Magazine On-line [spring 2011]
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Back on Track

Winning election as district attorney validates a determined comeback from addiction for Jon Alexander ’71

by William A. Bowden

Jon Alexander ’71 began his inaugural remarks in early January as the newly elected district attorney for Del Norte County (Calif.) with a reference to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead by quoting the familiar line “What a long, strange trip it’s been” from the band’s song “Truckin’.”

It was an apt theme—and was probably putting it mildly, at that—for the life Alexander has led that brought him, over the course of four decades, from Transylvania to a public servant’s job in the small oceanside town of Crescent City in California’s far north.

Though he would eventually earn a law degree and establish very successful careers in both private and public practice, Alexander’s journey has included some adventuresome—and at times disturbing and dangerous—side trips.

When he won a close election for D.A. in November 2010 and was sworn in on January 3, it marked the high point, thus far, of a remarkable comeback from a recent agonizing period in his life. The stressful experiences of those few years drove him to the depths of methamphetamine addiction and homelessness—and very nearly cost him his life.

Coming to Transylvania

Those grim events would have been unimaginable to Alexander when he arrived at Transylvania in the fall of 1967 from his hometown of Florham Park, N.J. He had chosen Transy partly because of the late Robert Bush, a 1967 Transy graduate and neighbor. “He got me interested in the school, and I visited and fell in love with the place and the people,” Alexander said.

He was very active on campus as a member of Pi Kappa Alpha social fraternity and Lampas leadership honorary, president of the Student Government Association, and a varsity athlete in baseball, cross country, and soccer.

“I did not have a law career in mind at that point,” Alexander said. “I did have a love of letters and of reading that my mother instilled in me.” A sociology major and philosophy minor, he was listed in the 1971 edition of Who’s Who Among Students in American Colleges and Universities.

After graduating from Transylvania in June 1971, Alexander embarked on an odyssey of self-discovery that he characterized as “graduate studies in Kerouac 101.” This was a reference to the spirit of 1950s Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac and his rambling, free-association, autobiographical novel, On the Road.

“I went to the Outer Banks of North Carolina that summer to surf and ended up staying there for eight years,” he said. “It was a kind of wanderlust, off to find America as well as myself, as a lot of my brethren and sisters were doing at that time.”

Alexander leased an antebellum hotel on the ocean in Nags Head and ran a nightclub where artists like Mary Chapin Carpenter and George Thorogood played. The house band included musicians who eventually worked with Bob Dylan, Ricky Skaggs, and Reba McIntyre. “My entire staff lived in the hotel—we rented one room just to keep it legal,” Alexander said. “For several years my best friends and I celebrated life.”

An accident while working as a commercial fisherman on the trawl fleet in the North Atlantic, which he did for five years, landed him in Norfolk, Va., for recuperation. It was there his life turned toward the law.

“I remember sitting in a bar in Norfolk with about $60 in my pocket, reading The Washington Post before starting to hitchhike back to Nags Head,” he said. “There was an ad for Western State College of Law. Something about the activist in me made me decide to get back into what I considered a productive life. I acted on impulse. I got in my car, drove straight to Transy, got my transcript, took I-40 the southern route, and was in Orange County, California (just south of Los Angeles), three days later to apply to law school.”

Living the good life

By 1985 when he graduated from Western State, Alexander was on his way to success in law. He had been a student law clerk in the Orange County District Attorney’s office, was in private practice for a year, then signed on with the Orange County public defender’s office.

“I left the public defender’s office in the early ’90s and opened my own shop,” he said. “I was on the fast track and did very well. In a few years I was living in an $800,000 house overlooking Dana Point Harbor, had two cars, a boat, a nice girlfriend.”

And then things began to go sideways for Alexander. His father died in 1995, and his mother suffered a stroke, followed by the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, at which time Alexander moved her in with him. And soon he found himself in way over his head.

“Between staying up all night with her—her internal clock had just gone away—and then trying to run my practice during the day, it turned into the 36-hour day,” he said. “I started chipping away on methamphetamine to stay awake. Within a couple of years I couldn’t take care of Mom anymore. Sheer exhaustion, using meth, seeing my best friend slowly going insane in front of me, I was devolving at a rapidly increasing rate.”

Alexander moved his mother to Brookings, Ore., just across the border from Del Norte County, to live briefly with his sister before she moved their mother to a care facility. He returned to Orange County and graduated to smoking meth. Within a year, the house, the cars, the boat, and the girlfriend were all gone.

“I lost everything,” he said. “All of a sudden, I was living under a house on a filthy mattress. My only possessions were a Fender Stratocaster guitar, a .32 pistol, my mother’s dog, and 15 beautiful Italian suits hanging from the floor joists.”

On March 18, 2003, Alexander was at the point of ending it all.

“I had had the best that life could offer, been tremendously proud of what I had achieved, but had lost it all. With no qualms whatsoever, I can still tell you today what the gun tasted like in my mouth.”

Alexander pulled himself back from the brink, but that was only the beginning of his climb back to sanity. The next night he was assaulted while on a drug buy when a thug broke his neck with a baseball bat. He woke up in a hospital with four inches of steel and 12 screws in his neck.

Two of Alexander’s closest friends—state appellate Justice William Bedsworth and criminal defense attorney Lloyd Freeberg—found him in the hospital for an intervention and put it up to him—check into a residential rehabilitation program or lose their friendship. Alexander found his way to the Salvation Army and its 12-step program and has been clean since March 19, 2003. Thinking about what his parents meant to him helped inspire Alexander to take back his life.

“Every morning when I hit my knees, I look at pictures of my mother and my father,” he said. “My mother’s greatest joy in life was helping someone who had fallen down. My father was a hard man, but the most honest person I ever knew. He didn’t know the definition of the word quit. That’s the blood that runs in my veins. I said, ‘I’m better than this, I’ve still got something to offer this world. I’m going to try to crawl back.’”

Northward bound

Deciding he had played out his string in Orange County, Alexander headed to Brookings in 2003 to be near his sister and mother (who died in 2006), doing odd jobs until he got his law license back. He joined the D.A.’s office in Crescent City as a prosecuting attorney, then went into private practice as a contract public defender before his successful run for D.A. last fall.

Now that he has his life back, Alexander is dedicated to his role as D.A., with the methamphetamine crisis being at the top of his list.

“My opponents in the campaign threw the drug addict thing at me,” he said, “but my former addiction makes me a better district attorney. If you’re an addict trying to turn yourself around, you will find no one who is more sympathetic. But if you are selling that poison on the streets of my county, I’m coming for you.”

Alexander says meth is by far the biggest problem in his community, with 80 percent of felonies related to the drug.

“Our enemies in their wildest dreams could never have created a weapon of mass destruction comparable to what meth is doing to this country,” he said. “Close to 80 or 90 percent of it is coming from Mexico—they’re flooding this country with it.”

The good life in Del Norte County consists of his work as D.A. and volunteering in the community. Alexander is grateful for the second chance in life that not everyone gets.

“A lot of people in this town took a chance on me—I plan on giving them a good return on their investment.”

Talking with Alexander today, you get the feeling that this moment in time is a real high for him—a high of the best kind, rooted in honest work, dedication to a cause, and devotion to community that validates the strength he found to turn away from the artificial and destructive high of addiction.

Crescent City is a long way from the glamorous years when he lived in Orange County, but Alexander has found an authentic life here consisting of a clear purpose and a sense of knowing who he really is.

He conveyed all of that when he said, “They say when one door closes, another one opens. These days, every one that opens seems to be letting me more out into the sunlight.”

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