The League says goodbye to an old friend

We were deeply saddened recently to learn of the passing of longtime friend and colleague, John McComb.

John was a longtime conservation advocate, a former legislative director at Sierra Club, and a beloved member of the Alaska Wilderness League family for more than 20 years. For more than two decades, he was a constant in the Alaska Wilderness League office, as a consultant, but more importantly as a friend. He never met an Alaska issue on the Hill he couldn’t track and analyze through a multi-tab spreadsheet, and his dedication to preserving the country’s wild places at every level touched countless people across the country — whether they realized it or not. His legacy will continue in our work to protect places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Toward that end, we’re happy to share a piece written by Brooks Yeager and Cindy Shogan — Cindy served as executive director of the League for more than 18 years, working side-by-side with John for countless years. (Her partner, Brooks, is an environmental policy consultant and served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Environment under former President Bill Clinton.)

The League Says Goodbye to an Old Friend

By: Brooks Yeager and Cindy Shogan

It is no exaggeration to say that John McComb did for environmental campaigning what the early incarnations of Facebook did for social networking. He built a world of information that made it possible to reach more people, with more impact, and to bring their voices into the political system as a critical part of the struggle to conserve wilderness and public lands and to protect the environment. 

John at an awards ceremony at The Wilderness Society. (Alaska Wilderness League)

We worked together with John for more than thirty-five years, first at the Sierra Club, and then at Alaska Wilderness League. We were campaigners first and later took on other roles when Cindy moved over to run the Alaska Wilderness League and I joined the Clinton administration. All along, John was our favorite coach, our best mentor, and our good friend. He was warm-hearted, generous to a fault, and immensely patient as we took the first halting steps into the world of data and information flows that he taught us to understand and utilize. 

Like many of the real geniuses of the computer era, John was not first and foremost a hardware guy. His first question, as he helped NGO after NGO move into the computer age, was not ‘what kind of computer do you want?’ but ‘what do you want the computer to do for you?.’ He made us think about what information was for, and how it could be mobilized to make campaigning more effective. He was an information architect. And a real one — when we opened the Wayburn Wilderness House, home to the Alaska Wilderness League’s D.C. office, he created a campaign boiler-room where incoming activists would each have computer access and links to all the information sources available. When the Alaskans worked into the night, John was always there to help, to fix problems, and to trade campaign stories. 

In every campaign the League conducted, John was there, assembling data, creating target lists, ranking votes, rating Congress, and designing customized lobby report forms, which we all learned to fill out in triplicate. He taught us how to win votes, and he taught the League of Conservation Voters how to rate them. He taught us how to read the political world for information, from mapping congressional representatives’ networks of friends to recalling the paintings and awards on their office walls. Every bit of data was a clue for John — a clue to how to reach, how to persuade, how to bring politicians on-board a cause. He saw the possibilities before anyone else did. 

John in his element, the outdoors he spent decades working to protect. (Alaska Wilderness League)

John was both tireless and humble. He rode his bicycle to work and back every day, and when he was there, he helped in every way he could, from licking envelopes to impersonating politicians in skits during activist trainings. He could be boisterous, and he loved a good single malt, but what he reveled in most was the human contact of a good campaign, and all the questions, surprises and challenges that he could help us confront. He was an always reliable one-person resource of good cheer and superb competence. His penchant for photographing everything in sight, from our softball games to our nights out, will leave us all with an inexhaustible supply of stories and memories. But the best memories will be of him and his gentle way of being a friend and of guiding all of us in the right direction. 

Cindy Shogan served as executive director of Alaska Wilderness League for more than 18 years. Brooks Yeager is an environmental policy consultant and served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Environment under former President Bill Clinton.