Elder activists tell it like it is - and was
It is commonly believed that we humans get more conservative as we get older. But the half-dozen senior Vermonters profiled here demonstrate that aging doesn't mean leaving the Left, that being retired doesn't make one retiring. On the contrary, these men and women happily remain a thorn in the sides of wayward powers-that-be, and an inspiration for those who would follow in their feisty footsteps. After all, injustice, too, is age-old.
MARION LEONARD, ROCHESTER
At 5-foot-1, Marion Leonard isn't the most intimidating character. Talk with her a minute, though, and you'll discover that she's as sassy as a Greenpeace protestor. In fact, this white-haired 98-year-old has been a radical environmentalist since before the term existed. For most of the 20th century and all of the 21st - so far - Leonard has worked as an inspired advocate, organizer and writer on behalf of the Earth. And she's still going strong.
On a recent afternoon, Leonard sits in her sunny room at the Park House, an elder residence center in Rochester. The décor suggests that Jane Austen has just hosted a tea party for the Earth Liberation Front. In one corner, an original Audubon print hangs over an elegant Victorian bureau. In another, a mini-fridge boasts stickers with such slogans as "Bush vs. Earth" and "No Farms, No Food." A small blue globe hangs from the ceiling.
"All my life I've been interested in conserving the planet," Leonard says. She moved to Vermont from Long Island in 1939 to teach at the Putney School, but her social conscience was formed well before that. Leonard explains that her father, a doctor, taught her not to trust the system. "He was always interested in supporting groups that were on the right track," Leonard says, adding that her father helped her understand that "we never really had the country we said we had."
Indeed, Leonard has trained a critical eye on American politics all her life, present rulers included. The Bush administration "qualifies on all 14 points of fascism," she insists with a smile. A lifelong progressive educator, Leonard has pushed for hands-on, outdoor-oriented pedagogies - she and her late husband started their own independent school on Long Island in 1956. By 1970, they were so fed up with the U.S. that they moved to Italy and stayed there for eight years before returning to New York. Back on Long Island in the early '80s, Leonard started the nonprofit anti-nuclear organization Save Our World.
Through it all, Leonard has been speaking her mind - in print. The activist says she's penned saucy letters to the editors of publications in Vermont and New York for as long as she can remember. "I think it's important in a democracy to be part of community . . . the only way to do that is to communicate with your representatives," she notes. "You elect people to represent you, but you have no guarantee that they'll represent the choices that you want made. So you have to keep your eye on them."
Leonard loves the Green Mountains as much as ever. "Vermont has more organizations trying to save the planet than any other state in the Union," she avers. That explains why she moved back here from New York in 1997. She points out, however, that Vermont isn't the same as it used to be. One sign of change? There are far fewer farms in her area than there were in 1956, the year she moved back to Long Island. Leonard complains that towns like Williston are now full of "too many people and junk."
Fortunately, Leonard also sees plenty of cause for hope. She's impressed, for instance, with Middlebury College professor-cum-maple-sugarer John Elder, who writes about ecological issues in Vermont. She also mentions Abe Collins, a Swanton dairyman and grass farmer who recently founded Carbon Farmers of America, a grassroots coalition that markets soil-based carbon offsets.
Collins, 34, says the appreciation is mutual. "[Marion Leonard] is a tireless warrior for the Earth and for regular people everywhere, with the energy of a 25-year-old," he affirms.
No kidding. Up until she broke her hip two years ago, Leonard grew salad greens in the raised beds outside her window at the Park House. Even now, she stays in touch with the current green scene. On April 14, Leonard participated in a light-bulb exchange as part of author-activist Bill McKibben's "Step It Up" campaign for federal climate legislation. "It's a long, tough struggle," she reflects. "We just have to keep it small and local."
Meanwhile, Leonard continues to write. Last month, in fact, she sent a two-page handwritten letter to Seven Days. "I've spent a long life . . . working for the Great Work - putting in place an ecozoic rather than a technozoic era," she wrote. "I never thought I'd live to see as much Great Work as is going on in Vermont."
Leonard says she's never touched a computer. But, ironically, her outdated style of communication can be the most effective political tool of all. "In this age of emails and all that," she suggests, "if any of our local reps get a handwritten, personally addressed letter, they'll usually read it, because they get so few of them."
CHARLIE HOUSTON, BURLINGTON
Dr. Charlie Houston knows enough about doctoring "the poor" to offer an expert armchair diagnosis of Vermont's Catamount Health Plan.
