James D. Hodgson

“I’ve never had any ambitions,” says James Hodgson, “only enthusiasms.” Enthusiasm, however, has accomplished a lot for Hodgson, 87: He’s been a Lockheed executive, the U.S. secretary of labor, and ambassador to Japan under Nixon and Ford.

The son of a lumber dealer in tiny Dawson, Minnesota, Hodgson studied sociology and anthropology in college. Graduating at the tail end of the Depression, he took the only job he could find — selling clothes in a department store. A stint in the Minnesota Department of Employment fired a new interest: labor-management relations. Hired to head Lockheed’s personnel department just as America went to war in 1941, he found himself dealing with union and plant-safety issues in an all-important defense industry.

When Richard Nixon tapped him for labor secretary in 1970, Hodgson had an alarming realization: “Safety was extremely important in aircraft plants,” he says, “but as I went around looking at other industries, I was just appalled at the conditions I saw.” Hodgson fathered the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), convincing congresspeople, industry leaders, and state governors that federal labor safety standards were a good idea.

But the happiest time of his life, he says, were his years in Japan, where he helped rebuild Japanese trust in the United States after the destabilizing “Nixon shocks” of the early 1970s — protectionist measures against imports and the unpegging of the dollar from the gold standard. Japanese culture — particularly the Japanese sense of humor — fascinated the ethnologist in him, and he even published a book of English senryu (satirical haiku).

“After my ambassadorship, I found myself asking, ‘What next?'” he says. “I had so many interests that I decided not to choose among them — just do them all.” He served on scores of corporate boards, wrote, lectured at Harvard, Stanford, and other schools. Today he’s cut back on the board memberships, but he still moves easily between his Beverly Hills home and the corporate and academic worlds, and he still writes satire.

And why does this rock-ribbed Republican public servant read Utne? “If you only read what you agree with,” he says, with enthusiasm, “you’ll never learn anything.”

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