Monday, December 21, 2009
What we have lost
There's something melancholy about the end of the year. There's always the haunting sense of what might have been.
A year ago, I was sure the election of Barack Obama would usher in a new era of good feelings, marked by mutual respect and cooperation. Didn't quite work out that way, did it?
Most of all, I'm saddened by the realization of how many wonderful people we lost this year. Not only celebrities like Paul Newman and Walter Cronkite, but also less famous people like Hilda Bell Roberts of Berkeley, who passed away on Sept. 23 at age 93.
Hilda was trained as a nurse, and when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 she sailed to Europe on the S.S. Normandie to volunteer her services to the Loyalist (anti-fascist) side.
She worked as an operating room nurse before transferring to the front, where she traveled with a mobile surgical unit that operated in a variety of temporary locations - including an unused railway tunnel, a nut factory and a mansion - always staying one step ahead of Franco's bombers.
During World War II she joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and was stationed in New Guinea, where she was awarded two bronze battle stars for saving patients during enemy attacks.
But those medals didn't do her much good during the McCarthy era, when the State Department revoked her passport because of her nursing activities in Spain in the 1930s. She was accused of being "prematurely anti-fascist." (Never mind that America went to war against fascism only a few years later.)
Undaunted, she went back to school and earned an advanced degree in psychiatric nursing, which she practiced at Napa State Hospital and taught to others at Napa Community College.
And she never stopped fighting the good fight. In 1988 she went to Nicaragua with Elders for Survival to pick coffee. She also traveled with Pastors for Peace, riding yellow school busses bringing computers and medical supplies to Cuba.
She was on the famous trip when the buses were stopped at the Texas border, and she and the other participants protested by fasting and remaining on the buses despite the broiling heat.
She was also a regular presence in front of the St. Helena post office, where she would stand vigil, often alone, against U.S. policies in Central America.
Hers was a life well lived, full of service to others.
Another good person we lost this year was Jim Churchill of Alameda, who died on Nov. 3. Jim was a big, rough, tough Marine, but you never met a gentler man.
Along with his wife, Gail, he was a dedicated supporter of Island Cat Resources and Adoption, which rescues hundreds of homeless and abused cats and kittens in Alameda and Oakland every year.
Their home was constantly filled with foster kitties, which they would raise and teach to trust humans before placing them in permanent homes.
Rescuing abused animals can be a painful experience. But Jim could always be counted on to make things better with his kindness, quick wit, common sense and infinite patience.
The Marines' motto is "Semper Fi" - Latin for "Always Faithful." That was Jim in a nutshell. He, too, will be missed.