"It's a disaster," reports the 93-year-old Burlington resident and pioneer in the fields of medicine and mountaineering. "It's not funded. Nobody knows where the money will come from. Nobody knows how it's going to work or be administered . . . All it's done is block further progress."
Progress, according to Houston, would be universal, single-payer health care for all Vermonters; reinstatement of laws forbidding the promotion of pharmaceuticals; and a system that encourages doctors to work in underserved areas.
And he's not afraid to say so - to medical students, in op-ed pieces, even from a soapbox on Church Street. The elder activist, whose biography has just been published, lends prestige and credibility to the health-reform cause in Vermont.
Houston has never shied away from the seemingly insurmountable. In the 1930s, long before oxygen tanks and Gore-Tex, he discovered some of the first climbing routes up Himalayan peaks such as Nanda Devi and K2. As a navy surgeon during World War II, he unlocked the mysteries of altitude acclimation, which allowed American fighter pilots to fly higher than their enemies.
In 1962, Sargent Shriver personally recruited Houston to run the Peace Corps in India, where he fostered the program's growth from six volunteers to 250. A young Bill Moyers, who was the Peace Corps' national deputy director, came to visit and got deathly ill. Two years ago, the author-advocate interviewed Houston on his public-television show, "NOW." At the end of the segment, Moyers credits Houston with saving his life. [Watch the NOW interview]
Harvard-and-Columbia-educated Houston came to Vermont in 1967 to chair the med school's department of community medicine. Like the then-sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, he was interested in democratizing patient access to medical care. As a first step, Houston assigned motivated first-year medical students to serve as personal physicians to needy families in Burlington. The initiative was terminated because it was considered "a little premature." A rural job-shadow program met a similar fate.
Houston pushed through some successful innovations, though, including formal first-aid training for med students and a volunteer-run drug crisis center. He helped launch a number of local "group medical practices," which at the time were considered more progressive than the going models. For 10 years, he staffed a free clinic in the old DeGoesbriand unit; when the funding ran out, he assisted a nurse practitioner, Jed Lowy, who set up a similar operation at the corner of North Winooski Avenue and North Street.
"That developed over the years into the Community Health Center," Houston reports. "So I was one of the founders of that. You'll find a room dedicated to me in there."
In myriad ways, Houston was ahead of his time - he made waves at UVM, and his department was subsequently eliminated. But he's lived long enough for the rest of the world to catch up to his lead. Way before popular interest in the ethics of mountaineering, Houston wrote K2: The Savage Mountain, detailing a 1953 expedition that ended tragically. After a 185-mile hike in and a grueling ascent of the peak, Houston's team was within striking distance of the summit when climbing colleague Art Gilkey developed blood clots in his legs. Houston diagnosed him. The group decided to descend with Gilkey, but on the way down another man slipped, injuring everyone who was roped together. When the group reassembled, Gilkey had vanished. In his interview with Moyers, Houston speculated for the first time that his friend might have taken his own life.
On account of his own wife and kids, Houston responded to the loss by swearing off climbing forever.
He still likes to talk about it, though, in the Ledge Road home he shared with his wife until her death in 1999. Houston typically holds court in his favorite armchair by the picture window; his 9-year-old golden retriever prefers the couch. "Pooh Bear" barks to let him know when someone's coming down the driveway. Houston is losing his hearing and is almost entirely blind now, but he's pretty steady on his feet. Though he's slightly stooped and saddled with a catheter bag, he still looks like an outdoorsman in his plaid flannel shirt.
If the proprietor can't fully appreciate the spectacular lake view from his home, almost everyone who traipses through it can, from the Homeshare roommate to volunteer readers. Houston gets lots of visitors. Kids from the King Street Youth Center come by once a week. So do groups of med students. "They are pretty apolitical now," Houston notes, "which is surprising and disappointing."
Neighbor Page McConnell has become a friend; he arrives every Friday for lunch. The former Phish keyboardist wrote a blurb for Houston's newly released biography, Brotherhood of the Rope: "A remarkable man and a remarkable life. The breadth of his experience is matched only by his incredible personality. I wish everyone could know him as well as I do."
Deb Richter is another pilgrim who makes the trek to see Houston. The family physician and diehard universal-health-care advocate "is coming next week, I think," he says, noting that the two have frequently collaborated in print. "Getting your arms around it is such a difficult thing today," he says. "I mean, the governor has been so atrocious."
He predicts it will take at least five more years before Vermonters see any real reform. One prerequisite is the end of the Iraq war. Middle Eastern carnage trumps the cause of domestic doctoring democracy, even for Houston. He's committed most of his activist energy over the past two years to opposing the war, and describes Bush as the "worst president we have ever had."
