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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

84-year-old is a social justice 'geri-activist'

Helen Tarbert doesn't believe any one episode inspired her to a life of activism, but she does recall a story from more than 50 years ago.

She was working toward her master's degree in English at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1950s, when a foreign-born classmate was beaten, robbed and killed on his way to check his mail. Once the killers were caught, Tarbert said, they faced a possible death sentence.

"The student's family came all the way from India and pleaded for their lives," she said. "Now, I don't expect many people to do that, but that has stuck with me all this time, so I think that had an impact on me."

Tarbert, now 84, got involved in the civil rights movement. In 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, she traveled to Memphis with Baltimore chapter members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"We stayed with African-American families in the city. It happened that I sat right behind Mrs. King and her children in church," she said. "She kept them close to her and wouldn't let them move. Those kids were so well behaved. I'll never forget that."

She later joined protests against the Vietnam War. Always an animal lover, she became an animal rights activist and has been a vegetarian for more than 30 years.

The retired librarian and researcher planned to attend an interfaith rally against the death penalty last Sunday at the Baltimore Basilica. She has been active in this year's Season of Nonviolence series in Frederick , helping bring peace activist, teacher and author Colman McCarthy to speak next week at her church, Evangelical Lutheran.

She has interests beyond social justices issues.

She keeps ferrets, cats and pygmy goats as pets, and is a member of the Baltimore Ferret Club and the America Ferret Association. She volunteers at her church once a week, participates in religion classes there regularly, and takes comparative religion classes through Frederick 's School of Religion.

She headed to the Folger Library in Washington last week for a performance of Shakespeare.

"I don't think there is a certain age when you should stop doing the things you are interested in doing," she said.

Instead of slowing down, Tarbert has become more involved in social and political causes over the year, attending rallies in Annapolis, Baltimore, Frederick and Washington. Three years ago, she spent more than nine hours on her feet working for a congressional candidate.

She has been involved with such anti-war groups as Code Pink, the Frederick Peace Resource Center and the Frederick chapter of Women in Black. She jokes that she has "a bunch of young friends" at FredPac, the Frederick Progressive Political Action Coalition.

"The older I get, I think, I realize how important these issues are," Tarbert said. "They may not be settled in my lifetime É but that doesn't make it any less important to do what you think is right.

"I'm perfectly willing to be called a radical," she said. "I think it partly comes from my religious beliefs, but I have to say I have said things about George Bush that weren't Christian."


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