Remembering Jean Martin on Memorial Day

[Note: A slightly different version of this essay can be found at: Jim Throgmorton, “Remembering Jean Martin,” Iowa City Press-Citizen (June 8, 2011), __A.]

The wind sings while a bright morning sun glistens over the pines. More than a hundred people gaze down into the valley where a few dozen junior high school students follow their conductor’s baton. The music they play becomes one with the wind, the moment, and the words of the speakers at the nearby podium. It’s Memorial Day at Oakland Cemetery.

The mayor and other speakers report that the day had been invented in 1868 to honor the Union soldiers who had died during the Civil War, and that proportionately more Iowans had died during the war than from any other state. A woman from the VFW Auxiliary places a wreath beneath a stone that marks where several of them are buried. Soldiers from a National Guard unit fire a rifle salute.

An elderly retired officer recalls having witnessed Civil War veterans speak at the same event when he was a child. A small child plays in the sunlit grass by herself, thinking perhaps of the flower before her, while the officer reads Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Lincoln intones. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” Lincoln continues, “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” We the living must, he says, “be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” We must “be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Listening to Lincoln’s timeless words, one wonders: What is “the unfinished work” for “us the living”? What is “the great task remaining before us” now?

In one sense Lincoln was simply saying that the war had to be fought to a successful conclusion. But his words (and Memorial Day more generally) also speak to us about collective memory and about community identity extending over time. They suggest that the great task remaining before us the living is to build a stronger, healthier community out of the diverse people we actually are.

With this great task in mind, one’s memory might turn to Jean Martin.

Jean was no soldier and she fought no wars (at least not in the conventional sense). But, as her May 28 obituary documents, what she did extraordinarily well was to treat people as equals and weave the diverse strands of our community into a more coherent and beautiful whole.

For six years I worked with Jean on Environmental Advocates’ board of directors. During that time I became aware of her deep connections with labor unions, women’s groups, seniors, and other organizations. I watched her work at the Labor Day picnic, chili suppers, food drives, and many other events. She loved being of the people, laboring in events organized by the people, and working for the people.

Although even Lincoln might not agree with everything Jean said or did, I think all of us would admire and praise the spirit that underpinned her efforts, and the potential benefits for our children playing in the sunlit grass.

Let us therefore remember Jean Martin as a woman who joyfully undertook the “great task that lies before us”: helping to build a better community based on mutual respect. Just as Irving Weber tips his hat at Iowa and Linn, so too might a statue honor Jean. I’m in. How about you?

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