Longtime activist Arky Markham celebrates her 100th birthday

Last modified: Monday, July 20, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — A stalwart of local activism, Rose “Arky” Markham turned 100 years old Sunday amid a celebration and fundraiser for the charitable foundation she helped create.

Marty Nathan, co-founder of the Markham-Nathan Fund for Social Justice, recounted Markham’s storied life as the woman herself looked on at the Smith College Conference Center. When Nathan was finished, Markham stood up and addressed the attendees, well more than 100 of them.

“Thank you so much for coming,” Markham said. “I know all of you in this room are my friends — my dear friends — my co-conspirators and activists and really love the world and I just adore you.”

Nathan read down a list of Markham’s many accomplishments, which included joining the war effort during World War II. Joining the army wasn’t something that “nice Jewish girls” were supposed to do, but she felt passionate about fighting Hitler, Markham said.

As an air traffic controller, she directed pilots as they ran practice bombings in the desert of the American West, 50 miles from Los Angeles.

“When I think of it now what we did to that land, I’m horrified,” Markham said in an interview earlier in the week.

Markham used the G.I. Bill to get her bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in Spanish and a master’s degree in social work from New York University.

She worked with disadvantaged children in New York City as well as veterans, according to Nathan.

She met George Markham when she was in her 50s, and their first date was a Vietnam War protest. Over the next several decades, the two of them fought for social justice causes until George Markham’s death in 2009 at the age of 100.

The couple held signs against both Iraq wars and the war in Afghanistan, Nathan said.

Nathan co-founded the Markham-Nathan Fund with Arky Markham to honor their husbands, and the charity started giving grants to organizations helping vulnerable citizens, advocating for peace and working to protect the environment two months after George Markham died. Michael Nathan was shot and killed during a protest against the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina in 1979, according to the fund’s website.

State Senate President Stanley Rosenberg thanked Markham at Sunday’s event and said he had first met her 45 years earlier.

“You’re a role model; you are what a person is supposed to be in our self-governing society, a person who stands up for what she believes in, who thinks and reads and comes to values and shares them and fights for the things you believe in,” he said.

He said people are generally not expected to complete the work they begin in their lifetime, but that Markham has accomplished more than anyone could ever expect.

Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz wished Markham a happy birthday and said the Markham-Nathan Fund was a fitting tribute to the work she had begun.

“We are all so grateful that you chose Northampton lo those many years ago to make your community and we are so fortunate to have had you here,” he said.

Lisa Baskin, who has known Markham since they worked on the George McGovern campaign in 1972, gave a toast to Markham, calling her a “remarkable soul.”

“I look forward to continued activism,” she said. “I’m not going to say anything in the past tense because you’re here.”

Northampton State Rep. Peter Kocot took the microphone at the event and said people often ask themselves at a certain point in life if they were productive, good, and if they had handled themselves well in crisis situations or had worked to solve the problems they encountered. He told Markham she could rest assured that she could answer “yes” to all of those.

“Quite honestly, you have been our compass,” Kocot said, telling her she pointed them the “right way.”

“The left way!” Markham retorted to applause.

Markham herself was one of the final people to rise to speak at the event, and she urged those present to give to the fund.

“Dig deep in your pockets; this is all for a very good cause,” she said. “The country needs you and I’m very grateful to be part of such a wonderful group.”

The fund gave out $31,000 during the past year to 16 organizations, including Arise for Social Justice in Springfield, The Living Wage Coalition of Western Massachusetts, The Prison Birth Project in Chicopee, Traprock Center for Peace in Greenfield and Climate Action Now in Springfield.

Olga Pedraza of Springfield is a board member and a participant in Voices from Inside of Northampton, a group encouraging incarcerated women to write and communicate. The group received $2,000 from the Markham-Nathan Fund this year.

“At 100 years old to be so witty and still be fighting and be so enthusiastic about helping your community, taking care of the real main issues and to be fighting so strongly about it at 100, that means we have just got to keep going,” she said.

For more information about the Markham-Nathan Fund or to donate, visit www.markhamnathanfund.org.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.


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