WESTERLY — Westerly native Jon Macomber credits an American civil rights icon — and his late great-grandfather’s Purple Hearts — with helping him find his dream job with the country’s top health protection agency.
Macomber, a public health and policy analyst for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, worked for the late U.S. Congressman John Lewis for more than two years. It was an experience, he recalled recently, that left him with a storehouse of memories and some close friends.
“He was a hero of mine,” Macomber said of Lewis, the civil rights icon known for urging people to stand up against injustice by making “good trouble.”
“He was a giant of a man in all of the best ways ... and he was like a grandfather to me,” he said.
The road to working in the Congressman’s office began back in 2018 with Macomber’s own grandfather, John Macomber, a lifelong Westerly resident. The two Macombers worked with U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin to make sure Stephen Wesley Macomber — John’s father and Jon’s great-grandfather — received his military decorations.
The late Stephen Wesley Macomber, a noted Westerly artist, professor and politician, was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart (along with a World War I Victory Medal with Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, and St. Mihiel battle clasps, and a France Service clasp; an Army of Occupation of Germany medal and a World War I Victory Button) from Langevin almost a century after he sustained injuries from a mustard gas attack during the Meuse-Argonne offensive during World War I. The honor came 35 years after his death.
Macomber said during a telephone interview from Atlanta where he lives with his wife, Elle, that it was while working with staffers from Langevin’s office that he learned about the Wounded Warrior Fellowship Program.
“I applied and out of the blue, I got a call,” said Macomber, a 2006 Westerly High School graduate who served as a medic in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan.
“The fact that they took me in really meant a lot,” said Macomber. “I was the first new hire in ten years and they were like a family.”
Macomber, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Rhode Island College and a master’s degree in public affairs at Brown University with a specialization in public policy analysis, said he has long wanted to work for the CDC “but it’s a hard agency to crack.”
The time and experience working in the Congressman’s office definitely gave him a leg up, said Macomber who is working for the Center for Surveillance, Epidemiology and Laboratory Services (CSELS,) a collection of about 30 programs that form the foundation for the nation’s health infrastructure and provides scientific services, expertise, skills and tools to support CDC efforts to promote health, prevent disease and prepare for emerging health threats.
“Right now I am dealing with a lot of FOIA requests from Congress,” said Macomber, explaining that his responsibilities include managing Freedom of Information Act requests and inquiries from U.S. Congress members seeking insight from public health subject matter experts.
While serving as a staffer in Lewis’ small, close-knit Atlanta office, Macomber said, he mostly led outreach efforts for veterans in the Congressman’s district.
He also made friendships with longtime Lewis staffers like District Director, Tuere Butler and Constituent Services Representative Jocilyn Gilbert in the Atlanta office.
“I have a lot of good memories,” said Macomber as he recalled his time with the congressman and his staff.
Lewis was also a storyteller, Macomber said.
“Mr. Lewis used to tell me stories about Bob Dylan,” he recalled with a laugh. “He said Bob Dylan was nice ... probably the only person on earth who would describe Bob Dylan as nice.”
“He was always so great out in public,” Macomber continued with a laugh. “He was such a warm man.”
“He was also a big softie,” he said warmly.
A big softie who loved to shop, loved the color blue and had a great art collection, he added.
“He was always so positive and so optimistic,” said Macomber — whose parents, Heidi Macomber and Steven Macomber, both live in Westerly and both speak proudly of their son and his accomplishments.
“He’s the most honest person I know,” said Macomber’s mom, Heidi.
“We used to call him ‘Jonest’,” she added with a laugh. “He’s honest and he never quits.”
“He was always a good kid,” said Macomber’s father, Stephen. “He was always well-behaved, well-mannered and motivated. I’m very proud of both boys.”
Macomber’s younger brother, Christopher Macomber, a University of Virginia Law School graduate, is a law clerk at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. He also served as clerk for Associate Judge Craig Iscoe.
The brothers are not only best friends, but Christopher performed Jon and Elle’s marriage ceremony.
“I am so absolutely proud of him,” said Christopher Macomber, who graduated from Westerly High School in 2010. “It makes me so happy that he’s with the CDC ... it was a personal goal.”
“I feel so blessed,” said Heidi Macomber. “My two boys are so close ... they are best friends and talk constantly.”
Jon Macomber, recalling Lewis’ passing last summer, said he had the privilege of a lifetime when he was invited to “sit vigil” as the Congressman’s body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
As sad as it was, he recalled, sitting in the rotunda from 1-3 a.m., while his former boss was being recognized with an honor reserved for few Americans, gave him time to reflect on his time with the Congressman and their relationship.
“I was in awe,” recalled Macomber. “For a while, it was just me, the guards and Mr. Lewis.”
Days later, Macomber recalled, he sat inside the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the pastoral home of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for Lewis’ funeral as former President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy along with another legendary civil rights activist, the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr.
“Being in the church singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ led by Rev. Lawson,” he said. “Chills.”
Along with all the memorable experiences he had with the late John Lewis, Macomber said he plans to keep the congressman’s positivity in mind by repeating an expression Lewis often used.
“He used to always say, ‘Keep the faith,’” said Macomber. “Keep the faith.”