50 years of waging peace
How three women’s lonely vigil sparked five decades of deep-rooted activism
For 46 years, people have gathered faithfully every Saturday morning in downtown Chico, on the corner of Third and Main streets, no matter the weather, to wage peace.
Some hold handmade cardboard signs directed to the stream of passing automobiles, whose drivers sometimes honk in solidarity or, occasionally, respond with obscene gestures.
Last Saturday, Oct. 2, the faithful celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Chico Peace Endeavor. As many as 100 people showed up to support the cause, which in recent times has been carried forward by just three or four doggedly determined gray-haired folks dedicated to keeping the weekly peace vigil alive.
The anniversary date is more symbolic than accurately significant. Besides being the 141st birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, Oct. 2 was the birthday of Wilhelmina Taggart, who in 1960, along with two other Chico women, began praying weekly at the gate of the site where a Titan I nuclear-missile silo was being constructed. It was located just beyond the airport, at the southwest corner of Cohasset and Keefer roads.
The women’s silent, prayerful, lonely protest is considered the beginning of the modern peace movement in Chico.
In 1959 the federal government had acquired 275 acres of land from Chico rancher Nathan H. Thomason to build the site. It was part of Beale Air Force Base’s 456th Strategic Missile Squadron, a triad of bases that included the Sutter Buttes and the Placer County town of Lincoln. The three sites cost more than $40 million to build.
They were activated on April 20, 1962. One month later two explosions destroyed the missile in the No. 1 launcher at the Chico base. Two weeks after that a fire in another Chico silo killed a worker. By August work began on repairing the silo damaged by the explosions, at a cost of $1.25 million. The Chico complex came online the following March.
By October, the Cuban Missile Crisis had erupted, and 50 Titan I’s were put on Defcon 2 alert status, placing the world on the doorstep of all-out nuclear war.
All the while, Wilhelmina Taggart and friends Helen Kinnee and Florence McLane met at the site, prayed and held signs either protesting the presence of the missile or promoting peace.
Just two years later, in 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered the phase-out of the Titan missile program. That same year, the women’s Saturday peace vigil moved downtown to the corner of Third and Main streets, where it has remained ever since, one of the longest continuous vigils in the nation.
The movement became known as the Chico Peace Endeavor. Twenty years later it gave birth to the Chico Peace and Justice Center, a local nonprofit whose mission is “combating poverty, racism, sexism, economic exploitation, militarism, and environmental destruction.”
Two weeks ago, on Sept. 25, four people took part in the vigil at Third and Main. They held signs for the passing motorists and sidewalk passersby.
Bill Carlson, the first Peace Center coordinator, was among the four.
“I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years,” he said. “I’m doing it for the hope of peace and the idea of witnessing for what I believe in. But, to be honest with you, by now, after 30 years, it’s kind of a habit, and I wouldn’t know where else to be on a Saturday.
“There are still wars and rumors of war; that’s the way it is. Still, I think we are a little better off than we were when I started doing this in the ’80s. Then we were really concerned about the nuclear proliferation. I think there were something like 60,000 nuclear bombs poised between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. That was really nerve-wracking and scary to many of us.”
Linda Furr’s been showing up on Saturdays since 1979.
“That’s when Iranian students took American hostages,” she said. “I knew what would happen in this country because of that. I came out for that then. And I came out through the 1980s because the U.S. was financially supporting the Contras to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.”
Does she ever get frustrated?
“Actually, I’ve got to say no. … Even though it doesn’t stop war, I would be far more frustrated at home if I couldn’t come out here and do this.”
As we talked the four were saluted by the occasional horn honk.
“These people who drive by and honk and give thumbs up,” Furr said in response, “we are bringing them into the peace movement. That includes very unlikely people; big four-wheel-drive guys honking for peace. We’ve made them feel as if they are part of the peace movement, and I think that is wonderful.”
David Wilson said he’s been standing vigil for the past 20 years. He was holding a sign that said, “Wage Peace.”
