by Ken Feltman
Touching a whale in the wild
Are some lives so significant that when that person dies, every living heart in the world skips a beat in tribute? That’s what my grandmother said. If so, billions of hearts all over the world must have skipped a beat when Evy Dubrow died last month.
Here we were, in an old whale-watching boat off Puerto Madryn, Patagonia, Argentina. Motionless and docile, whales were drifting all around us. It was November, 1997, and the Southern Hemisphere’s spring was evident everywhere, including in the choppy blue waters beneath us. I was fixated on those waters because I was holding for dear life the feet of an elderly woman who was reaching over the side, trying to touch a whale. My wife, Nancy, was holding onto me with one arm and onto a rail with the other. Many of our fellow whale-watchers had already become alarmed when the boat bumped into one of the huge creatures; now, seeing a woman dangling over the side, arms outstretched, they were chattering in several languages.
Someone shouted that a whale would eat her. Not likely. A man came up and yelled in my ear that we would get the whales angry and they would sink the boat.
Just then, a swell tipped the boat and Evy Dubrow reached down and touched the whale below. She shouted, ‘We did it!’ Several people helped us pull Evy back into the boat, which suddenly rocked and pitched in a more turbulent sea. The whale remained motionless as the boat banged and scraped her side.
Evy trusted what the captain had told us: The floating gray lumps were nursing females who had come to this large bay to spare their calves the trauma of the more restless ocean. There was no food for the whales here so they remained as motionless as possible, even enduring the crashes with boats, to conserve their energy till their young were old enough to make the journey south to Antarctica. The males had followed the food supply weeks earlier.
Evy was jubilant: ‘How many people get to touch a whale in the wild?’
Respect from both sides
Evelyn Kahan Dubrow was 95 when a heart attack ended her half century as the relentless advocate for garment workers’ rights. For over two decades, she was the lead lobbyist for organized labor. Almost everyone who knew her respected her. Senators and representatives of both parties hugged her when they encountered her. Years ago, in recognition of the respect she engendered on both sides of the aisle, House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) asked the House doorkeepers to share their seat with labor’s representative of seamstresses, hemmers and buttonhole sewers.
I am one of the lucky people who worked with and against her and came to know and respect her. You learn a lot about a person when you are on opposite sides. She earned my respect and trust. She deserved the respect and trust of the powerful as well as the weak as she went about succeeding in a very tough job. But mostly, I do not remember the legislative battles as much as I remember the journeys we took together as members of the International Association of Political Consultants, which Evy served as secretary for many years. Every journey – every one – was special, a little crazy sometimes, but special.
In Stockholm in 1993, during the mid-December festival of lights, Evy suggested we go to a cathedral for the Santa Lucia mass. Little girls, all dressed in angel white, with crowns of candles, made the sanctuary glow with warmth and wonder. Evy sang every hymn with on-key, off-key enthusiasm. ‘They let us share this with them,’ she said. ‘We are privileged.’
Later, someone said that he was surprised that Evy would go to mass because he thought that she was Jewish. I knew what to say: This was less about religion and more about being with hundreds of Swedish families for their ancient and beautiful festival, warm inside against the cold darkness outside. Evy was a little bit of everything, I decided.
Daily, Evy scurried through the halls of Congress, wearing out dozens of size 4 shoes each year. Routinely, she put in 14 to 16 hour days. Often, she was the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave late at night. In a town of heavy drinkers, no one claimed to out-drink Evy. She did have a little secret: ‘I only go to places where the bartenders know me. They mix a mean water-on-the-rocks,’ she winked.
Sydney, 1991: Four of us were walking to a restaurant through a formerly rough-and-tumble dockside area, The Rocks, that was slowly being gentrified. We passed one particularly tumbledown place. Evy wanted to go in. One of our number, Joe Miller, represented maritime unions and knew a tough seamen’s bar when he saw one. He cautioned against entering but Evy was already on her way inside. Quickly, we followed. A smoky room was divided by a long, island bar. Scraggly-looking seamen were on one side and equally tough looking women were on the other. We all ordered a beer and sat at the end, between the men and the women, who were looking at each other across the bar.
