by Eric Jorgensen
My mother, Mary Evelyn Jorgensen, died on July 23rd, 11 days after her 98th birthday was celebrated with immediate family and a few of her caregivers. Today most of her great grandchildren, grand-children, children, extended family and community of friends are gathered to celebrate her life.
Growing up on an Indiana family farm with no electricity, milking cows and garden chores were part of Mary’s early life. Farm life and the Depression shaped a strong work ethic and a frugality toward consumption, which extended through her life. She credits the values of her small town and school debate teams as largely responsible for her early sense of justice and introduction to social issues.
Mary attended Manchester College, a small Brethren Church College in Indiana known for its peace activities. Thereafter, she taught elementary school for several years. In the late 1930′s, her independent spirit exhibited itself as she attained her airplane pilot’s license, though she choose not to pursue this when she found out her services would be used for military transport. Instead she joined a summer bicycle excursion organized by American Youth Hostels where she met her husband, Russ.
In their 20’s, Mary and Russ moved to California and embraced Quaker worship and the ways of the Society of Friends at an early age. They attended Pasadena, Berkeley, Santa Rosa and Grass Valley Quaker meetings over the course of their lives. Mary integrated Quaker values into her life’s commitment to family, community building, race relations and peace.
Arriving in Berkeley in mid 1940s, race relations were prominent issues. Local hotels, businesses and real estate often discriminated. Mary and Russ joined others in the picketing of J.C. Penney and worked hard for fair housing. Living in a large, rambling Berkeley home near campus, they began their first intentional community by running a little “international house” of graduate students from many parts of the world and putting their values into practice.
Family and gardens were closely linked; four children (Eric, Lynne, Mark and Paul) required food on the table. Mary always had a strawberry patch and persimmon tree in her life. Canning and preserving foods linked together food security, a tight budget and family cooperation. Household chores, family work projects (cleaning the Berkeley Friends Meeting House), and summer and winter camping trips solidified enduring family bonds.
In the mid 1950’s, Mary and Russ joined three other families who all built homes next to each other to raise their children. Open doors and adjoining yards created an extended family. The Creston Road neighborhood hosted several pancake breakfast fundraisers in support of a newly formed Quaker organization, the California Friends Committee on Legislation, a Sacramento lobby for social justice and Quaker values. Several hundred people spilled over the confines of our small neighborhood and Mary’s warm welcome for friends and strangers alike helped to make the events a memorable success.
In 1961, Martin Luther King called for older, established citizens to join the largely youthful Freedom Riders. Mary and Russ joined a contingent from the Bay Area and traveled to Jackson Miss. to participate in nonviolent resistance to racial segregation. They were arrested and jailed integrating a bus restaurant. 50 years later Mary appeared with fellow Freedom Riders on the Oprah Winfrey Show to celebrate these historical accomplishments.
Social concerns for Mary and Russ have always included an international element. In 1956 they attended American Friends Service Committee sponsored “Conference for Diplomats” in Switzerland where second level diplomats from conflicting countries could share and socialize off the record. From there they went to Israel to participate in a Arab-Israeli work camp rebuilding bombed out Arab homes. In 1959 they took our family to Mexico and led a summer work camp of volunteers focused on building school sanitation facilities and planting trees. In 1964 our family spent 2 years in Tanzania where Russ and Mary supervised volunteers in rural development projects. Mary say’s of work projects at home and abroad “different kinds of people working together for a common goal can be a very healing and bonding way of establishing respect.”
Having children in high school, Berkeley Quakers decided to create educational opportunities on the West Coast for their children and others. Mary joined other like-minded people in founding John Woolman High School, today’s Sierra Friends Center. Mary raised funds and organized summer work camps to build and grow this educational center. Today, the Center’s focus on peace, non-violence, sustainability and social justice resonate with Mary’s life concerns. Mary would say to young people …”think for your selves. Get as much knowledge as you can from books, travel and people.”
Mountains and camping with nature and family were opportunities for Mary to rejuvenate herself and inhale life. High Sierra family backpack trips and base camps became a tradition knitting an extended family together in play and exploration. Mary hiked the John Muir Trail, climbed Mt Kilimanjaro, and trekked in Nepal and the Andes. As she aged, daily walks became a treasured part of her well being and outings continued till her passing.
Foreign travel enabled Mary opportunity for buying beautiful, village handcrafts. Mary operated a small import business in support of her social interests. She would set up tables at gatherings and sell imports in support of Woolman School, the Nuclear Free Zone, The Friends Committee on Legislation, or the Peace and Justice Center of Sonoma County. She tied socially responsible entrepreneurship to her beliefs.
Reaching retirement, Mary and Russ moved to Monan’s Rill, an intentional community they helped found in Sonoma County. They joined other families in building homes, garden and community center, all held in common. From this base of shared living, they continued their non-violent witness against the folly of nuclear weapons at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Livermore Laboratories and the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. The Sonoma County Center for Peace and Justice recognized their decades of effort and service by establishing the “Russ and Mary Jorgensen Courage of Commitment Award”. Some years later, Mary was awarded the Center’s “Peacemaker Award” saying “her non-judgmental acceptance of others she works with or encounters, the generosity with her time and talents, and the love each of us feel in her presence …yes, Mary is Peacemaker par excellence.”
Mary and Russ moved to Nevada City in 2000 to join three of their children in their closing years. In the last years of life Mary continued to value her many affiliations. Mary immensely enjoyed time for dance, laughter, and new friendships.She engaged life and will remain in the hearts of all of us.