Tragedy Brings Me Back to Athens

Art Gish devoted his life to peacemaking, economic justice, civil rights, reconciliation, and love.  These are ideas that have never sold well.  If you start shooting off your mouth about them around the wrong people, you’re likely to find yourself nailed up on two pieces of wood at the top of a hill.

This afternoon, friends came from all over to honor his life and mourn his death.  The First United Methodist Church on College St. in Athens was standing-room-only.  Art, who had faced down Israeli tanks in Hebron armed with nothing more than the cry of “Baruch Ha’Shem Adonai!”, and who protested in front of Army recruiting stations, died on his own land, crushed by a tractor, aged 70.
I rode down from Columbus this morning with Phil and Julie, a couple who attend Columbus Mennonite Church.  I had never met them before; we connected through Central Ohioans for Peace’s message board.  I was happy to learn that, after Art’s memorial service, they were headed to a wedding and reception in The Plains, so I would have time to explore the city where I had spent much of the 1980s, both as a high school student hitchhiking up on weekends from Marietta, to a student, and later as a townie.
I first heard the name Art Gish in the fall of 1981.  A Quaker farmer in New Marshfield asked me if I wanted to help select a peace candidate to run against the incumbent Congressman, Rep. Clarence Miller (R-Lancaster).  I was realistic enough to know that Miller, who had represented the 10th Congressional District of Ohio since 1967, would be handily re-elected, so the sacrificial lamb candidate we chose had almost no chance of winning.

One chilly November night, I hitchhiked to Athens and went to a long meeting at the home of a chemistry professor.  Two names seemed to carry the day: Chuck Overby, professor of industrial and systems engineering at O.U., and Art Gish.  Chuck Overby I knew slightly through the Unitarian Fellowship, but Art Gish was a totally foreign name to me.

At the next meeting, both men spoke to us about their vision for peace and the prospect of employment for the 10th District (At that time, Ohio was 49th in employment, trailed only by Michigan).  After both men spoke, we sent them into another room and closed the door while we debated.  After much debate, we decided that Chuck Overby would be the more viable candidate.  The two men emerged from the room each convinced the other would be a stellar candidate.  (It was a moot point; Chuck was defeated in the Democratic primary the following June, and John Buchanan went on to lose to Clarence Miller by almost 2:1.  Miller kept his seat until retiring in 1993.)

Many stories and anecdotes came from the pulpit of the church in Athens.  We heard from his family (one of his sons is part of a Bruderhof community (literally “place of brothers”), a sect of Anabaptists who live communally based on the model of the early Christian church).  I heard stories about Art that took place in seminary, Israel, Gaza, and the Athens Farmers’ Market.  People read from some of his books, including Beyond the Rat Race, Hebron Journal: Stories of Non-Violent Peacemaking, and At-Tuwani Journal: Hope and Non-Violent Action in a Palestinian Village.  Prayers in English, Arabic, and Hebrew went up in his name.  He habituated both the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life and the Islamic Center of Athens, and always tried to converse with foreign students in their native languages.

After the service (the Calliope Feminist Choir sung us on our way), I explored Athens thoroughly for the first time in many years.  I tried not to dwell on what had stood at a particular location, although I eagerly sought the familiar.  Baker Center, the student center, is in bigger and more majestic quarters at the end of Court St.  Many businesses I remember from my days there no longer remain, although many of the bars are the same, albeit with different motifs.  Little Professor Book Store is still chugging along–I bought a pocket diary on sale there for $.25.  The Saturday streets were quite busy for a summer afternoon, as this was the weekend for Bobcat Student Orientation.

I took several pictures of Court Street from various angles, the street where I spent much of my time–way too much.

Near the corner of N. Court and W. State Sts.,
where Pawpurr’s, The Pub, and The Junction
still stand.

College Green.  I actually choked up a little
when the bells atop Manasseh Cutler Hall struck
at 7 p.m.

Looking north on Court St.  The First Presbyterian
Church is on the northeast corner.

Phil and Julie left the wedding and reception in The Plains around 8:30, and we headed north.  I was able to stop by Oak St. and have an animated and informative, but all too brief, visit with Bob Whealey, who turned 80 this spring.  He is a retired history professor at Ohio University, who also made a quixotic run against Clarence Miller (this time in 1972, and he fared as well as George McGovern did that year!).  I earned extra cash typing his manuscripts, notes, and projects during my years in Athens, and he even mentioned my name as one of his “patient typists through the years” in the Foreword of his book Hitler and Spain: The Nazi Role in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939.  It was like old times, sitting in the living room of his house, surrounded by books, high stacks of papers and files, the familiar archive and musty paper smell I knew so well when I visited there quite often.
I was too saddened by the downfall of The Oasis to photograph it.  This was a student hangout and grill located on University Terrace, next to the Church of the Good Shepherd.  Many Middle Eastern students habituated the place, because of its proximity to the math and science buildings, so it had the derisive nickname “the Arab embassy.”  I worked there in 1988 and 1989, my last months in Athens, as a typist and assistant manager at the small copy shop in the back.  The pay was livable for a childless bachelor, and I enjoyed the long conversations with my manager and with the owner of The Oasis, John Farley.
John died in 2002, aged 77, and the University bought The Oasis from his estate and ran it as a grill and snack shop, but in November 2006, The Oasis closed its doors for good, and it appears to have sat vacant ever since.  The only sign of life is the Chase Bank ATM machine.  An O.U. grad writing in this 2006 Athens News column, wrote about the post-Farley life of The Oasis.
I was too wound up from the events of the day to head home, so I went to the Awarehouse (the warehouse/party site behind Third Hand Bicycle Co-op and Sporeprint Infoshop on E. 5th Ave.) and saw the  New York-based group Menya perform at the Hootenanny for Hellraisers.  I was happy to reconnect with friends I had met at the housewarming the previous week, and also a friend I had met at a Sporeprint screening of Fowl Play last Wednesday evening.
I would have covered more terrain in Athens had it not been for this damn orthopedic boot on my foot.  My approaching footsteps resembled Frankenstein’s, I’m sure.  I probably walked more than I should have, but I had taken two Darvocet (I usually take one), which kept the pain at bay.  Without a good walk, I’m like a heroin addict his second day off the needle.  After the party at the Awarehouse ended, I probably would have risked a walk home, but I had my laptop in an over-the-shoulder bag, and it would be tempting fate to walk through the neighborhood around Weinland Park at that hour anyway, laptop or no laptop.
I will leave you with the image of Art Gish that is probably the most famous.  I am surprised it didn’t win the photographer a Pulitzer Prize.  Art stands in front of an Israeli tank en route to bulldozing a Palestinian market in Hebron.
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