Still an Activist at 100: Arky Markham

Arky Markham, 100, watches as (from left) Marty Nathan, Mayor David  Narkewicz, and Lisa Baskin light birthday candles

Arky Markham, 100, watches as (from left) Marty Nathan, Mayor David Narkewicz, and Lisa Baskin light birthday candles

If your image of a 100-year-old woman is a quiet old lady vegetating in a nursing home, let me introduce you to Arky Aisenberg Markham.

She turned 100 yesterday, and celebrated with about 300 guests in a fundraiser for the Markham-Nathan Fund, one of several organizations she’s founded or co-founded (another is Social Workers for Peace and Justice). Attendees included Massachusetts Senate President Stan Rosenberg (who also happens to represent her district), Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, State Representatives Peter Kocot and Ellen Story, retired Congressman John Olver, and at least three of Northampton’s nine city councilors–and a virtual Who’s Who of activists involved for decades in peace, labor, human rights, environmental, economic justice, and democracy work, including representatives of the 15 organizations the Markham-Nathan Fund supported this year. The event probably raised several thousand dollars for social justice work.

Arky walked to the stage under her own power and shot back one-liner after one-liner during several of the speakers’ remarks. One of the speakers, I think Rep. Kocot, remarked that Arky always showed us the right path. Arky immediately zinged, “the left path.” Rosenberg made a comment about coming back to celebrate her 200th birthday, and she shouted, in Yiddish, “ein hoonderd tsvantsich” (one-hundred-twenty) evoking an old Jewish blessing about living to 120. And it was Arky herself who gave the fundraising pitch. As she left the stage, the first several people to greet her were all female. She said something like, “Now that I’m 100, all the women want to kiss me. Where are the men who want to kiss me?” So I went up and kissed her. All her comeback lines were unrehearsed and spontaneous, and had the crowd laughing regularly.

This remarkable woman was already 41 years old when I was born. Wanting to do her part to stop Hitler, she was a military air traffic controller during World War II, then used the GI bill to get an undergrad degree in Spanish and a Master’s in Social Work, which led to a career working with various underserved populations, from inner-city NYC school children to her fellow veterans. She was in her 50s when she met and married George Markham; their first date was a rally against the Vietnam War, and they were involved in numerous peace and justice causes together until George’s death in 2009, at age 100.

Why were so many dignitaries in attendance? Because they are all activists! Their electoral political work is a direct outgrowth of their commitment to a better world. The Northampton-Amherst area may be a bit unusual in the percentage of progressive activists it sends to elected office–but I, for one, find it very refreshing to live in a place where elected officials are actually about peace and justice.

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