In The News
A memory for Wisconsin in John Gilman’s life
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted May 5, 2011
John Gilman’s widow of five days appeared out of the crowd May 1 at the Bay View Massacre remembrance and kissed me. Helen told me that the next day in a private ceremony her late husband would receive the full dress military funeral and gun salute he deserved at the Union Grove cemetery.
John Gilman, 90 at his death, seldom missed these Bay View remembrances. He would especially have cherished this one on a sunny Wisconsin afternoon -- giant puppets, historical costumes, oratorical flourishes and gifted actors remembering worker marches, state militia over-reaction, confrontation and tragic deaths 125 years ago. This re-enactment of a protest in defiance of repressive establishment attitudes (in this case resistance to an 8-hour workday) was just the sort of civic action that John Gilman’s life embodied.
He was that distinctive American who combined care for others with self-reliance and individual leadership. It emerged in his Pennsylvania youth in the 1930s when he sold a Communist newspaper to earn money and led protests for a bigger high school to end overcrowding. Determined to stop Hitler, he fought off concerns that he was too radical for the military. A handsome natural leader by all accounts, he cut a ladies’ man path through Europe in World War II while, with exceptional heroism on battlefields, he became one of America’s most decorated infantrymen.
Years ago, one of my children had read chapters of the memoirs he recently self-promoted and published through Amazon and in bookstore readings. In “"Footsoldier for Peace and Justice” – a memoir that raised money for peace causes and for People’s World where he published articles – he discussed how he almost turned down the Distinguished Service Cross (he was also nominated for the Medal of Honor) because he felt badly that he had to blow up enemy soldiers to save his own comrades. “I wondered if we should get medals for killing people,” he said.
Years later he came to appreciate those medals, particularly when he was attacked as an unpatriotic leftist again and again by the House Un-American Activities Committee and threatened with prison for refusing to name names. When he showed up to testify displaying the combat decorations, the embarrassed members of Congress refused to deal with him in any way or even answer his criticism that their attack on him was itself un-American and anti-Semitic to boot.
That autobiography also recounts his atypical romance with Helen, a lifelong of wrangling but mutually devoted feistiness. It was a curious courtship – casual, sudden and enduring all at once – and it led to a remarkable domestic and political partnership.
It may surprise the jingoist among us that a decorated war hero asks to be remembered by donations to Pastors for Peace, an organization he helped lead during his effort to open up relations with Cuba. But John Gilman was a warrior for peace in all his causes.
He marched for unions, for open housing, for civil rights, for pastors James Groppi, Dismas Becker and Lucius Walker. He fed and bailed out Vietnam era protesters. He headed the state’s civil rights congress.
His flooring business was fire-bombed by the Ku Klux Klan and then vandalized for his activism. He was a troublemaker in his stubbornness. Rather than face his arguments in court, exasperated authorities waved him on his way or accepted his efforts to free civil agitators, be they Marquette students or Catholic priests. If Wisconsinites ever needed an example of standing your ground for your beliefs, of courage whatever the battlefield, they had it in Gilman -- obstinate with a righteous good nature and ready arguments about democracy. Few could resist him. None could thwart him.
At one of his book readings last summer, I noticed how he turned off his hearing aid so no one could interrupt his anecdotes or observations, making sure yet again he told his personal history in his own way. But even as his stamina and heart failed, friends and family knew better than to be too obvious in how they watched over this long sturdy warrior for peace, so palpable was his sense of independence and his desire to always carry his own weight in the community.
Smiling, Helen told me at the Bay View event, “He died so peacefully, looking out at the lake and the trees he loved.” You could see how in her memory, and in the memory of all touched by his personality, John Gilman’s pride and resilience live on.