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A portrait of an unsung hero


While preparing for my imminent return to Israel, I have been reflecting about the past four years in South Bend, Ind. More than anything else, I will miss the people I have met during my stay.

One person whom I have come to admire is Roger Voelker, whose life forms an interesting story. After graduating from high school in Mishawaka, Ind., Voelker, who had always wanted to be a band director in a public school, went to study music at Indiana University in Bloomington. Since he was an idealist, upon completion of his degree, he found a job in Leavenworth, a small town in the poorest county in Indiana.

It was 1965. The civil rights movement was gaining momentum, and American soldiers were being sent every day to Vietnam. Though not very political, Voelker began reading about the war and realized that it was very different in character from World War II. Later he traveled to Washington to participate in a peace rally. There was nothing dramatic or even radical in his action. He simply felt that this was the right thing to do.

In Leavenworth, however, the township trustees thought otherwise: When the school year came to an end, Voelker was fired. The explanation was concise and to the point -- Vietnam.

Voelker reminds me of the protagonists in Graham Greene’s novels. Greene, according to one book written about him, “recognized that, in the contemporary world, in which we are persistently indoctrinated to applaud celebrity and financial success, many courageous people who fight evil and struggle for justice are shortchanged. Their stories remain untold, unremembered.” Thus, Greene’s stories revolve around ordinary people, people one might meet at a bar or while walking out of the cinema. Simple though they are, his characters are special because at a certain moment in their lives they encounter evil and decide to stand up for the good. They are unsung heroes.

From Leavenworth, Voelker moved to Pike County, Ky., and within a year lost his second teaching position, this time for befriending residents who protested strip-mining abuses. The Pike County events can be traced back to the turn of the century when the oil companies bought the mineral rights of the Appalachia for as little as 50 cents an acre. Sixty years later, some of the folks who owned land and were dependent on it for their livelihood lay in front of the corporate bulldozers in an attempt to stop them from extracting minerals from their property. These people, and not the corporations that were actually ravaging the land and destroying the environment, were arrested for sedition.

“It was the first time I saw naked corporate greed and how ruthless it can be,” Voelker says, adding that this experience also led him to realize how society can often misconceive its real betrayers.

Returning to Indiana, Voelker worked on the production line for Whirlpool, ran a small landscape nursery for a while, and then went back to teach music at Marian High School in Mishawaka. In 1989, he joined the Citizen’s Action Coalition and got involved in local politics. Along with other members of the community, he has been trying to attain fairer utility rates, to prevent the transportation of nuclear waste through Indiana and to advocate for campaign finance reform.

As a community organizer, Voelker is currently urging the Indiana legislature to redistribute the $1.5 billion it gives annually to the nursing homes. He claims it is more moral and economically beneficial to let the individual decide whether to go to a nursing home or to receive care at home. “Democracy is about giving people choice,” he says, “and we must stop letting the corporations determine the way we live our lives.”

As is all too evident, Voelker is no celebrity. What separates him from most people is his unwillingness to remain indifferent to the horror of human suffering, which, in turn, has led him to abandon his narrow egoistic interests for the sake of the common good.

If it is true that the universe is made of stories and not atoms, then Voelker’s story is a particularly worthy one. It reveals that the possibility of standing up against a system that values profit before people is open to ordinary individuals like ourselves. It is this message and others like it that I have learned in South Bend and will be taking back with me to the Middle East.

Neve Gordon, a native Israeli, was once the director of Israeli-Palestinian Physicians for Human Rights. A member of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame for the past four years, Gordon and his family will return to Israel this fall.

National Catholic Reporter, September 18, 1998