Abe, James and Justice

updated 08/02/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/02/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

JAMES HUDSON, 43, WAS A FASTIDIOUS MAN WHO WAS PROUD OF his job—keeping Abraham Lincoln clean. Nearly every day he would dust the 19-foot statue at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington from head to toe, paying special attention to the dirt that tended to collect behind Abe's ears. This Fourth of July, with the city in the grip of a heat wave, Hudson worked a 16-hour double shift picking up litter left by a crowd of 250,000 that gathered for picnics and a fireworks display. After a few hours sleep at his nearby home, he told his wife, Marlene, that he felt a bit tired as he headed out the door at 4:30 a.m. to go back to work. "James loved his job," says Marlene. "He really did."

At midday, with the temperature around 96° F, Hudson complained to coworkers of dizziness. A half hour later he collapsed from a heart attack and died.

In an obituary on the front page of the Washington Post, Hudson was remembered as a loving father of seven children and an extraordinary public servant. But when Marlene Hudson, who supplemented her husband's $29,000 salary by baby-sitting at her home, contacted a federal employee benefits officer a few days later, she was in for a shock. Although Hudson had worked for eight years for the National Park Service, including five years as the full-time foreman of a seven-member crew that cares for the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and the Washington Monument, Marlene was told that he was not entitled to a pension or government-subsidized life insurance because he had been classified as a temporary employee. According to Hudson's supervisor, Don Wadase, Hudson had asked to become a permanent employee, but there were never any positions available at his salary level.

Not surprisingly, the irony of Hudson's story—a black man who had cared so lovingly for the Great Emancipator and who had been shafted, apparently, by the government—sparked an outcry. Marlene was inundated with cards and letters. "It brought tears to my eyes," one woman wrote, "to think a man who had given so much to his country might not have a pension or insurance." What happened next was a nicer surprise: The House of Representatives, instead of simply deploring the situation and ordering a committee to look into it, actually acted—and quickly. "This was a man who had literally worked himself to death while being deprived by his country of minimum benefits," says Eleanor Holmes Norton, the D.C. delegate to the House who introduced a proposal to provide Marlene Hudson with a lump sum payment of $38,400, the amount of life insurance her husband would have received if he had been classified as a permanent federal employee. The proposal passed the House only 12 days after James Hudson's death and is expected to be approved by the Senate. In addition, Norton and Rep. Frank McCloskey (D.-Ind.) have introduced the James Hudson Temporary Employee Equity Act, which would allow federal workers hired on a temporary basis, who now number 150,000, to purchase life and health insurance and which would require the government to provide full employee benefits after four years on the job.

Hudson was a patriotic man. Raised in Washington, he served in Vietnam in the late '60s and was awarded a Purple Heart. He took the first of a series of temporary positions with the Park Service in 1985, working as a laborer for $14,000 a year, and gradually rising to become a crew foreman. Hudson often regaled his kids with tales about his adventures on the job, including the time he fell off a ladder into Lincoln's lap.

Just four days before Hudson died, he took his wife on a special Lour of the nation's memorial tributes to Lincoln and Jefferson. "He really wanted me to see everything," Marlene says. Now, whenever she looks upon Daniel Chester French's famous statue of Lincoln, she sees a memorial to James Hudson as well.

ROCHELLE JONES in Washington

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