Were it not for Kitty Tucker, my wife, the path I followed probably would be quite different. It certainly would have been more dull and less eventful.
No stranger to political activism, Kitty grew up in northern Wisconsin in the small dairy-farming village of Clear Lake. It was a place where, she said with a bit of sly Midwestern humor, a “mixed marriage” was between different sects of the Lutheran church.
Her sense of social justice was awakened while on an Honors Scholarship at the University of Wisconsin and then honed in the Deep South during the civil rights struggle. A bout with Hodgkin’s Disease as a 19-year old college student instilled an urgency to change the world that only the prospect of an early death can bring. It also reinforced her strong will and stubborn determination, which in the end, along with an experimental treatment, prevailed over this often-fatal cancer.
After undergoing training in nonviolent protest, she hitch-hiked to Opelika, Alabama in the summer of 1965. Kitty arrived shortly after Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights activist, was murdered by the Klu Klux Klan near Selma. The local sheriff jailed Kitty soon after she helped organize protest marches to register voters and desegregate restaurants and public facilities. She was not mistreated and released after about a week — but she was told to leave the state, if she valued her life.
We first met in 1972 at the White Bird free clinic in Eugene, Oregon, where Kitty was Chair of the Board. The clinic provided free primary health care for folks who had little or no money. After she organized a national conference of free clinics in the summer of 1973, Kitty convinced me to come to Washington, D.C., even though I had no idea what I would be doing.
All I knew is that I wanted to be with her. Within a few weeks I landed a job in the office of Senator Jim Abourezk (D-SD) thanks to his friend Saul Landau, also a friend of Kitty’s. Saul was sharing a house with us while he finished a film about the U.S. Congress.
As I began my job, Kitty set to work to help direct the National Campaign to Impeach Nixon. Kitty and her colleagues began a petition campaign among leaders of groups around the country formed initially to oppose the war in Vietnam. She inherently understood the power that flowed from organizing the organizers.
The opening of the campaign office was covered by Roger Mudd, the correspondent for CBS Evening news. This helped provide a surge in funds enabling Kitty and her colleagues to bring buses and caravans full of citizens around the country to lobby their members of Congress. Early on in the campaign, Kitty proposed an “Impeachment Ball” on the anniversary of Nixon’s Inauguration. It became a major social event drawing progressives as well as previously reluctant elected officials.
After that, Kitty became pregnant with our first daughter and spent time in South Dakota, helping me organize opposition to a massive coal development in the Northern Great Plains. In August of 1974, as we were packing to go back to D.C., it seemed oddly fitting to watch Richard Nixon, shrunken to fit on a six-inch, black and white TV, announcing his resignation.
In late November 1974, I was leaving the house for work at Senator Abourezk’s office. Kitty was sitting at the dining room table, her thick reddish-brown wavy hair pulled back, still pregnant with our daughter Amber. Anger flashed on her face as she read a Washington Post story about the death of Karen Silkwood.
On November 13, 1974, as she was on her way to meet with a New York Times reporter and an official of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union, Karen Silkwood’s car flew off the road and hit a culvert, killing her instantly. Witnesses said she had documents with her about problems at the plant, but these were not found at the scene.
Karen was a union activist working as a technician at a plutonium fuel fabrication plant in Cimarron, Oklahoma owned by the Kerr-McGee Corporation. Kitty was angry that the Post article repeated claims made by Kerr-McGee that Silkwood had deliberately contaminated her home with plutonium to embarrass the company and gain an edge for the union. We learned later that this smear was likely planted by the FBI.
Kitty graduated from law school in 1978 and helped lead the political and legal effort as a law student to hold Kerr-McGee, which dominated the state of Oklahoma, accountable.
Little did I realize that this was the beginning of a nine-year effort that resulted in a major legal victory for Karen’s family in the Supreme Court. But Kitty’s determination to find some justice for Karen Silkwood’s family was the beginning of an even longer, more unexpected journey.
Over the next 40 years, we found ourselves in the midst of an unfolding struggle of coming to terms with the legacy of the nuclear arms race. At the heart of this struggle was a growing realization of the environmental, safety, and health consequences of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and the historical decisions made that allowed them to occur.
During all this time, Kitty was my “North Star” guiding the way.