Saturday, November 10, 2007

Activist Chuck Drury Memorialized at World Beat Center


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: Portrait of Chuck Drury by Mario Torero; Chuck's surviving partner, Betty Fry (left) with two members of her family

If you were any kind of radical or progressive activist in San Diego in the last 27 years, you probably ran into Chuck Drury whether you knew it or not. Though his main activist affiliation was with the San Diego Friends of Cuba — he’d lived in Cuba for the first 10 years after the 1959 revolution and knew both Fidel Castro and Che Guevara personally — Drury turned out for almost everything. He got involved in a variety of causes, from opposing America’s support for the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980’s and its current imperialistic war in Iraq to his long-term support for an alternative school in his native Chicago. Drury died September 14 at the age of 80, and his November 3 memorial service at the San Diego World Beat Center in Balboa Park — a venue he’d frequently used to host fundraisers for San Diego Friends of Cuba and his other organizations — was a virtual who’s who of the San Diego Left.

Kathy Hughart of the IFSO/Pastors for Peace organization, which sponsored San Diego Friends of Cuba’s trips to Cuba with computers and other equipment in violation of the U.S. embargo, recalled, “Chuck told me about his experiences living in Cuba right after the revolution. After we returned from Cuba in 2003 I remembered the hospitality Chuck and Betty Fry [his partner] offered me in their home.” Hughart remembered that Drury and Fry recruited her to Pastors for Peace in the first place, and said, “You saw the confrontations that occurred with regard to bringing humanitarian aid to Cuba” — a reference to the battle between the group and U.S. customs officials who at first refused to let the shipment of computers collected by San Diego Friends of Cuba across the U.S.-Mexico border, though they later backed down.

But Hughart recalled other stories Drury had told her over the years, including his years as a cook on merchant ships — a job he started at age 17. She said that Drury’s gifts as a cook never left him. “One day he put together the best salad I had ever tasted, and talked about having gratitude for each vegetable and the farmers, pickers and factory workers that produce our food,” she remembered.

“My thoughts of Chuck are filled with sadness and joy, and how much he will be missed by me and others,” said Gloria Verdieu of the International Action Center in San Diego. “His life reflects a life fully lived. Without Betty opening her home and heart, I might never have got to know Chuck. About eight years ago I went to my first San Diego Friends of Cuba meeting, right after I had got back from Cuba and wanted to tell my own Cuba stories. I spoke of the strength of the Cuban people, and though everyone else had been there more than once, they wanted to hear about my trip. Chuck made sure people took the literature. He emphasized that there is no homelessness in Cuba, and everyone gets education and free health care.”

Verdieu recalled Drury and Fry as “activists in the streets … fighters for justice. They were down at the San Diego County Hall of Justice protesting against police brutality, and at Imperial Avenue for political prisoners Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier. He was at the Federal Building struggling against illegal deportations. He made sure San Diegans were among the first medical students sent to Cuba for medical education, and was one of the first people in San Diego to organize to free the Cuban Five” — five Cubans who crossed into the United States to apprehend anti-Castro Cuban terrorists, and were arrested and given long sentences for their pains.

Armando Ramirez from the national committee of the Communist Party, U.S.A. said, “Chuck and I both lived in Chicago, though we never met there even though we were both in the party. Chuck joined the Young Communist League while he was still in high school and has been in the party through thick and thin, even in the 1950’s when many of our members were jailed or driven out of the country.” According to Ramirez, Drury’s life as a Communist began in his high-school days, when he was arrested at a demonstration. “A teacher saw he was interested in the world and steered him to Marxism,” Ramirez recalled.

“One of the highlights of Chuck’s life was his membership in Cooks and Stewards of the Seamen’s Union,” Ramirez said. “Paul Robeson [the famous African-American actor and singer whose career was destroyed because of his communist sympathies] would come to town, and the cooks and stewards made a dinner for him. After that every time Paul came to Los Angeles he would insist that the people from that union be his bodyguards and cook for him.” Ramirez, who said he got to know Drury during trips to Los Angeles and back to participate in rallies — “he’d jump at the chance,” Ramirez said — called Drury “an indispensable man. We’re all going to miss him.”

