Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Crime and Punishment of Jean Gump

     The New York Times ran Jean Gump's obituary on Sunday, reporting that she died March 16 while visiting a daughter in Louisville. 
      That immediately snapped me back more than 30 years, to when I visited Gump in prison in West Virginia. I had seen a brief notice in the Tribune—"Morton Grove grandmother sent to prison"—or some such thing and immediately wanted to know more.
       I suggested to a Sun-Times editor—I was freelancing at the time—that I go interview Gump. Even then, I knew the paper would never pop for a motel, at least not for me. But I did a bit of digging, and found there's an Amtrak station by the federal prison in Alderson. It's a 20 hour trip.
     "I could take the train, get off, conduct the interview, then catch another train coming back and you wouldn't have to pay for a hotel," I told the paper.
     No thanks, they said.
     Undeterred, I pitched that at North Shore, a fairly vibrant magazine at the time. They not only covered the trip, but paid me $500 for the story, which was more than the paper would have ponied up. 
     A person like Gump is invariably depicted as a selfless martyr—that's how the Times portrayed her. I found her ... well, maybe it's better just to share the story, which seems a perfect fit for May Day. It begins, in cliched magazine story fashion, with a look around the town. In my defense, I was 26. It's long, so I'm dividing it into two parts, Part I today and Part II tomorrow.
     Alderson, W.V. is a pretty little town, cut in two by the wide, meandering Greenbrier River and shadowed by the gently rolling Appalachian mountains. About 1,100 people live here. It is the sort of town where one would expect to find a restaurant like Jim's Place, near the river, where $1.42 buys a huge slice of chocolate pie and coffee served in a cup with a biblical quotation on the side.
     Less expected is the Federal women's prison, just a bit up the road. It isn't the stereotypical prison found in movies—no cells, no guard towers, no bars, hardly any barbed wire. This is a low-security prison. The buildings are attractive, dorm-like, set facing a central square of large, stately trees. Inmates refer to their residences as "cottages.' Most visitors, trying to describe the prison, compare it to a college campus, and, indeed, the prison layout was based on the design of Bucknell University.
     But it is still a prison. The guards speak a para-military argot. To get in, visitors have to pass through a metal detector and have their possessions searched. The paperwork takes half an hour, and prison officials conduct themselves with a cold, detached air, like elementary schoolteachers unaccustomed to dealing with other adults.
     About 800 prisoners are at Alderson, for crimes ranging from murder to drug dealing to attempted assassination.
     One of the prisoner s is Jean T. Gump, a housewife from Morton Grove. She has been here since September 4, serving an eight-year sentence  for conspiracy and destruction of national defense property.
     Go to visit Gump and you will be shown to a cheery, little square parlor with yellow walls, green carpet and white wicker furniture. More than anything, it resembles the waiting room of a dentist's office.
     Gump is shown in, a short, compact woman, her dark brown hair flecked with grey. She wears a green army coat, blue pants, a blue sweatshirt and blue sneakers. Her glasses are squarish.
     Even at a low-security prison, one might expect a meeting with a convicted felon would be attended by a representative of the prison—but no. Gump insists that the room is bugged, a notion that seems a little preposterous at the time she says it, and more so after the 4 p.m. head count, when a frantic guard with a clipboard runs into the room. Far from listening in on Gump's conversation, they had forgotten where she was. With an ounce of guile, a visitor could have slipped Gump a pound of dynamite.
     The prisoners are trusted to behave at Alderson. During the day, the gates of the prison are open. In theory, any prisoner could talk out. They don't, and that is one reason they are at a prison as outwardly nice as Alderson.
     For Gump, the gates are open in more ways than one. The judge who sentenced her has the power to release her—and said that he would seriously consider doing so—if she would pay the United States government $424.48 and sign a paper promising not to commit any more crimes.
     She refuses. Refuses to pay the money. Refuses to sign the paper. Refuses to appeal her conviction.
     Why? Why would a woman swap her large colonial house on Linder Avenue in Morton Grove for a bare prison room? What would make a mother of 12, a grandmother of three, a former president of the Niles West High School P.T.A. and an active member of her church and many local organizations decide that the only course of action left to her is one that ends in a Federal prison? As Gump talks about her conviction, about her deeply held beliefs, the reasons, one by one, emerge.