“I just have to witness for peace,” he said. “I need to do it. I don’t know if it does any good, but there you are. I’m much more for waging peace than I am against war.”
Seren Bradshaw said she’s been showing up on the corner since the start of the Iraq War. “I will continue to do it until hell freezes over, which may be soon.”
Lin Jensen, a local Zen Buddhist teacher and writer, joined the vigil in October 2004 to protest the Iraq War. He sat on a cushion in a cross-legged position and meditated. Afterward he wrote a book about the experience, Pavement: Reflections on Mercy, Activism, & Doing “Nothing” for Peace.
In it he writes, “I don’t know that my presence there changed much of anything, but I felt the urgency within me subside a little and an unexpected peace settled over me.”
He adds: “I will sit right here on the pavement and offer you the visible presence of my dismay and grief over the brutality our nation is engaged in. I offer my rejection of our country’s claim that it is acting on our behalf, yours and mine. And so I’ve brought my protest to the very place where you come to shop or get a cup of coffee. You may acknowledge me or ignore me as you see fit, but I am here, nevertheless, to remind us both, you and me, that something has gone wrong in our nation, and I’ll be back tomorrow to remind us again.”
Sue Hilderbrand runs the Peace Center now. She is a self-professed community organizer who moved to Chico from Phoenix five years ago, “kicking and screaming all the way.”
When she was hired in March 2007, the center’s board of directors changed the title from coordinator to executive director. “They couldn’t give me any more money, so they gave me a better title,” Hilderbrand said with a sly smile. She is short, feisty and confident in her demeanor.
In August 2005, soon after moving here, Hilderbrand heard about Cindy Sheehan, the mother of Casey Sheehan, a soldier killed in the Iraq War. Cindy Sheehan set up camp next to President Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch to protest the war. A good friend of Hilderbrand’s helped Sheehan organize her protest.
When Hilderbrand was talking with her friend on the phone about setting up a similar camp in Chico, a reporter from Time magazine standing nearby overheard and soon after called Hilderbrand.
“The woman calls me up and says she hears there’s going to be a solidarity Camp Casey in Chico,” Hilderbrand recalled. “‘Is that true?’ she asked. Here I am, I know like 10 people in Chico, and I say, ‘Yep, we’re gonna do it.’ I get off the phone and I call Leslie Johnson, I call [former Peace Center Coordinator] Bob Trausch and a few other people, and I said, ‘Can we do it?’ And within 48 hours we met here and we took over Children’s Park for 19 days in solidarity. It was all just a fluke, but it was there that I connected with all the activists in town.
“We were about three days in, and I got a call from Time and the reporter said, ‘We are going to interview you. We are going to put Chico on the map as the first camp in solidarity.’ I was like, ‘Great, I’ll expect a call from you in about an hour.’”
That interview never happened, as shortly after the initial call Cindy Sheehan fainted from heat exhaustion and by the time the media frenzy had calmed down, there were dozens of camps all over the country.
“I think had it been different, it would have been interesting that Chico had been in the spotlight, but you know heat exhaustion is hard to deny,” Hilderbrand said. “For me, that is how I got connected locally.”
Her job as executive director of the Peace Center is a challenge, she said.
“You can’t manufacture energy. You just have to prepare for when it comes and notice when it comes and direct it so it’s productive. Being an organizer is exiting when there is a lot of energy. Otherwise it’s boring; getting the reports written, looking for funding, talking to people, figuring out who has skills that might be needed in the future, confirming alliances.
“When we invaded Iraq there was an amazing surge of energy. … As a good organizer you’ve already prepared for when that comes. Then you ask, ‘How do we direct it?’”
In the past few years the center has become less reactive, opting instead to adopt multiyear campaigns.
“We do still react to things,” she said, “but we are being more proactive. The Beyond War campaign, for instance. You can see this at the national level, but all politics is local, right?”
In Chico, people are less concerned about national military spending than they are the California budget, she explained. So, rather than protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as some longtime supporters wish the Peace Center would, they rally behind issues that are on people’s minds locally.