In the long term, though, Houston is optimistic that Vermont will one day have "a decent health plan" - even a trend-setting one. "If it's successful here," Houston predicts, "it will spread."
Whether or not he lives to see that day, Houston can rest assured he's inspired plenty of others to carry the torch. And not just in Vermont. All three children are "doing socially good things," he says. One granddaughter just returned from two years of hitchhiking around India; she's got her Master's in public health. Another is a doctor with a public health PhD.
"It's going to be done," Houston promises. "It's just a matter of getting it done right."
Brotherhood of the Rope: The Biography of Charles Houston, by Bernadette McDonald.The Mountaineers Books, 250 pp. $24.95.
ANNE HOOVER, MIDDLEBURY
By the time she sat down for an interview last Saturday morning, 80-year-old Anne Hoover had already picked up trash for two hours as a Green-Up Day volunteer and held high her circular dove emblem at Middlebury's weekly peace vigil. Up the hill, students one-quarter her age were just starting to stir.
"Anne is fearless and tireless," says Middlebury College English professor Gary Margolis. "It comes from a wellspring of dedication that keeps her youthful."
Not all her days involve so much activity, however - and Hoover, who lives alone, does admit to feeling bored on occasion. "But I keep my mind busy," she says.
In addition to consuming volumes of fiction and nonfiction, Hoover reads once a week to a former professor who's gone blind. They don't always make it through selected essays in The New York Review of Books, though. "We wind up debating what we're reading," Hoover says, with a crinkled grin that reveals the absence of several teeth. "We have a great time."
Hoover regularly walks the mile between her condo and the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury's village center. She used to hike with the Green Mountain Club, "but nowadays I'm more of a stroller," she says. "I'm slowing down."
Not so much that she can endure Quaker meetings, however. "Many of my best friends are Quakers," Hoover notes, "but there's no way I can sit still for that long."
Besides, religious faith isn't what inspires her political convictions. "I've tried all the churches around here. None of them took," Hoover says, adding that she's "not a Christian."
She is a believer, though, in the possibility of redemption. "People can change," Hoover proclaims. Her own life provides ample proof.
Hoover had her first flirtation with politics as a kid when she handed out flyers for Wendell Wilkie, then running for president. She wasn't so much affirming the Republican's pledge to undo FDR's New Deal, Hoover explains 67 years later. "It was because my father grew up with Wilkie in Indiana."
Born in Manhattan, Hoover herself is no Hoosier. She got a psychology degree from Wellesley College, then went to work for the Rockefeller Foundation back in New York. "I was thinking about how to do psychology as a career, but I got a job as a secretary," she relates. That remained her vocation through the decades: typing and filing at Harvard and Yale before becoming a secretary at Middlebury's Bread Loaf School of English in 1972.
Why didn't she pursue a more prestigious profession?
"It was a different world back then," Hoover replies. Regardless of the degrees they earned, women were generally consigned to go-fer roles in the 1950s, she says, then quickly adds, "But I did have some pretty important jobs."
Politically, Hoover was born again in the early 1970s after a long period of introspection. In sync with her lifelong devotion to nature, she joined a movement to block construction of a water-pumping system in northwestern Connecticut. "They were going to ruin a mountain near where I was living," Hoover recalls. "I couldn't just let that happen."
That campaign ended in victory - unlike most of the others in which she subsequently participated. Hoover is especially frustrated by the scant impact of protests against the war in Iraq.
"I've gone on marches in Washington and Montpelier, and I attend the vigil here every Saturday," she recounts while nibbling on a discounted, day-old blueberry muffin at Carol's Hungry Mind coffeehouse near the Middlebury Green. "We don't seem to be achieving much."
She doesn't doubt the Democrats will win the White House next year, but she's not sure it will make much difference.
Hoover foresees almost no chance of change if Hillary Clinton becomes president. Sharing an alma mater with the New York senator doesn't mean she favors her, Hoover notes, adding in an almost conspiratorial whisper, "You know, I really like Kucinich."
She concedes, however, that Ohio antiwar Congressman Dennis Kucinich will not become the Democrats' presidential nominee. And that's one reason why, in Hoover's opinion, "things are getting worse and worse."
So, there's no hope for the future?
"People in their thirties, forties and fifties should be out there," Hoover says of the vigils typically attended by those in her own age range. "Some of them tell me, 'I think what you're doing is wonderful.' So why don't they join us? I know they're busy with families on Saturday mornings, but still . . ."
