IOWA CITY — On a frigid day in February five years ago, an inquisitive Sen. Bernie Sanders mingled in the Iowa City home of Jeff and Lois Cox. He was investigating a possible bid for president and gauging potential support.
The 40-some people gathered in the 104-year-old Greek revival-style home adjacent to College Green Park gave him positive feedback — especially Jeff Cox, who became one of the senator’s most ardent local supporters, serving in this month’s caucuses as Sanders’ precinct captain at the Englert Theatre.
“He affected American history by inviting Sanders to his home,” Cox’s longtime friend, David Leshtz, told The Gazette.
When paired with a packed Prairie Lights reading of Sanders’ book after the reception, followed by a town hall on the University of Iowa campus, Tom Carsner agreed that likely was a pivotal day for Sanders.
“That was the first public trip he made to Iowa in 2015,” said Carsner, another of Cox’s longtime friends. “I think it certainly confirmed to him that someone should challenge Hillary Clinton, and that he would be a legitimate challenger.”
Cox, who died unexpectedly in his home early Sunday at age 72, proved a convincing force for his convictions over the years — and he had a lot of them.
In addition to his longtime position as tenured professor of British social, imperial and religious history at the University of Iowa — where he also served in leadership positions including chair of the History Department and president of the Faculty Senate — Cox was widely involved in the community.
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He served as chair of the Johnson County Democratic Party; was involved with Progressive Democrats of America; recruited candidates for local, state and national office; and became a vocal advocate on a range of issues — pushing UI and Iowa City leaders, for example, to treat student alcohol abuse as a health issue rather than a criminal one.
Many across the community will remember Cox for his tireless political activism and commitment to brash candor. For more than 30 years, he coedited a community newsletter, The Prairie Progressive, and just recently was asked to write about the Iowa caucuses for The Nation, a progressive political publication. His first piece was published there this week.
“Proposals to rotate a first-in-the-nation primary among different states have merit,” he wrote in his final analysis. “This is a problem that could be solved with strong and competent party leadership. The current Democratic establishment, though, will probably find yet another way to make things worse rather than better.”
DD Guttenplan, editor for The Nation, said Tuesday he was delighted to have met Cox during his political reporting in Iowa four years ago.
“He insisted on taking me to lunch,” Guttenplan said. “And when he discovered I was a fellow Southerner insisted we drink bourbon. He didn’t have to twist my arm.”
What Flossie Cox, 35, will remember most about her dad is the road trips through the South, where he was raised, eating black-eyed peas and visiting William Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Miss. She’ll miss late-night chats about politics and taking walks with the family dog, Marion, on conservation land behind Regina Catholic Education Center.
She’ll miss planning their respective gardens — hers in San Francisco, where she’s working in historic preservation.
And she’ll miss the bond her father forged with her and her younger brother, David Cox, 33, through years of involvement in their lives, attending every orchestra concert, Girl Scout event and piano lesson.
In fifth grade, Flossie wanted to have a “Grease” theme party. Her father rented the Mill restaurant in Iowa City, parked an old car from the 1950s out front and went to the fabric store in search of a large piece of pink felt.
“He cut a hole in the middle, and he pulled it over my head, and we made a poodle skirt,” she said. “I just don’t think that all dads did that.”
Lois Cox, his wife of 48 years, also recalled her husband’s deep adoration for his children, who they had late in life.
“He was so thrilled to have children,” she said. “You couldn’t get him to stop talking about them. He was eaten up with love for them.”
The couple met at a dorm party at Rice University in Houston in 1969. He used a pickup line, Lois said.
“When he met me he said, ‘I think I saw something about you in the Thresher’ — that’s the Rice newspaper,” she said. “I don’t know if he actually did.”
They married in 1971 after she graduated and while he pursued a doctorate at Harvard University. They moved to London for two years before landing in Iowa City on Aug. 17, 1977.
“What I remember we understood at the time was there were five jobs on the market for British historians, and there were 500 people,” she said. “And he got what we decided and always thought since was the best of the lot.”
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Despite Cox’s liberal views as an adult, Lois said her husband was raised in rural Texas in a “serious Southern Baptist family” and was “saved” about age 9, joking, “He kept being saved thereafter to the extent that his parents had to tell him he couldn’t be saved anymore.”
A conservative Cox served as a student missionary in Vietnam for the Southern Baptists at age 19, and that — his wife said — was a formative experience.
“He came back completely convinced that the war was bad, and it turned him around politically,” she said.
Cox found the Quaker community around the time his daughter was born in 1984. And its community-centered worldview seemed to underpin his life, with longtime friend Leshtz recalling the decades of Friday night dinners they organized with a rotating circle of eight to 12 friends including political guests and artists.
The group would order family style, usually from an Asian restaurant. But Flossie said her father terribly missed Southern food and started growing his own black-eyed peas.
“I think I’ll plant some black-eyed peas and some shelling peas in his honor,” she said.
The last time Flossie saw her dad was Dec. 30, as they walked together with Marion in the snow.
“It was freezing,” she said. “But it was so beautiful. And I’ll just really miss doing that.”
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