UPDATE: SEE EVENTS CALENDAR, SEPTEMBER 21 FOR INFO ON GORDON’S MEMORIAL SERVICE
On July 9, 2013, longtime peace activist Gordon Maham died at his home in Cincinnati. He was 96 years old. A memorial service will be held in Cincinnati in August, date uncertain at this time.
Gordon’s life was an inspiration to all who knew him, and to know him is to be flooded now with stories. He was arrested at least nine times in Oak Ridge demonstrating against nuclear weapons—and for a the world he wanted to live in. He spent weeks in Anderson County Detention Facility and many hours doing community service. He was as wily as he was smart; he seemed almost always to be laughing or making others laugh, but when he was serious, he was very serious.
As a young professional, Gordon refused induction into the military service. Because he was a civil engineer, he was assigned to work on the Panama Canal and, eventually, on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge’s Y12 Plant. When Gordon learned that Y12 was producing an atomic bomb he resigned his assignment and served three years in the federal penitentiary in Ashland, KY.
Gordon’s love for all creation was not limited to humans, though he did dearly care about his fellow man and woman. Standing before a judge in Oak Ridge who was about to levy a fine on him for blocking the road into the Y12 nuclear weapons plant—he came back often to protest the facility he had unwittingly helped build—he produced an article from his pocket and handed it to the judge. It was an article about the plight of the mentally ill and the homeless. “I think these people need my money a lot more than you do, judge,” he said. The judge dropped the fine and sentenced him to community service.
Which merely served as the basis for more Gordon stories. After one arrest in Oak Ridge he was sentenced to pick up trash for eight hours along the road passing by the bomb plant. He rose early on the day he was to do his service and we drove to Oak Ridge to meet his supervisor at McDonalds. We arrived just at 9:00am—no supervisor. Five minutes passed—no supervisor. Then, at about ten after, a primer painted Camaro wheeled into the McDonalds parking lot and a young man hopped out. “Gordon!” he shouted. “Adam!” answered Gordon. As he gathered his jacket and sack lunch he turned to me and said, “Everything’s working out just as I planned.” And he was off; apparently not his first community service under Adam’s watchful eye.
That evening, when I picked him up, I inquired about the day’s work. He reported that he finished the trash pickup in a couple of hours and was then taken to a road crew that was spraying guardrails with herbicide. “I won’t do it,” Gordon said. “It will kill the bugs.” The men on the crew assured him it would only kill plants and was harmless to insects, and though he had reservations, he took the sprayer. Minutes later he called the crew chief over and pointed to a cricket in distress. “Look there,” Gordon reported he said, “that cricket looks harmed to me.” He handed the spray wand to the crew chief. “Come on,” Adam said, “Let’s find something else.”
On another occasion the judge, weary of seeing Gordon after every demonstration, decided to turn up the heat and sentenced Gordon to serve three days in the county lock up and then two days of community service. Gordon did his time and his service and came to the Sunday vigil the next weekend still wearing his jail bracelet and a lanyard around his neck with his school visitor badge on it. “It’s crazy,” he said. “On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I am such a dangerous criminal I have to be locked up; on Thursday and Friday I am playing chess with the kids at Briceville Elementary School for my community service!”
Gordon was dangerous—to the powers that believe might makes right and the systems that arrogate to themselves the power to destroy the planet. Gordon walked for peace, sat down for peace, climbed fences for peace, planted flowers for peace, wrote letters for peace, went to jail for peace, picked up trash for peace—he simply did everything he possibly could for peace.
Including laugh. I had not known Gordon long when I found myself walking with him on the sidewalk in Columbus, Georgia; we were there with thousands of others to protest the School of the Americas, the US Army’s death squad training base. As we chatted, Gordon noted the arrangement I had with my wife, Lissa, for parenting our children. At SOA, Lissa was the activist and I was the papa. I wasn’t sure what Gordon thought of it, but he offered me advice. “Now, I had a good arrangement with my wife,” he said. “Oh?” I answered, wondering what wisdom was going to be dispensed. “Yes,” said Gordon, “we agreed when we got married that she would make all the little decisions and I would make all the big ones.” In my mind I was already writing a dispensation for this gentleman from another time. “And how did that work?” I asked to be polite. “It was great,” he said. “Forty-four years we were married and never had one big decision come up!” From that point on I realized the safest course in a conversation with Gordon was to assume you were playing the role of a straight man until he indicated otherwise.
Gordon knew sometimes we have to laugh to keep from being overcome by despair. And more often than not, he was the subject of the joke, told on himself.
In the hours and days since I learned of Gordon’s death I have heard snatches of the many times he called to scope out plans for the next OREPA event. I remember when he called to say he was coming but apologized profusely because he would not be joining those who risked arrest. “My daughter made me promise, now that I’m ninety, to stay out of trouble.” I can’t remember if he put her on the phone or not, but I do know I offered assurances that we would do all we could to keep Gordon legal. Yet he continued to make the trip, action after action, to support those who were crossing lines, risking jail. And if being here meant a chance to visit a bit with Doris, well, there was that, too.
The photos of Gordon in Oak Ridge include plenty of handcuffs, but that is not the only running theme. Gordon was never one to shy away from the companionship of women; when he saw the camera he would reach out to take an arm, or hold half a banner—”Here, get one now,” he would instruct laughing. He made others feel as good as he was obviously feeling himself.
You can read more of the chronology of Gordon’s life on the blog of the Nuclear Resister at http://www.nukeresister.org/2013/07/10/gordon-maham-presente/; the Resister article contains a link to a book chapter on Gordon that recounts some of his journeys and lines things up in order. This man who helped design the Interstate Highway system for the United States lived a full and dedicated life, and it’s worth checking out the details.
There are many, many Gordon stories—feel free to share yours in the comments section here. And we will try to post info about the memorial service as soon as we get it, but feel free to inquire at firstname.lastname@example.org. There will be an opportunity there to tell stories. If perchance you have photos of Gordon that could be used in a slide show at the memorial service, we would love to collect them. You can email digital versions to email@example.com or send hard copies to OREPA, P O Box 5743, Oak Ridge, TN 37831.
Gordon extended his compassion to other creatures. Those who road with him knew they could be called upon at any moment to stop the car—if Gordon spied fresh roadkill, he wanted to secure it for the buzzards. He often said his idea of a perfect burial would be to be taken out to the back of his farm where he would be feed for the coyotes, birds of prey and other animals. That was not meant to be, but his spirit can rest at peace knowing its energy was spent in a life lived very, very well.
Gordon Maham — ¡Presente!
~ Ralph Hutchison, OREPA coordinator