20th Anniversary Gala: Carry it Forward

Below, I am reproducing the talk I gave at our 20th Anniversary Gala on October 17th. It was a great party, attended by over 200 of our staunchest supporters from Western Massachusetts, as well as people from Boston, New York City, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New York City, and the Albany, NY area. I’m sharing my words with you, because many of you could not make it.

-Robert Meeropol

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[Note: visit our Gala page for videos of all the presentations.]

I’m so pleased to see you all here tonight exactly 20 years and 5 days since we held our kick-off benefit concert just a few blocks away at John M. Greene Hall on the Smith College campus. The money we cleared that night started our Granting Fund and enabled us to make our first grants the following spring. In May, 1991 we awarded a grant of $805 to enable two children of an Ohio Seven defendant to attend a Quaker Summer Camp in Maine. We’ve awarded almost 4 millions dollar since, over 1 million in the last three years alone!

The RFC was my idea, but it has been a collective effort involving thousands. We’ve probably had 20,000 people who have made at least one contribution to us. We’ve involved hundreds of providers, hundreds of performers, hundreds more who’ve hosted events, dozens of Board members as well as our staff. I wish I had time to thank you all personally and give you the public recognition you deserve, but my time is short.

There are three people I’m going to single out, however. First, the first person I told about my idea for the RFC, my wife, Elli. From the moment she heard the idea she was its biggest booster. She even went behind my back to get a friend to provide me with the initial business plan for the RFC and she has been the most involved non-paid member of the RFC team ever since. I have two other people to introduce tonight, but I’ll tell you a little story first.

I’d gone to law school with the idea of gaining legal skills to enable me to start and run a public foundation. The name RFC came much later. After law school I worked for a tax and business law firm and lost sight of my dream. I became increasingly unhappy with the work I was doing and left the firm at the end of 1988 not knowing what I would do.

That December, as I was going through the turmoil of leaving the firm, I heard a talk by Pat Levasseur, one of the Ohio 7 defendants. Pat and her husband Ray, and six other defendants were each charged with seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States (one was later dropped from the case).

The three couples and one single person had been members of an underground revolutionary cell. At a previous trial most had been convicted of carrying out bombings against multi-national corporations who invested in apartheid South Africa or sold arms to right-wing forces in El Salvador.

Even though all except Pat, who had only been convicted of harboring a fugitive (her husband), were serving multi-decade sentences, Attorney General Edwin Meese decided to charge them with Seditious Conspiracy and have them retried. They faced an additional 60 years in prison.

Pat, recently paroled into her attorney, Bill Newman’s, custody, gave a presentation to explain the trial to the community in Springfield. Afterward she told me that each of the three married couples had three children. When two of her co-defendants were arrested in 1985 the authorities seized their three children, then aged 11, five and three, and held them incommunicado for several weeks. The oldest was repeatedly interrogated without any supportive adult present. During this period the FBI told the parents that the children would not be released to their relatives until the parents cooperated.

This revelation coursed through me like an electric shock. Bad as my childhood had been, I had never been interrogated. The authorities had used these children to extort cooperation from the defendants, the same way they had used my brother and me to pressure our parents. But what hit me hardest was that I hadn’t even known about it. While I’d been helping businessmen make more money, these kids with whom I felt such a kinship were being terrorized

I left the firm a couple of weeks later. I spent a lot of time during the next few months figuring out what to do with my life, but starting my own foundation still hadn’t crossed my mind even though I’d dreamed about doing it for so many years.

I’d never taken seriously cartoon pictures of ideas turning on like light bulbs in people’s heads, but that April a cerebral switch was thrown and my brain was rewired. I snapped awake in bed at 4:00AM knowing the mission of my foundation. It would help Pat and Ray's kids and others like them. It would help kids who were experiencing the same nightmare my brother and I experienced as children.

Having an idea is one thing effectuating it is another. I told Elli about it and she liked it a lot, but I didn’t have a clue about how to finance it or make it a reality. So I put the idea away, but Elli was unwilling to have me give up that easily.

Friends were visiting from Berkeley over Memorial Day weekend. Dan Scharlin, has a rare combination of left wing politics and business expertise. Dan and I were getting ready to venture out Sunday morning to, in my words, “slay the wild bagel,” when Dan’s wife Harriet said she wanted to pick up some pastries at the bagel place. Elli asked Dan to stay and help her with other brunch preparations. It seemed like I was being set up for something, but I couldn’t imagine what since my birthday had passed two weeks before.

I found out when we were sitting in our living room after gorging ourselves. Dan said that Elli had told him about my idea and its financial impediments. He asked me how many years I’d thought I’d need to make the foundation self sustaining and how much money I’d need annually to operate an office and pay myself a minimal salary. Then Dan sketched out a rough business plan for me. He said write up a proposal for your project, circulate it to your fund raising contacts and find 20 people who’ll pledge $2,500 each year for four years. I hemmed and hawed, but that’s what I did and the rest is history.

So I’d like to introduce to you - straight from Oakland California - Dan Scharlin, the person who provided me with the plan that brought the idea of the RFC to fruition.

That spring I attended the trial of the Ohio 7. Most of the defendants were represented by attorney’s but one, Ray Levasseur, represented himself. The lawyers were good. They won that case. None of the defendants were found guilty by the good people of Western Massachusetts who made up that jury, but the most amazing thing I saw at that trial was Ray Levasseur’s closing argument.

He explained his politics. He explained his actions. He even explained why he had children. He confronted everything. He shied away from nothing and the jury did not find him guilty.

But Ray was serving time for his prior conviction so I did not meet him. I finally met him in 2005. I saw him again in 2006. He’d been paroled and he’d helped organize an exhibit of art work by political prisoners at the University of Southern Maine. Bill Newman and I drove up to see it and him, but when we arrived on the campus we discovered that Maine State Police protests caused the University to cancel the exhibit and Ray has been ordered to leave the campus. So we drove to Ray’s house and had dinner with him instead.

Last fall it happened again. Most of you know how Ray was invited to speak at UMass, and that the University caved in to State Police pressure and cancelled his appearance. When UMass faculty re-invited Ray - when the teachers would not let the State Police become the thought police – the Federal Parole Board stepped in and Ray’s voice was silenced again.

But Ray’s off parole now, and no one will silence Ray’s voice this time. We’ve come full circle. Tonight you will hear the first public address given by Ray Levasseur in Western Massachusetts since his great closing argument I heard over 20 years ago. And it will be given at the 20th Anniversary Gala of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, the organization that his trial, the trial of the Ohio 7 inspired me to start. Tonight the RFC is proud to present Raymond Luc Levasseur.

(Ray then went on to give an extremely moving speech.)

See a slide show of the Gala by clicking here .

Read Jenn Meeropol's speech at the Gala here.

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