“People are pissed off about the budget. If we create a coalition around the budget, we say, ‘If California didn’t have to spend billions of dollars to help fund the military, we’d balance our budget.’
“Where is the common ground? We all want peace. We don’t want to be taxed so much. We don’t want to spend so much money on our government. If everybody nods, at that moment then we have common ground, and then the question is, ‘How do we work together?’”
On Oct. 2, among those gathered on the corner was Lillian Thomas, daughter of Wilhelmina Taggart. Thomas and her husband, Don, live in Orland. She said her mother would be proud of the folks who continue to stand for peace.
When Thomas was only 21 months old, her mother was stricken with polio.
“She was pretty much bedridden for six years, during which time she had lots of time to think. She became very much interested in causes of the disabled and dreamed and wrote about what she was going to do when she got better. And she eventually did. It was a very slow process, but she did improve.
“During that time she was very active in, I wouldn’t call them all peace organizations, but active in helping folks.”
Taggart was born in Oregon and moved to Modoc County with her husband, Charles, who was a teacher. Eventually they moved to Chico when Charles took a teaching job here. The couple opened a flower shop on The Esplanade. That’s where Taggart met Helen Kinnee.
Taggart was a longtime member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international, interfaith peace organization founded in England in 1915 by an English Quaker and a German Lutheran who pledged to work for peace even though their countries were at war. The movement would eventually include Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, members of other faiths and those without religious affiliation.
“Mom had Fellowship of Reconciliation Christmas cards for sale at the store,” Thomas recalled. “Helen came in and asked about them. And that is when they met.”
Chris Nelson is a nurse practitioner who’s been providing reproductive-health-care services in local family-planning clinics for many years. She’s interested, she said, in empowering women by teaching them to understand their bodies and take control of their health.
In 1984, she was arrested with then-78-year-old Wilhelmina Taggart after they chained themselves to the door of the Internal Revenue Service office on Rio Lindo Avenue to protest U.S. military intervention in Central America. That same day, Michael Pike, a former Green Beret, was one of six people arrested in the district office of then-Congressman Gene Chappie. They, too, were protesting U.S. intervention in Central America. Pike and Nelson would marry 18 years later.
A few years ago Nelson was named in this paper as one of its “local heroes.” Pike was interviewed for that story.
“Her compassion covers such a wide range of interests, things that she cares strongly and passionately about,” Pike said. “She feels you have a personal responsibility for what your county or your city does.
“She will not pay for war, and she backs up what she feels. She’s lobbied Congress to create a peace tax.”
Tom Haithcock, director of the Chico Creek Nature Center and onetime co-coordinator of the Peace and Justice Center, has known Nelson for 20 years. He, too, was asked about Nelson in that local-heroes piece.
“She’s been tireless in her efforts and hasn’t budged an inch,” Haithcock said. “When I was the coordinator of the Peace and Justice Center, Chris was the most active volunteer we had.
“Her dedication to the cause over time has been what she’s most left with me—somehow staying optimistic over the countless defeats for the cause.”
Today Nelson explains that, when she first came to Chico in 1978, she was attending graduate school and trying to avoid peace work because she wanted to stay focused on her studies.
“But of course I didn’t,” she said. “I was swept up with some things like the Three Mile Island [nuclear-power-plant] meltdown and the election of Reagan. You couldn’t be in the peace movement without getting to know Willa Taggart and Helen Kinnee. They were our foremothers and really influential in setting the tone of peace work in Chico.
“They believed strongly in the principle of nonviolence. And they were always there for us in terms of advising us. And they had their own work, which was the Peace Endeavor.”
Nelson says taking part in the Saturday protest serves as a time for contemplation.
“I think the vigil is a place you can go and it’s like fasting. It’s like any time when you are at a level of heightened awareness with what’s happening in the world. You’re standing in solidarity with the people who are experiencing that thing, and you are trying to make a change.”
Nelson said the early protestors—referring to Kinnee, Taggart and McLane—used to give handouts to the passersby, something that is not practiced as often these days. That allowed them to engage in dialogue with the curious. In fact, the small mimeograph machine they used to print the handouts is kept in a wooden box at the Peace Center.