The unfinished sentence hangs like a pending indictment.
Well, how about some words of advice for young people who do want to build a better world?
"I think the students here are just great," Hoover says, noting that she recently attended a meeting of Middlebury College eco-activists. She asked them to design a "Stop Global Warming" poster that could be mounted on the sides of the town's shuttle buses.
"They're polite," Hoover says - not only of the students but of her own grand-nephews and -nieces. "They hear me out, but they don't really listen."
KEVIN J. KELLEY
Keeping the Faith
MARMETE HAYES, BURLINGTON
When Marmete Hayes, 82, talks about the many people who have inspired her political activism over the years, she gets as giddy as a schoolgirl confessing to a secret crush. Her face brightens up, her blue eyes widen, her hands gesture eagerly, and her voice drops to a whisper at the mention of their names: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., César Chavez, Gene Sharpe, the Berrigan brothers. The latter two were Catholic priests and anti-Vietnam War activists who spent time on the FBI's 10-most-wanted list. But closest to Hayes' heart is Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s. As Hayes, a Catholic social-justice activist herself, puts it, "I have a lot of heroes."
The Hayes name is familiar to longtime Burlington residents who remember her husband's store, Hayes and Carney, which sold clothing on Church Street for more than half a century. Recently, Hayes earned a name for herself as the octogenarian peace demonstrator who was arrested twice for occupying the district offices of Senators Bernie Sanders and Pat Leahy. According to Hayes, the decision to get arrested wasn't a premeditated one but an on-the-spot inspiration to walk the walk of civil disobedience.
"I've really come to the conclusion that the letters aren't enough, the op-eds aren't enough, and the vigils aren't enough," she says. "The only way we're ever going to stop this war is by getting lots of people into the streets who are willing to be arrested."
Hayes' quaint home in the New North End is fastidiously tidy and decorated with antique furniture, vintage oil paintings and Catholic icons. Copies of the National Catholic Reporter are stacked neatly on a coffee table beside books and treatises on politics, history and global justice movements. Unsurprisingly, there's no TV set in sight. Hayes has the energy level of someone half her age; she doesn't seem the type to sit around watching soap operas and reality shows.
Interestingly, Hayes shares her home with a more familiar name among Burlington activists - Sister Miriam Ward, who returns during the interview. "It's about time Marmete gets some attention," Ward says while her housemate is briefly out of the room. "She's just terrific."
Hayes grew up in St. Albans and Old Bennington. Despite what she calls "a very bohemian upbringing," her evolution into a peace activist seems anything but preordained; neither religion nor politics were regular topics of conversation in her household. "My father was an ardent Republican," she recalls. "You mentioned FDR, and the expletives flowed."
Hayes' father was a banker until the stock market crash of 1929; fortuitously, her author mother hit it big in 1928 when she sold an article to McCall's. The magazine paid more money for that story than Hayes' father had earned all year. Her mother went on to write 13 novels, including one that was made into the film I Met My Love Again (1938), starring Henry Fonda and Joan Bennett.
Hayes recalls that she was no peacenik in her youth. Growing up on Monument Avenue in Old Bennington, she had an early fascination with war and the military - her brother attended Norwich University. For a while, Hayes even carried around a three-point bayonet she'd found in the attic of their 18th-century house.
Like many young women during World War II, Hayes took a job in a defense plant; she inspected ball bearings used in military hardware. At age 24, she converted to Catholicism, though it wasn't until years later, when someone gave her a copy of Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker, that her adopted religion assumed political overtones.
Hayes' interest in that realm was sparked in 1967, when she traveled to Norwich University to hear John Kenneth Galbraith speak about the Vietnam War. "It was just electrifying to me," she recalls. Shortly thereafter, Hayes began writing letters about the war to The Catholic Tribune, a local monthly publication where she eventually went to work as a typesetter.
Like many peace workers who discovered their voices in the Vietnam War era, Hayes followed a familiar trajectory in her activism: antiwar demonstrations during the 1960s, anti-nuclear-weapons protests in the '70s, Latin American issues in the '80s. In fact, it was the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a human rights activist in El Salvador, that led to the formation of Pax Christi Burlington, a Catholic peace and social justice group.
Hayes' recent arrests in Burlington weren't her first act of nonviolent civil disobedience. For the last eight years, she's journeyed with other peace activists to Fort Benning, Georgia, for the annual demonstrations against the U.S. Army's School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Graduates of the school, which trains foreign soldiers in counter-insurgencies and counter-narcotics, have been linked to human rights abuses around the world.