     But we are getting ahead of ourselves. A good crime story should always begin with the crime.
     Just after dawn on March 28, 1986, three people walked solemnly through a farmer's field south of Pittsville, Mo. When they reached a chain-link fence surrounding the M10 Pittsville South Missile Minuteman II site, Ken Rippetoe, 23, of Rock Island, Ill., cut a square opening in the fence with a bolt cutter and climbed through the opening. 
     While woodpeckers twittered overhead and the active missile emitted a low, electric hum, Rippetoe took a sledge hammer and began pounding on the tracks next to the 1120-ton concrete silo cover. Larry Morlan, 26, of Davenport, Ia., and Gump, 58, hung a banner declaring "swords into Plowshares—An Act of Healing" on the fence, along with a photo montage of Gump's grandchildren. Then they too entered through the opening. Gump carried a baby bottle filled with a mixture of the trio's blood. She poured it on top of the silo, and then spray-painted the words "Disarm and Live" on the concrete.
     Outside the fence, filming the incident, were Mike Wallace and a crew from the CBS-TV program "60 Minutes." They had been tipped off—Gump says she doesn't know by whom—about the group's actions.
     There is an indication that the group, calling themselves "The Silo Plowshares," after the biblical prophecy, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares..." (Isaiah 2:4), didn't know that the film crew would be at the missile site. A news release issued that morning states that, after the break-in, the Plowshares "prayed and waited for military security to arrest them." 
    What actually happened was they sat in a circle and tried to pray, while Wallace shouted questions at them.
     "Doesn't the country need defense?" he said. "Our government would say that this proves that we are strong. Therefore, it would deter someone else from trying to attack us. They would call it an instrument of peace."
     "These are not peacekeepers," Gump responded. "The government only wants more power, more death capabilities. We're all hostages. I don't want to be that anymore. Enough is enough."
     As she spoke, she seemed angry, and pounded her fists on her knees.
     About 30 minutes later, an armored personnel carrier arrived and five soldiers, in full battle bear with automatic rifles, stepped out.
     "Attention all personnel," said a voice over a loudspeaker. "Please exit the site immediately with your hands up."
     Rippetoe, Morlan and Gump left the fenced-in area, their hands over their heads. The soldiers confiscated the film from the "60 Minutes" cameras, but it was eventually returned, becoming part of a Nov. 16 broadcast on Phillip and Daniel Berrigan, the radical clergymen who founded the Plowshares movement six years ago.
     The segment did not mention Gump by name, but referred to her as "a grandmother," a word that has been associated with Gump in the media as closely as if it were a title. It is a nice journalistic hook. Grandmothers are not the sort of people who are expected to go to prison committing acts of political protest.
     But it is misleading. While Gump does, in fact, have three grandchildren, she did not just roll out of bed one morning, bake cookies, then decide to break into a U.S. missile site and pour her blood over the silo hatch. it was along, gradual process that led her to Pittsville, Mo., last Good Friday. Perhaps it can best be viewed as a hardening process, one that began years ago out of a sincere desire to do good and has since calcified, so that today, nuclear disarmament is the sole focus of her social concern, and physical attacks on missile silos—"disarmament" in her terms—has become the sole valid way to work toward ending the peril of nuclear warfare.
     Wherever one stands on the nuclear issue, it is worthwhile to examine why Jean Gump has done what she has done. In an age of general apathy, where people routinely recognize something as a great and pressing problem and then are content to do nothing about it, it is interesting to find a woman who is willing to literally throw it all away—a comfortable life, the companionship of a large and loving family—for an issue such as the nuclear arms race, a reality most people unquestionably accept as a regrettable yet permanent part of our modern landscape.
     Jean Theresa Dalton was born May 24, 1927, in Oak Park. She traces the beginning of her political awareness to her courtship by Joe Gump, a salesman of German descent. They met at the close of World War II and, as their relationship developed, Jean Gump's family was concerned about the possibility of her marrying into a family that they had considered related to the enemy. An aunt worried aloud, "My God, is Jean going to marry a Hun?"