McLane, who remained active with the Peace Endeavor right up until she died in 1981, had four sons, including one, Vernon, who was killed while serving in the Navy on a submarine during World War II. As the story goes, the military chaplain who delivered the news tried to soothe her by saying her son’s death was “God’s will.” No it wasn’t, she replied, “it was man’s stupidity.”
Her grandson, Michael McLane, a teacher in Merced, said another of her sons, Robert, became a conscientious objector. Though he’s not sure, these two events most likely influenced Florence’s tendency toward peace, he said.
“I was aware of her involvement with the peace effort at that time [late 1960s], but because I grew up in a family that was against war, I didn’t really appreciate it then,” McLane explained.
Helen Kinnee’s son Tom lives in Chico and teaches in the Theater Department at Butte College.
“My mom was one of the gentlest people you will ever meet,” he said. “But that didn’t mean she was lily-livered. She had much strength of conviction in her own way, but it was quiet. … She was a very caring soul but not in a way that was grandstanding.”
He has a recording from 1993 of his mother and Taggart quoting Gandhi and famed physician/philosopher Albert Schweitzer explaining that an individual’s protest may seem very insignificant but it is still very important.
“Like a ripple in a lake, yours is added to others’, and it gets bigger and bigger until it overcomes evil,” Helen Kinnee says on the tape. Taggart adds: “It is not important that we do great things that in our hearts seem valuable, but just the fact we do it. And it’s not important whether we live to see the results in our lifetime.”
Tom Kinnee, who was born in 1952, says his mother grew up in Boise, where her father was mayor. She later married James Kinnee and they moved to Chico shortly before Tom was born. James taught in the Chico State Music Department.
He often attended the vigils with his mother, he says, and over the years saw things change. “When it first started in 1960 there was a lot of antagonism directed toward them, people looking at them with hatred, really ….
“But over the years, I think, just by sticking to being there in a quiet, nonconfrontational way, it kind of changed people’s hearts.”
The 1993 recording of his mother includes her explaining how she got involved with the peace movement at an early age. She was bothered by the seemingly blind obedience she noticed in some. Then she talks about meeting Tom’s father.
“Even when I was a little kid,” she begins, “I didn’t like marching bands because people would follow them anywhere, regardless of where they were going, and that worried me. But I wasn’t aware enough to do anything about it at the time. Then, when I was teaching [in Exeter, Calif.], I met a man who had been influenced by the Methodist Peace Caravan that came up through the San Joaquin Valley, and he said to himself, ‘This is it.’ And then I realized from what he told me that that’s what I would have to devote the rest of my life to.
“He was a conscientious objector. We went back to New Hampshire to do his [CO] service at a mental hospital for three years. He was right on the ward with disturbed men. It was really rough. I was chicken. I worked in the payroll office.
“After World War II we wanted to stay in the peace movement, so we went to William Penn College in Iowa to teach. We stayed there for three years. That was a good experience with the Quakers.”
The tape recording ends with Helen Kinnee and Wilhelmina Taggart describing the beginnings of the peace movement in Chico.
Taggart is talking: “In the ensuing days and weeks, lying in bed resting one day, I prayed perhaps more fervently than I ever had that somehow…” She stops and begins to cry.
Kinnee picks it up: “Somehow we would have to learn to live with each other.” She stops. Taggart continues to cry, so Kinnee resumes: “That we had to learn the ways of nonviolence getting along with our neighbors.”
Taggart regains her composure: “Thanks a lot, Helen,” she says, her voice quivering. “I get kind of emotional, and I’m sorry about that. But it was as if someone spoke to me and said, ‘Well, you’re somebody. Why don’t you do something about it?’ And that’s how it all started.”
Peace work must have health and longevity benefits. Florence McLane lived to the age of 96. Wilhelmina Taggart died just short of her 95th birthday, in September 2000. And Helen Kinnee died Nov. 26, 2005. She would have been 93 on Christmas Day.