After Ramirez spoke, an incident occurred that dramatized how much Drury had brought the Left together — and continued to do so even after his death. Herb Shore, the San Diego organizer for Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — an organization founded by anti-communist socialist Leftists in the 1970’s based on a tradition dating back to the original split between American socialists and communists in 1919 — came onstage with his guitar and led the audience in a sing-along of the Communist anthem, “The Internationale.”

“We’re here to put a face to the true spirit of international solidarity Chuck represented,” said Harrison Monn of Union del Barrio. “We’re very proud to have known Chuck and want to reaffirm our past presence and future commitment to Friends of Cuba in overthrowing the embargo.”

“When we started San Diego Friends of Cuba in 1990,” said event MC Ramón Espinal, “we confronted a lot of dangerous situations.” One of these was Alpha-66, a terrorist organization of anti-Castro Cuban expatriates that was then headquartered in San Ysidro. “Our programs were kept safe because Union del Barrio sent 15 people to each event and kept us safe even when Alpha-66 attacked us physically,” Espinal recalled.

Espinal called Drury “a mentor.” He said he knew Drury for 18 years “and he made it easier for [his wife] Barbara and I to raise our children, because we didn’t have to tell them about revolution. Chuck and Betty did that for us. He was a real educator. I spent more time with Chuck in the last 20 years than I did with my own father. I applaud [Chuck’s son] Sean Drury for sharing his father with us.”

“The spirit of Chuck inspires us to the depths of our souls,” said Martin Eder, founder of Activist San Diego. “He was a lifelong revolutionary, always upbeat, always personable. I met him in Berkeley, at the founding convention of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. We talked about our love for the struggles of Latin America.”

Eder recalled the experience of meeting Drury: “When he greeted you there was a firmness. His eyes held yours so strongly you knew what he believed in. He had a talent for explaining complicated concepts in working-class people’s terms.”

“It would have been impossible not to love Chuck,” said veteran San Diego activist Tanja Winter. “He doesn’t disappear; he’s all around us. His love permeated everything he did, including his visits to his doctor or when he lovingly cooked a meal.” Winter remembered attending the Cygnet Theatre with Drury while it still performed in La Jolla, before it moved to its current home in the College/Rolando area. “Chuck would sit in the front row at the theatre and would enjoy every minute even though he could barely see. He enjoyed life so much, he could barely see. He enjoyed life so much, he could barely waste time with a negative response.”

A young couple, John Bracken and Andrea Saenz, recalled their years living in San Diego and relating to Drury as a fellow expatriate Chicagoan. They’ve since moved back to Chicago, but they flew to San Diego to attend Drury’s memorial. “The movement in Chicago is known for Haymarket, the eight-hour day, Fred Hampton [the Black Panther leader murdered by Chicago police in 1969], the 1968Democratic Convention and the immigrants’ rights march,” Bracken recalled. “Chicago is a city of action, not theory, and Chuck was much more comfortable out there working with people than sitting at home reading his books.”

“Chuck was really motivated by feelings of love,” Saenz said. “We moved here right after I finished college, and it wasn’t until we met Chuck and Betty that we really felt part of humanity and part of a family. Chuck really believed in humanity and the commitment to peace and justice. We moved [to Chicago] 10 years ago, but he drew us back. We’re here today because those bonds don’t go away. There’s something about that unique, sincere, deep appreciation for human and all life that’s so cherished by everybody in this room that is so unique. If we remind ourselves of that and bring that to our own interactions, that’s the best thing we can give Chuck.”

The memorial also featured songs by Leslie Yerington and poetry readings by various participants, including World Beat Center founder Makeda “Dread” Cheatom. Betty Fry’s son Nathan served as accompanist for some of the singers, though singer Marina Martin gave haunting unaccompanied renditions of two arias by Puccini, “Mi chiamano Mimì” from La Bohème and “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi. After a three-hour program, at which Betty Fry and Sean Drury were introduced only at the very end, the event became a dance party and “celebration of life” for its honoree.