In 2000, Hayes was one of several thousand protesters who "crossed the line" and were arrested at Fort Benning. Though she was only detained for five hours, "I've never felt so alone in all my life," she recalls.
These days, Hayes' activism takes many forms. Every Friday, she's a fixture at the peace vigils at the top of Church Street; every August, she participates in vigils marking the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She's been to Israel and Palestine twice with Miriam Ward, and has opened her home to Palestinian visitors on several occasions. And she's still involved in Pax Christi Burlington.
If Hayes has any intention of slowing down, she doesn't show it. "When you get to be in your eighties, you begin to value your time," she says. "I wouldn't do this unless I thought there was a chance to make a difference. I think everything has a ripple effect."
Hayes offers some advice for young, up-and-coming activists: "Read, learn and listen. Know your subject and don't get in over your head," she advises. "Be willing to listen to the other side and be open to dialogue.
"And then," she adds, "be ready to take a stand."
Fruit of His Labors
PHIL MAMBER, RANDOLPH
Phil Mamber was born into solidarity with working people - literally. Just three months before his birth, in 1929, Mamber's father lost his job in the shoe industry. At 16, while a junior in high school, Mamber was already supporting strikers at his local General Electric plant in Lynn, Massachusetts. Now, after an organizing career that spans the history of the modern labor movement, he could probably mobilize factory employees in his sleep.
On a Saturday afternoon, this 77-year-old organizer meets a reporter at a McDonald's on Route 66 in Randolph. Mamber is balding and big-eared, and he's wearing a flannel shirt with a pen tucked into his breast pocket. When he smiles, his stubbly face creases up behind a pair of wire-rimmed bifocals. He looks as if each wrinkle has a different story to tell.
"If you eat a hot dog today, it tastes like mush. They used to be much more solid when I made them," Mamber complains in a Boston accent, peering into the food-prep area. He would know: From 1948 to 1956, Mamber worked at a meatpacking plant in Boston. That's where he met his wife. It's also where his organizing career took off. After that job, Mamber drove a bakery truck as a teamster, also in Boston, for 16 years. Then he served as acting director of the Lynn Model Cities Initiative.
In 1975, Mamber commenced a 20-year gig as an organizer, international representative and later district president for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) in New England and upstate New York. In the late '80s, he took time off to coordinate Windsor County for Bernie Sanders' congressional campaign.
According to Mamber, things haven't been the same for working people in America since the Kennedy administration. That hasn't slowed him down, however. "People claim I'm a militant," he says, and he recalls being threatened by bosses and going to jail. Was he ever scared? "I don't intimidate very easily," he says with a casual grin.
In the 1990s, Mamber put his labor and community organizing skills to different uses. Beginning in 1996, he served on the board of Massachusetts Senior Action Council - what Mamber describes as a "progressive retiree organization." For the last several years, he's worked with organizations such as the Council of Vermont Elders (COVE) to protect Medicare, Social Security and housing for seniors. In 2002, he received an Elder Service Award for his prescription-drug advocacy work. Since 2004, Mamber has been active with the Alliance for Retired Americans - he represents Vermont at the national level in Washington.
Mamber's interest in health-care reform has a personal dimension. Three of his immediate family members have been diagnosed with cancer; two of them died within the last three years. So it's understandable that Mamber should tear up as he describes the injustices of America's health-care system. "Health care will only be addressed when you get rid of the insurance companies," he stresses. "They're the parasites that suck the blood from the health-care industry."
Betty Stambolian, an executive board member of the Alliance for Retired Americans, has worked with Mamber on senior-rights issues. "Phil is a very effective leader, and he's the guru to whom we all turn," Stambolian says. "He was the pioneer organizer of the Alliance for Retired Americans in this state. It's his leadership that created the Vermont chapter and sustained it over the years that I've been here, for which I am very grateful."
These days, Mamber can't do as much organizing as he'd like to, what with trips to the hospital and a granddaughter to look after. But he still gets around: The guy recently spent four consecutive evenings at the Barre Labor Hall attending various May Day-related functions. In the future, he may teach a course on community organizing or labor history in the Burlington or Montpelier area, he says.
Mamber still has high hopes for American labor - but not unrealistic ones. "I'm hopeful that the labor movement will start policing itself and play a more progressive role than it's playing now," he comments. "I've been critical of the labor movement even as I'm a part of it."
