LINK:  University of Chicago Magazine
About the Magazine | Advertising | Archives | Contact
 LINK:  August 2006LINK:  featuresLINK:  chicago journalLINK:  investigationsLINK:  peer reviewLINK:  in every issue

:: By David McKay Wilson

:: Illustration by Richard Thompson

link:  e-mail this to a friend

Peer Review ::


Lifelong leftist

Approaching 80, Connie Hogarth rallies influential friends to support left-wing issues. Her latest cause: shuttering a local nuclear plant.

photo:  cvitaeOn Connie Hogarth’s expansive lawn along the Hudson River, dozens of activists gather one sunny May afternoon, raising $1,500 for a group defying the U.S. trade blockade by sending humanitarian aid to Cuba. Wearing Birkenstock sandals, faded blue jeans, and a T-shirt that declares “Democracy Now,” Hogarth, PhB’47, SB’48, rails against what she sees as wrongheaded American foreign policy. Then the 79-year-old lauds a handful of war protestors who’d been at a rally at West Point Military Academy, across the Hudson, where President Bush had just delivered the commencement address. “At least 300 people made it there, and I think our message got through,” Hogarth, of Beacon, New York, tells the crowd. “We need to find every opportunity to voice our opposition.”

Hogarth has been doing just that for more than 40 years. A leader on the political left in New York City’s northern suburbs, she has worked to ban the bomb, end racial segregation, stop the Vietnam War, abolish the death penalty, shut down nuclear power, impeach President Nixon, free Nelson Mandela, elect Jesse Jackson, X’67, disarm the Central American death squads, and form a Palestinian state.

In 23 years as executive director of the Westchester People’s Action Coalition (WESPAC), Hogarth took on a bevy of causes before “retiring” in 1996. This spring she served on the national Climate Crisis Coalition’s steering committee, which helped gather 40,000 petition signatures urging U.S. ratification of the Kyoto global-warming accords. She planned the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter’s annual dinner and spent a day making whipped cream for shortcake at a local environmental group’s strawberry festival. To find the most politically viable candidate to oppose six-term GOP Representative Sue W. Kelly, she helped plan forums for six candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for New York’s 19th District. The week before her lawn benefit, she organized a town-hall meeting calling for President Bush’s impeachment, with former U.S. Representative Elizabeth Holtzman, a New York Democrat, laying out the case to a standing-room only audience in Beacon.

On Saturdays she often picks up her neighbor, legendary folksinger Pete Seeger, to meet a gaggle of protestors at a busy suburban intersection, where they urge motorists to honk if they oppose the war. “At the beginning of the war, there were lots of thumbs down,” she says. “It has changed palpably in the past six months. The cacophony of sound from all that honking is an energizing experience.”

Hogarth is also teaching the next generation of activists how to make waves. At Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, she runs the Connie Hogarth Center for Social Action, begun in 1997 by two professors who’d worked with her on special programs at the college while she led WESPAC. They named the center in her honor and called on her to pitch in. She meets weekly with undergraduates training for social-justice advocacy careers, while designing events that draw national figures like leftist historian Howard Zinn and actress Ruby Dee. Hogarth is like a proud grandmother at the lawn benefit when she announces that one of her students has landed a job with Pastors for Peace, the group sending aid to Cuba.

“Connie’s an indefatigable organizer,” says Seeger, 87, who came to the afternoon event. “If it doesn’t work in one way, she’ll organize it in another way. Connie’s happiest out there with people in the struggle.”

Her links within the American left run deep, and it is those connections and a healthy work ethic that make her such a powerhouse. A 1999 dinner program honoring her activism included written tributes from liberal icons Jesse Jackson, actor Ossie Davis, writer Grace Paley, and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who called her “an American Joan of Arc, a mighty moral force.”

The local ACLU chapter holds an annual event memorializing Henry Schwarzchild, a longtime opponent of the death penalty, and Hogarth has booked the event’s speaker each year. In 2002 she decided to pursue Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking (book 1994, film 1995). But Prejean is in great demand, and her time has been tight as she works on another book about the death penalty. This fall Prejean finally will address the event. “I am very persistent,” says Hogarth. “It took me four years of making the phone calls and sending e-mails, and then doing it again and again. That’s what it takes sometimes.”

Journalist Ross Gelbspan, who serves on the Climate Crisis Coalition steering committee with Hogarth, says he is impressed by her environmental-movement connections, her commitment, and her ability to catalyze a group. She has helped broaden the coalition’s reach, Gelbspan says, by linking with activists in poor neighborhoods where extreme weather conditions exacerbate respiratory illnesses. “When our group comes up with an issue for which no one has a solution,” he says, “Connie invariably comes up with suggestions that make things work.”

Raised in Brooklyn, Hogarth walked her first picket line as a child with her father, a movie projectionist and union organizer. After three semesters at New York City’s Hunter College, she won a scholarship to Chicago, where she was pre-med and also began her years-long studies of modern dance.

Politics became part of Hogarth’s (then Holubar) college education too. Just a few years after Hiroshima was laid to waste by the first atomic bomb, she hung out with liberal classmates and engaged in spirited discussions about the blast’s destructive power. She moved back to New York following graduation and, after failing to win admittance to medical school at a time when few women were accepted, she became a medical researcher.

She worked under Jacob Auslander, who, as a member of the McCarthy-era Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, was sentenced to three months in jail and a $500 fine. One of his patients was Ring Lardner Jr., one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. When Julius and Ethel Rosenberg went on trial for espionage, she traveled to Washington, DC, for her first Capitol protest. “I was immersed in the political life of the times,” says Hogarth. “It was a revelatory and rich experience.”

In 1953 she married cartoonist Burne Hogarth, who drew the Tarzan comic strip (1937–50) and founded the art school that became New York’s School for the Visual Arts. Soon after son Richard was born in 1956 and son Ross in 1959, the Hogarths moved to suburban Westchester County, which had a reputation for good public schools. (She and Burne divorced in 1981, and nine years ago she married Art Kamell, a longtime activist and former labor lawyer.)

Hogarth’s activism deepened after moving to Westchester, as the U.S. involvement in Vietnam grew and the antiwar movement gained traction. She was active on both the local and national level, working for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom while also helping to found Northern Westchester People for Peace. In 1973 she helped start WESPAC, whose membership peaked at 5,000 in the early 1980s.

Hogarth also put her body on the line in civil disobedience. Her first of some 20 arrests came in 1968 outside the White House, where she and 30 other protestors staged a “die-in,” lying down at the gates to symbolize how many people died in Vietnam that day. Four months after the 1979 near-catastrophe at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, she led one of Westchester County’s biggest protests ever, as more than 4,000 people marched on the Indian Point nuclear complex on the Hudson River, 17 miles south of her home.

After 9/11, Hogarth renewed her interest in Indian Point activism. One of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center flew a route almost directly over Indian Point. Suddenly suburbanites who had come to accept the risks of nuclear power feared that the plant, only 40 miles north of New York City, could become a terrorist target. Although politicians had long since written off the antinuclear movement, they now responded to their constituents; many called for the complex’s shutdown. While the elected officials have yet to succeed, the political dynamic has shifted. A 2006 federal study detailed how the plant could be transformed to natural gas as an alternative, yet costlier, source of regional electric power.

For Hogarth, the changing attitudes reflect a political maxim that continues to fuel her passion as she approaches her 80th birthday in November: “When the people lead,” she repeats, “eventually the leaders will follow.”