Every once in awhile, you get a piece of news that sets you looking at where you are and where you’ve been. Today is one of those days.
There will be no technical content in this post, and it might ramble some. Bear with me; it’s been a contemplative night..
When I was a young man growing up on New York’s Long Island, I was singularly blessed. Like most singularly blessed young men, I was also singularly unaware of my divine state. The son of a university executive vice president and a devoted community activist, I was accustomed from a very early age to seeing my parents out and about in the community, moving and shaking, always with the goal of helping people.
It was a confusing and exciting time. Dad and his colleagues were literally building a world class university out of the mud. Before he became Executive Vice President at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, he was Chairman of its Department of Physics. All order of brilliant people passed through my parents’ living room, but the physicists clearly held a special place in my father’s heart — people like our neighbor, Clifford Swartz; Max Dresden; Peter Kahn; and of course C.N. Yang, a Nobel Laureate lured to Stony Brook by, among others, my dad.
One of my favorites among the physicists was a gentleman named Barry McCoy. I first met Barry and his wife Tun-Hsu in my parents’ living room before my tenth birthday. Barry and Tun-Hsu — who everybody called Martha — were then and are now well-known community activists and grass-roots organizers. They are also two of the most wonderful people I will ever meet.
As I reflect upon this news, it occurs to me that I would most certainly not be who I am today without Barry and Martha. Martha, in particular, did something that changed my life.
For this to make sense, I’ll need to share some history.
Barry and Martha were two of the relatively few people who attended my parents’ parties who treated their hosts’ eldest child as a person worthy of attention. They both took the time to speak to a young boy of their social and political activism, and for some reason it was incredibly powerful for me to receive this message from these two adults, in my parents’ living room, as the rest of the Physics Department went about its business.
For them to take time away from the adults at the party to talk to a youngster like an actual three-dimensional human being was a huge thrill. The stories they told were always exciting, and sounded earth-shatteringly important. I was taken by a ten-year-old’s impression that these folks were on top of things in a way that few adults were.
Then one day, they asked me if I wanted to help. “I’m eleven years old,” I responded. “What can I do?” “You can give your time and your energy,” they told me, and so it came to pass that the next week I became a volunteer campaign worker for George McGovern.
If I was the only young person these two influenced, this would already be a pretty good creation myth. But there were literally dozens of us. Over the next couple of years, we organized into several complementary/competitive groups; and so the SmithHaven Democratic Youth Caucus begat Youth for Political Action and so on. We organized, and we focused our efforts on the campaigns that touched us. The spectacle of candidates for office — including Congress — coming before groups of teenagers who were all too young to vote, genuinely seeking their endorsement because of the work they knew they’d get, was pretty heady.
Barry and Martha were everywhere back then, advising us on running our organizations, and tirelessly getting all this low-cost, transportation-impaired labor where it needed to be, which was frequently the McCoy house. I may possibly have eaten more spaghetti in Barry and Martha’s kitchen between the ages of 11 and 16 than I did in my own home.
Many of those youngsters Barry and Martha touched have gone on to do amazing things. Margalit Fox is writing for The New York Times. Martin Boroson’s books just might have the power to change the world, which is, after all, what we were after when we were kids. There are others, whom I’ve lost track of (too many to list, but you know who you are!), but I’m sure they’d all tell you what I’d tell you — that those years working and bonding with Barry and Martha taught us that one voice can make change.
If this was the extent of Martha’s gifts to me, it would be plenty. But I’m only now getting to her most extraordinary offering.
As I’ve related previously, my Dad was something of a public figure in our small town. This was a source of some stress in my teenage life. It’s every teenager’s job to rebel against their parents (and a young man’s to rebel against his father in particular), but Dad was on the side of the angels in so many things.. how could I do that?
I couldn’t. So.. what I ended up pursuing was an identity separate from that of my parents, and I did that through immersing myself in local politics after the McGovern experience. In addition to the youth groups, I was sufficiently driven that I was a Co-Campaign Manager for a Democratic County Legislature candidate at age 14. During that campaign, my parents and I attended several fund-raising events for various candidates (my parents as donors; I was working).
I had always been introduced as “Barb and Alec’s son,” I suppose because, well, I was. Still am, if you want to get technical.
One night, Martha went out of her way to introduce Barb and Alec as “Ward’s parents” to several party officials. Also true, but not nearly as obvious to the adults in the room.
Except for Martha.
My parents had always supported my volunteerism, but I think in some sense they’d looked at it as an adjunct of their own activism. But here was somebody they knew and respected from their world, putting my efforts on equal footing with theirs in front of some pretty high-octane people. And my Mom and Dad to boot!
My parents never looked at me in the same way after that night. With this simple gesture, Martha had shown them that their son had established an identity independent of, yet of a piece with, their own.
I don’t think I ever thanked her.
So, in my typically late fashion..
Thank you, Martha, for your energy and your faith. Thank you for seeing a whole person where others only saw a son, and for urging that person out into the light. Thank you for the laughter and all that spaghetti.
And, most of all, thank you for living a life which offers an object lesson in the awesome power of a single human voice, whether raised in the halls of power or whispered to a ten-year-old boy in a loud, crowded room.
God bless you, Tun-Hsu, and rest peacefully. You’ve certainly earned it.
I love you.