Information and voting

Thu, 03/12/2020 - 5:15pm

In the fall of 1986, it was becoming more difficult for my mother to ascribe to “arthritis” the visible impact of the terminal bone cancer that had been diagnosed in January 1981. She told us, my brother and me, at the outset that she would not be making it public, she didn't want people asking her how she was doing every day.

So, we had to go along with her. She went to the mainland, often on her own, once a month, purportedly for low-grade chemo, she rested for a day afterwards and that was it. She had retired from teaching but remained active in, among other things, the Harbor Church, the Historical Society, and Block Island Conservancy. She took a seat on the new Historic District Commission I think because one of her former students asked her to lend her experience — and name — to help get it on track. Of particular interest this month, she joined the newly formed Block Island chapter of the League of Women Voters.

But by the end of October 1986 her health had turned. Still, she resolutely made a doctor's appointment for a Wednesday in November, the day after the election. By Monday morning I told her that was not an option. She refused to change her appointment because it was too late for an absentee ballot.

But, we could still vote by emergency ballot until noon, and by sheer force of will she walked into the town hall and cast that ballot before we left the island. The doctor put her in the hospital immediately, stunned both by how long she had held the disease at bay and how quickly it was progressing.

My mother had been a little girl when women were granted the vote. The 1986 election was not only the last in which she voted, it was one of the last things she did.

She understood voting mattered.

I think of that League of Women Voters core group, especially when the local paper hits some anniversary date. The Block Island Times was not year-round when the LWV was formed here in the 1970s. The group tasked themselves with producing a newsletter that made their membership rolls swell. They had, if not the largest in numbers in the state, certainly the largest in proportion to the population of their town, in significant part because of that newsletter.

It was an entirely volunteer effort, a slog of a task, described in their 1978 booklet “Know Your Town”:

“Our main function on Block Island is to encourage local citizens to learn more about and take an active part in our local government. Our paper, “The Way It Is,” is a monthly factual report on Town Council, School Committee, Planning Board and Zoning Board meetings, keeping our residents better informed.”

It was not strictly a women's organization, but it was the woman who went to meetings and wrote reports and complied the newsletter. The “observers,” as they termed themselves, in April of 1983 were: Luella Ball, Barbara Burak, Pamela Glen, Virginia Madison, and Bette Stroberg, assisted by their typist, Eleanor Long. Legal size typewritten pages were duplicated on blue paper and sent out addressed by hand. There were more observers and dedicated League members; those were the names on the one issue of the paper I pulled from the pile, a true random sample.

They covered more meetings than those listed. Perhaps a foreshadowing of more recent events was a report on the Sewer Commission, the closest they ever came to any editorial comment:

“After much clamoring, the Sewer District was established giving users who are qualified electors the right to vote on the budget.

“The first budget meeting was held under this ordinance... and although every eligible property owner had been notified in writing of the meeting three people were there. Where were the others?”

The newsletter was the sort of consuming work that wears people down, the difficulty so many volunteer efforts face and the little reports became history. There were a few other organizational newsletters, but “The Way It Is!!” lasted longer and established that there was a true desire for information from Block Island throughout the year.

Much of the booklet “Know Your Town” remains amazingly accurate and displays a remarkable focus, describing various local entities without ever citing individuals holding offices, making it clear it was not a “Who's Who,” rather a “What's What.”

They understood information mattered. Information and voting.