By JAY D. ROTH
National Executive Director Jay D. Roth with Jack Shea
Jack Shea, who passed away in April, was a very important transitional president in the history of the Guild. I’ll explain why in a moment, but first I want to relate a story that shows not only what a lovely, sweet man he was, but how that translated into his love of the Guild.
As you may know, the DGA president and national executive director go to New York to deliver their annual speech. That wasn’t always the case, and for a year we videotaped the presentations in L.A. and sent them to New York. So in 1996, a year after I became executive director, with Jack as secretary-treasurer, I was set to tape my address in the boardroom. Jack and John Rich were there to help. I started to give my speech, and the two of them were giving me direction. I couldn’t get through one reading while these two very well-respected TV directors continued to tell me what to do: “Stand here, stand there, do this, do that.” I did take two, and more direction; I did take three, even more direction. I did three more takes and I was starting to get frustrated, when all of a sudden I looked over and the two of them were laughing. As this was the first video presentation for New York they wanted it to be great, but they also wanted to have fun, and they were having fun with me—in a playful, friendly way.
But there’s a deeper truth to this: Jack cared so much about the speech that he wanted it to be exactly right—he always wanted to do the right thing for the Guild. We all have biases, but Jack rarely went into an issue with his mind made up. That was one of the things I learned from him that reinforced our partnership. He represented what were then 12,000 people and wanted to figure out what was best for the members. It’s not always a simple answer, but it was a simple question: “What’s the right thing?”
No matter how successful he had become as a director, Jack never forgot where he came from or how he had worked his way up from an AD in New York. Even when he moved to Los Angeles, where he became president of the Radio and Television Directors Guild—which he helped merge with Screen Directors Guild to form the DGA in 1960—he didn’t forget his New York roots. When he became president of the DGA in 1997, he recognized that the true unification of the East and West Coast Guilds was still not complete, and it was a problem that had to be dealt with for the future well-being of the Guild. To ensure that East Coast members wouldn’t feel like second-class citizens, he championed the modernization and upgrading of the New York headquarters, and was the first to deliver the president’s speech there in person. There were some who said we couldn’t afford to do the New York building, but Jack knew we had to do it. In that way he was a cheerleader for the future.
He understood the time for his generation of leaders was ending and it was essential that new blood be brought in to the Guild and encouraged to take on a leadership role. We talked about this all the time. There was resistance from some—not everyone wanted to give up their long-held positions on the Board—but Jack believed that the elected officials of the Guild should be working directors, because first and foremost this is what we are: a union representing working people. So we had to figure out a constitutional way to make that happen, and the end result was the “Work in Trade” amendment, and Jack led the way in getting that done.
Another thing Jack knew we had to change was having two different contracts for DGA members working in film and videotape. Why should there be different rates based on what medium you’re recording on if you’re basically doing the same work? Jack came from the TV world and felt strongly about this. So during his term, a “blended contract” covering all primetime dramatic programming was negotiated. Jack was the spirit behind a lot of these changes that continue to have a profound impact on the members today. He knew the Guild had to grow and be prepared for the 21st century—that’s why he was a transitional president.
Jack felt it was the members who made history, and he was here as their representative to get the things he believed in accomplished. I think everybody who worked with Jack knew that. In the five years he was president, I always felt I could walk into his office and talk about anything. We were partners. There was no flash, no pomp and circumstance—it was his genuine honesty and caring that allowed him to do all these things. And that’s who he was.