     "I checked out what that meant," says Gump. "At the time, we thought that maybe the Germans were an especially bad people. The government said they were. But I got to know my husband's family, and I came to the conclusion they were exactly like us and just allowed these atrocities to happen. it seemed to me that if these sensible, good people could sit back and allow the atrocities in that country, we could do it here, too. I made up my mind early in our marriage that I wasn't going to sit back. That was really why I got involved with the civil rights movement."
     In the 1950s, civil rights had not yet become a fashionable pastime for Morton Grove suburbanites. Joe Gump remembers the words "nigger love" painted on their garage, and Jean had certain friends who stopped talking to her once she began marching in protests. In the last 50's she joined the Christian Family Movement, and began traveling around the country for sit-ins and demonstrations. In March, 1965, she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, facing the tear gas, nightsticks and whips of the Alabama state police.
     Back home she was elected to the executive board of the Niles Township Human Relations Council. As a member of the Niles West High School P.T.A. in the late 60's, Jean Gump often sided with students against teachers and administration concerning Vietnam War protests. She became involved in protests against handguns and for rights for the handicapped. On two occasions, she supplemented her already large family by taking refugee families from Vietnam into her home.
     Isabel Condit, 65, became friends with Gump during the 60's. She saw that in the 70's, with the end of the Vietnam War and the shift in emphasis of the civil rights movement, Gump turned her attention more and more to the threat of nuclear weaponry.
     "She and I thought we would start a movement for a nuclear freeze in Morton Grove in 1982," says Condit. "She set that as an aim for herself—something to accomplish—because she always does set herself concrete goals. That's one reasons she's successful." 
     Against, Gump went to marches, in San Francisco, Washington and New York. It was at a peace march in New York City in June 1984 that Jean met a young group of activists from Rock Island, Ill., who had started to question the utility of mere protest alone. They, like Gump, had become disillusioned by spectacles such as the New York march, where a million people gathered to make their voices heard for non-deployment of missile in Europe and accomplished absolutely nothing.
     In the years between her first grandchild's birth in 1982, and her arrest at the Pittsville missile site, Gump was arrested on four other occasions—the first time at Motorola's Schaumburg facility, protesting their manufacture of electronics for defense systems. She was arrested at Morton Thiokol's downtown headquarters, where she was part of a group that held a weekly prayer vigil for two and a half years at the doorstep of the arms contractor. her third arrest was at the Glenwood Ia., SAG base, following a retreat nearby, and then she was arrested again at Morton Thiokol.
     Getting arrested was never easy for Gump. "I was terrified," she says. "I had never broken a law. It was absolutely the most frightening thing I had ever done, and it doesn't get any easier."
     Gump is reluctant to give details about her trip to Missouri. At the trial, the prosecutor tried to get her to implicate other people in her actions, to name who had driven them to the site, where they had stayed, where they had gotten their tools. Gump, refusing to implicate anyone other than herself, spent seven days in the jail on a contempt of court citation. She now tends to become vague when talking about the actions leading up to her fifth arrest.
     She will say that she "did a lot of grieving" at home prior to her departure, going through her house, which she says she knew she would not see again, saying goodbye to everything. On Thursday, March 27, she wrote 19 letters to her 12 children, her relatives and friends, and asked a friend to mail them the next day. 
     "It was kind of a last will and testament," says Gump, remembering that she felt certain she would be shot at the test site by troops in helicopters.
Continued tomorrow. 

To read part II, click here.


  1. No reason to preempt criticism with the excuse of youth. So far I am thoroughly enjoying this. Thank you for sharing. Looking forward to tomorrow's conclusion.

  2. Funny to think that you are now almost the age of this "grandmother," isn't it?

    I thought you and Eric Zorn acquitted yourselves well on Chicago Today last night.

  3. It is impressive how consistent your writing voice has been over the years. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. All that she did was for naught when it came to nuclear weapons. It's sad to read how she threw away years of her life. She's fortunate that she didn't get killed with her publicity stunt at the missile silo. I know I sound harsh but people like Gump were just "useful idiots" for the Soviets.


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