter said.

By noon Tuesday, the House of Representatives had formally convened, and the first half hour was taken up with eulogies for Slack.

Rep. Harley Staggers, D-W.Va., called Slack a "great man" and told how shocked he was to hear of the death because "he seemed to be in vigorous health."

Staggers added that Slack "stood like the West Virginia hills, strong and never changing."

The House leadership also had kind words for Slack. Majority Leader Jim Wright, D-Texas, called Slack "a dear friend, a respected colleague, who word was his bond." Rep. John Bradmas, D-Ind., the majority whip, referred to Slack as "a man of great stability during a time of great instability."

Rep. Jamie Whitten, D-Miss., with whom Slack served on the Appropriations Committee, said "the nation has lost a man, in the true sense of the word. He was a true friend."

Until someone is elected to replace Slack, the congressman's present staff of about 15 will continue working.

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