Soon, Evy found the jukebox and fed in some money. They were ‘danceable’ songs, she announced to everyone. No one moved. Evy stood up, all nearly-five-feet of her, and raised her voice: Look, she said, we all know why you’re here so let’s stop wasting time. She reached out and took one woman’s arm, pulling her toward a man on the other side of the bar. Don’t just sit there, she shouted to a scared-looking seaman, get on your feet and dance with her. He did. She grabbed another woman, then a man, and before we had finished that beer, couples were dancing and the men had infiltrated the women’s side of the bar while some women were standing on the men’s side, almost everyone talking, smiling, suddenly animated.
The bartender looked confused. ‘We should be going,’ Evy said. We walked out shaking our heads.
Evy’s obituary in the New York Times said that she was born in New Jersey on March 6, 1911, according to relatives. I don’t think so. For years she gathered friends around to celebrate her birthday on May 7, usually at the Democratic Club on Capitol Hill.
Evy would enjoy the controversy over her birthday. She took authoritative sources with a grain of salt. Once, we read an inaccurate report in the New York Times about an arcane provision of a confusing and technical bill that we were both backing. Evy remarked, ‘Well, it’s in the Times. Everyone on the other side will believe it. We should tell them. Even when we tell them the facts, they will still believe the Times.’ She was right: We told them and they believed the Times and stopped lobbying. They figured that they had won. We kept working and won. Our opponents were stunned.
‘Newspapers don’t vote in Congress, despite what the editors think,’ she told them later. She had given fair warning. Of course, she had sized up the opposition and felt confident that they would ignore the heads-up. Privately, she told me that our opposition was well paid but lazy. ‘That’s a plentiful but fatal combination in Washington,’ she concluded.
Milan, 1999: Nancy, Evy and I arrived at the airport for our flight back to Washington. We had to stand in line for over 90 minutes because some airport workers were on a wildcat strike. When we finally got the luggage checked, got our boarding passes and waited another half hour at passport control, it was impossible for Evy’s arthritic bones to walk fast enough through the long terminal to make the flight in time. I flagged down a young woman with a wheelchair. Clearly, this was not her regular job. I whispered to her that Evy was the leading advocate for unions in the United States. Please, I begged, do not mention that you are not a regular airport worker.
A ride with a scab
Evy looked at her and immediately knew the truth: This was a scab. ‘Do we have time for me to walk?’ No, I responded. The young woman understood the predicament and announced in a cheery voice that her father was a union man and she was a student in a local university. Evy consented and we made the flight. As we settled into our seats, Evy remarked that at least the young woman was from a good union family. ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do but when in Milan, do as these young Milanese students do,’ she said.
She co-founded Americans for Democratic Action, where she fought for minority and civil rights. She took her campaign around the world and befriended literally thousands. Then, she got them working for others, the less fortunate. Her union understood that she was special. After we completed work on a common project, I wrote to Jay Mazur, the president of her union, to thank him for loaning Evy to our cause. He wrote back and said that, long ago, he had understood that Evy was a ‘shared national treasure.’
At a restaurant somewhere in Europe about 15 years ago: The waitress was having a terrible day. She dropped one meal, brought the wrong food and forgot things. Finally, one of our number spoke sharply to her. The waitress retreated. Evy spoke up and reminded us that we were fortunate to have better and more rewarding jobs. The waitress seemed to be trying. She was just, perhaps, not as bright or gifted as those of us at the table. ‘We all need to get through life.’ She concluded: ‘That woman has a more difficult path.’ Silence followed.
The Washington Post reported that she never married. Maybe, maybe not. She told me quite a few tales of a happy Irishman who, perhaps, was a bit too fond of his drink. Finally, she could take no more. He was not father material. But his memory was strong and comforting: He was part of our last telephone conversation, when she spoke about how love can change most things, but not everything: ‘Remember them for what they are, not what they can’t be. It’s more pleasant that way.’
