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A love story for FFRF

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor shows off the new Wall of Immortals in Freethought Hall next to a painting of FFRF principal founder Anne Nicol Gaylor.
(Photo by Chris Line)

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s secular “Wall of Immortals” went up fittingly around Valentine’s Day to immortalize those who have shown their undying love for FFRF. 

The display, comprising 168 generous donors over the past 45 years who have left bequests or made posthumous provisions for FFRF’s continued support, is found in the first floor of Freethought Hall, FFRF’s office building in downtown Madison, Wis. It’s appropriately surrounded by a portrait of FFRF’s “immortal” principal founder Anne Nicol Gaylor and some memorabilia about her.

Going through our records and double-checking names and proofs was a moving experience for Dan Barker and me. We personally knew so many of these kind individuals who have played an outsized role in FFRF’s stability and resulting successes. 

An amazing number of these “bequesters” were activists and stalwart secularists in their own right. 

There’s a plaque for Phyllis Grams, the feisty original plaintiff in FFRF’s challenge of a Ten Commandments monument in La Crosse, Wis. When she received death threats over the phone, she would respond, “Tell me more!” She planned out her own memorial service, which Dan presided over. The room erupted with laughter when a recording of Frank Sinatra singing “I did it my way,” was played, per Phyllis’ instructions. 

Darling Catherine Fahringer, who ran our San Antonio chapter and presided over a long-running show on cable TV there, adored student activists, was a state/church stalwart who spent the last two decades of her life trumpeting “freedom from religion” and doing everything she could to drum up “good trouble” in Texas. As she put it, “If we hang on with sweet determination, we will probably end up as a respectable segment of society. And wouldn’t that be loverly?” And we hang on, with sweet determination, in Catherine’s memory.

Then there’s Clarence Reinders, owner of a motel in Marshfield, Wis., who sued, with FFRF, to challenge a roadside Jesus statue in a public park that we’d had constant complaints about. Clarence was amazingly brave in that rural area. The appeals court accepted a ridiculous decision to carve out a parcel of the park to sell to the Knights of Columbus who’d put up the Jesus statue and surround the shrine with two fences. But Clarence took great glee in the fact that after a new highway was built, hardly anyone drove past that monument. As  Clarence wrote, “Whenever anyone looks at the idol in its newly imprisoned setting, he/she will see the fruits of our labors in defense of the First Amendment. With the fence and disclaimer signs, we have left our freethought mark of state/church separation for posterity.” Clarence made his mark for posterity.

One of our earliest bequests, in 1985, came from A.H. Gordon, whom we knew as “Mr. Gordon.” He was a charming elderly English-born freethinker who used to drop by FFRF’s first rented space near the Wisconsin Capitol during his many long hikes. He loved walking and it was tragic when his health began to fail and he informed us there would be no more dropping by. 

There’s also Eric Kirschner of San Francisco, whose bequest was received in 1998. He suggested and paid for FFRF’s first postal meter (what a “non-godsend” for our office!) and did so for several years before his death. A gay man in an era when it was pretty tough to be gay, he was so kind, an absolute pussycat. But you’d never know at first if you happened to phone him — he was ferocious until he made sure that you weren’t a telemarketer! 

We were incredibly touched that Butterfly McQueen (yes, the actress Butterfly McQueen) — who became one of FFRF’s first Lifetime Members and certainly the first-time celebrity member — named our group as a beneficiary on her bank account. After her tragic death in a fire in 1995, the account was rapidly depleted and thus FFRF received nothing, that is monetarily — but the international publicity for FFRF when it was reported Butterfly remembered our group, was priceless. How superlatively kind of Butterfly — who supported so many needy charities and public schools — to remember FFRF.

Among the other celebrity “Immortals” is Philip Appleman. He was a renowned poet, distinguished Darwin scholar and gave crowd-pleasing poetry readings, but was in person a one-man cheerleading team for us at FFRF. Every time we took an ad in his favorite New York Times, he would email superlatives. His poetry lives on, including his prescient warning, “Beware the righteous ones.”

FFRF board members, including founding members CJ and Margaret Richards who died in the 1980s, and Helen and Michael Hakeem, who died in the 2000s, are now immortalized, too. They did so much careful oversight of the young FFRF, also providing such personal enthusiasm and dedication. Both childless couples, they wanted FFRF to live on. The bequest Mike —  a retired sociology professor who taught students critical thinking skills — left FFRF in 2006 has finally run out, but it paid for scholarships for hundreds of young college students through last year. 

Blanche Fearn, another board member, was the single largest donor when we acquired our initial two-story Freethought Hall, which has since been expanded. The daughter of a Finnish upstairs maid and a French chauffeur, as a young hairdresser, she shrewdly bought a parcel of land in New Jersey in the 1920s that eventually yielded a windfall she generously shared with friends, relatives and FFRF. Her portrait still hangs — where else? — in the original Blanche Fearn Reception Room at Freethought Hall, now FFRF’s cozy breakroom for staff. We hailed her as “FFRF’s First Freethought Volunteer Extraordinaire” after her death in 1991.

Kay Elwers was a valiant elderly woman who, like the mail carriers of yore, refused to let rain, snow or dark of night keep her from her appointed rounds, holding up her “pro-choice” sign regardless of weather to ensure that Madison patients saw a friendly face as they navigated around anti-abortion pickets. We would try to coax her across the street to warm up in Freethought Hall but she would not be dissuaded. She died in 2008, never letting FFRF know she had made provisions for its future.

The Wall of Immortals includes many donors who were more private. One such fascinating member was Elizabeth Elliott, a former secretary to the Christian Scientists in Boston, who, in her retirement, found FFRF. After she went blind, her kind attorney would come and read Freethought Today to her in her nursing home. Her bequest was received in 1997. Janet Brazill, who died in 2020, was an ardent feminist freethinker from Colorado Springs who shared my mother’s deep concern about keeping abortion safe and legal by getting “God out of government.” Harry Lonsdale, a well-known environmentalist and gubernatorial candidate in Oregon, died in 2014, before he could see the lower level at Freethought Hall that bears his name and photo. Roger Chapman, a vet who was paralyzed in a car crash, died in 2020, and surprised FFRF with a bequest. I remember picketing then-Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson in below zero weather with Roger in his wheelchair — a dyed-in-the-wool activist who never missed any local gatherings.

Some of the individuals who left larger bequests are living on in other ways, such as dear Ken Proulx, FFRF’s single largest donor, who died in 2019. Ken was a WWII vet and self-educated man who made his fortune investing in the stock market during his lunch hours while an assembly line worker at American Motors in Kenosha, Wis. Dan, Anne and I got to know him well through 30 years of visits to his humble home, where he lived a very frugal lifestyle.

Some of the individuals on the Wall of Immortals are particularly unforgettable because they actually notified us when they were dying, such as Cliff Richards, who called after receiving a diagnosis that he had, at most, a month to live. He specified that his endowment was to help student activists. He told me that he also left funds to a nonprofit to help Native American female students. What a kind man who has made such a difference in the lives of young people!  

These are but a few stories about some of the many remarkable and generous individuals, not forgotten, who live on, not just in the Wall of Immortals, but in the work the Freedom From Religion Foundation is able to accomplish, thanks to their backing. And that’s a true love story.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.