By Christina Whiting
A descendant of a family forced to flee Spain during the Inquisition — and an immigrant himself — Jack Oudiz has always been drawn to the plight of those who are exploited and oppressed, as well as issues of social justice.
Born in Cairo, Egypt in 1949, Oudiz’s early life was one of privilege.
“My dad was an engineer and we lived a pretty cushy life,” he said. “We belonged to the country club and I attended a private French school.”
When he was seven years old, the life Oudiz had become accustomed to came to an abrupt end. The Suez Canal Crisis began, and the army came to his family’s home and told them they had to leave the country the following day.
“We couldn’t take anything of any value with us,” he said. “We had nothing but the clothes on our back and in our suitcases.”
Oudiz’s family was allowed to immigrate to France, and was basically impoverished for several years. They lived in a hotel room for many months and, because of the small space, Oudiz’s parents felt obliged to send him to a distant public boarding school.
“This was a painful time for me,” he said. “I remember the long train ride to school and the terrible homesickness I felt.”
During this time, Oudiz’s feelings of empathy and awareness of others began.
The family eventually immigrated to the United States, settling on the east coast, where they lived in inner-city apartments. Oudiz was one of very few white students at his school, and was exposed to black culture and music. He was immediately drawn to the rhythm and soulfulness of blues music when he heard John Lee Hooker’s song, “Boom, Boom, Boom” for the first time.
After high school, the family moved to California, where Oudiz found a thriving blues scene in the San Francisco Bay area. At one point, he served a term as president of the Sacramento Blues Society. He was also involved in bringing a Chicago-based Blues in the Schools program into local and inner-city schools.
“My passion evolved from a passion for the music to a passion for civil rights and social justice,” he said. “For me, the blues has a historical and social context.”
In addition to his passion for music, Oudiz also had an affinity for science. Studying genetics and biochemistry, he decided to become a machinist when he wasn’t accepted into medical school. When manufacturing facilities began to close, he went back to school and got his master’s degree in industrial hygiene, thanks to funding from the Federal agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Oudiz worked as the Health and Safety Director of the International Molders Union, representing foundry workers throughout the United States and Canada.
“These were some of the most brutal and dangerous jobs in America,” he said. “They were largely populated by black and brown workers, so much so that OSHA singled the industry out for its first ‘Special Emphasis Program.’”
At graduate school, Oudiz met and married Debbie, a fellow grad student. The couple returned to California and spent the next 25 years working for the state. In 2009, they retired and moved to Homer. Here, Oudiz continues to pursue his lifelong passion for blues music.
He hosts Blues Etc. on KBBI on Friday nights between 9 and 11 p.m. Oudiz joined the Homer Council on the Arts Board, and encouraged the organization to implement a “Blues in the Schools” program locally. This month, HCOA provides BITS to students in Homer, Seldovia, Nanwalek and Port Graham.
“This music gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “To me, it’s still the most honest and deepest music there is.”
Oudiz continues to engage in health care and occupational health issues, and joined South Peninsula Hospital’s Board of Directors to work with the Safety Committee. He also teaches online and face-to-face classes for the University of Alaska, including Safety Program Development, Industrial Hygiene Methods and Introduction to Occupational Safety Health.
Jack Oudiz’s early life experiences provided him with a deep sensitivity for the plights of others.
“I had a mentor in Sacramento who grew up in the bay area, living in black neighborhoods,” Oudiz said. “He hosted a blues radio program and always opened with a wonderful statement about how, if you appreciate his music, you have to appreciate the history, struggle and contribution the people who made this music represent. I always admired him for sharing that week after week.”
Oudiz loves to spend time with his family, including his wife, their three kids, four grandkids and two dogs. He also loves to read, fish, coach his grandson’s Little League games and play the harmonica.
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