Miami, 1996: We were cruising Key Biscayne and Evy gazed at the Miami skyline. She said that she could not believe that she was in her mid-80s. ‘I have been so busy helping other people that I may have missed my own life,’ she whispered. Then she made me promise not to tell her age. ‘People think I’m in my 60s,’ she laughed.
She was the daughter of a socialist union carpenter from Belarus. Her older sister was jailed during a suffragette rally in New York. Quickly, Evy was involved in politics and union affairs, handing out flyers and knocking on doors. She was graduated from New York University’s School of Journalism and went to work for the Paterson Morning Call, where she joined her first union, the Newspaper Guild.
During the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles in 2000: Evy invited me to a luncheon at a restaurant owned by a niece. It was one of the hot new places. When I arrived, I saw that the bakery next to the restaurant was being picketed in an organizing effort. The picket line extended in front of the restaurant and I realized that Evy might not be able to attend her own luncheon. I spoke with the niece and the union organizer. We reached a little arrangement. In exchange for some tickets to a posh Beverly Hills party that I didn’t plan to attend anyway, the picket line would return the next day.
Evy was a charming hostess and her niece made everything perfect. Later, I saw Evy sharing some finger-wagging words with her niece. Then, she came up to me and said, ‘I know what you two did, you Republican! But I think everybody had a good time. The food is wonderful, don’t you think?’ Whew! I had escaped with nothing more than the worst epithet that Evy could imagine: Republican!
Early in his first term, President Clinton overreached and took on organized labor when he did not need to. Evy was designated to lead the unions’ lobbying against the president. It was not much of a fight. Evy won and Clinton took to television to complain that ‘tough guys’ from ‘big labor’ had muscled their way to victory. I contacted a friend who managed campaigns for the Social Democrats in Sweden. He sent me two extra-large shirts with the red rose of the Social Democrats embroidered on the front. Evy loved red roses.
One shirt went to President Clinton with a note that Evy would get the other. Then, I realized that these shirts were made in the U.S., and in a non-union factory at that! Fran Mitchell, my assistant, arranged to have a Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union label sewn in and presented the shirt to Evy at a dinner. She put it on and it hung down to her ankles, the short sleeves covering her arms. Evy loved it: ‘Here’s the tough guy from big labor,’ she shouted. We sent a picture along to Clinton and he called Evy to make peace.
In 1999, President Clinton awarded Evy the Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor – for her role in winning social justice for Americans and so many beyond our shores. The newspaper pictures showed Clinton leaning down to embrace an engulfed Evy. Behind her was the smiling face of another of her good friends, former President Ford, who commented that he was honored to receive the Medal of Freedom at the same time Evy did. Evy said that she was proud to be the first lobbyist to receive the honor.
For some years, because travel was more difficult for her, Evy remained in Washington for Thanksgiving and joined our family for dinner. My future daughter-in-law loved Evy’s tales and jokes and understood that Evy was one of the most significant Americans of the 20th century. All women who work in Washington, and all men, too, owe Evy a big debt. She led the way. She battled the old boys and won.
This last Thanksgiving, Evy was not well enough to join us but Nancy asked what kind of pie she wanted. ‘Mince,’ she said. Mince it was. I took it to her and we talked as she rested in the chair beside her bed. On the wall before her were several pictures arranged in chronological order, beginning with one of Evy with President Kennedy, through pictures of Evy with other presidents, Senate leaders and House speakers, to the two last pictures: Evy receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Clinton and Evy with Senator Hillary Clinton at a luncheon given in Evy’s honor four years ago. She saw me looking at the pictures and laughed when I remarked that this was an impressive display. ‘Evy getting older, picture by picture,’ she said. ‘That’s all.’
Evy’s family loved her gently and well. Still, Evy commented that she, like so many who live so long, outlived her close family and friends and felt a bit alone. ‘When I die, will anyone be left who will know who I am?’ At that point, I asked Evy if she remembered the whale. ‘Yes, and a lot more,’ she laughed. ‘It’s been fun.’
How many people get to touch a whale in the wild?