In the meantime, Mamber is happy to heap praise on local organizing efforts. He's been following the livable wage campaign by the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) at the University of Vermont, for example, with fervent interest. "I'm glad to see that happening," Mamber declares. "I think it's a tremendous, wonderful step."
PAUL HOOD, BURLINGTON
Some people enter the world of full-time political activism in small, incremental steps. Others, like Paul Hood of Burlington, radically alter the direction of their lives as a result of a single, precipitous event.
For Hood, 80, that explosive incident was the so-called "Christmas bombing" of North Vietnam in December 1972. That massively destructive and unnecessary military campaign, launched in the waning days of the Vietnam War, was the U.S. military's heaviest aerial bombardment since World War II. Hood was so disgusted by its senseless violence that he decided to "drop out" and devote the rest of his life to alleviating poverty and working for peace.
"I was just devastated by that bombing," Hood recalls. "I decided that I would never willingly pay a penny for war or other things I didn't agree with."
Within 18 months, Hood put his money where his mouth was. He quit his job as a well-paid executive at the Museum of Science in Boston, a position that had allowed him and his family to "live high off the hog." At the time, he owned a sailboat, a power boat, three cars and an old sea captain's house in an affluent neighborhood south of the city.
Instead, Hood took a job working at a soup kitchen and shelter in South Boston, where his co-workers initially suspected he was a government agent trying to infiltrate their collective. Hood's radical new lifestyle soon resulted in the dissolution of his marriage and family. "They literally thought I was crazy, and there was a pretty good case for it," he admits. "How many people drop out, change their life completely, and refuse to play ball?"
Over the years, Hood has remained true to his beliefs. He became a tax resister of sorts - his form of resistance is to live below a taxable income - and he still engages in "principled acts of civil disobedience," as he puts it, in order to "open people's eyes to the nature of the beast." For nearly 14 years, Hood went to jail at least once a year for one to three months at a time, all in the name of peace.
"I'll probably end up being arrested again before I'm done, because I will be communicating things that, I've been warned, are going to put me in danger," Hood says. "I hate going to jail. It's just a bummer . . . but if I have to go again, I will."
Hood welcomes a reporter to his cluttered apartment in Cathedral Square, a nonprofit housing complex for low-income and disabled seniors in Burlington. The walls are stacked floor to ceiling with plastic milk crates filled with books, photos and other doodads. In one corner sits a wooden Buddha, carved out of a tree trunk. Hood explains apologetically that he's in the midst of a move to another apartment in the building. The only available seat is on an old futon next to a small, gray, frizzy-haired poodle named Sophia, who often accompanies Hood on his year-round bicycle rides around downtown. (He hasn't owned a car in years.)
Hood barely looks his age; except for a slight stoop, he could pass for someone 20 years younger. With his blue eyes, white hair and white beard sans mustache, he has the visage of a 19th-century minister, minus the fire-and-brimstone sternness.
Actually, Hood is a Quaker with a gentle nature and a propensity for choosing his words carefully. "As Quakers, we avoid taking sides on any conflict," he explains. "Rather, we try to provide humanitarian aid to anyone who suffers."
Remaining nonpartisan isn't always easy, Hood admits, especially on one issue he feels particularly passionate about: the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In the spring of 2002, Hood went to work at a Quaker school in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, about 10 miles outside Jerusalem. His second night there, Israeli tanks rolled into town and right past his bedroom window. Hood spent hours videotaping the invasion from his window, at times deathly afraid that Israeli soldiers would mistake him for a sniper. Though Hood had seen war before - he enlisted in the Marines at 17 and fought in the battle of Okinawa during World War II - he remembers the event as one of the scariest moments of his life.
These days, Hood remains active in the peace movement, despite his age and physical ailments. He's had one lung removed due to cancer, which has since spread to the other lung. He's also fought prostate cancer, gout, diabetes and arthritis, and describes himself as a recovering alcoholic of 45 years. Nevertheless, Hood radiates a sense of calm and hope that belies his many maladies.
"Why do I feel optimistic?" he asks. "I feel optimistic because I feel the presence of the Divine in myself and other people."
When asked what advice he would offer younger peace activists, Hood urges people to focus not only on their careers and activism but also on their inner well-being, through meditation, philosophy or some other spiritual pursuit.
"When you believe deeply and passionately in something, there's a great virtue in a life lived in depth," he says. "But if you just go and plunge yourself into outer activities, however meritorious they may be, it's a prescription for burnout. You need to have something that sustains you in your inner life . . . a sea anchor of some kind for the stormy seas that will ensue."