BRATTLEBORO -- Journalist, political activist and author Marty Jezer died Saturday morning at the age of 64 at his Prospect Street home, after a long fight against testicular cancer.
The writer and activist part of Jezer's life is storied. He was deeply involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s.
His biographies -- "Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel" (1992) and "Rachel Carson: Biologist and Author" (1988) -- and his 1982 history of post-World War II America, "The Dark Ages: Life in the United States 1945-1960," are notable works of scholarship.
His weekly columns for the Reformer were models of logic, well seasoned with passion.
But one can't separate that part of his life from the other part of Jezer's life -- his lifelong struggle with stuttering, a story he told in his 1997 book, "Stuttering: A Life Bound Up In Words."
Stuttering affected every aspect of Jezer's life. Rather than let his lack of verbal fluency defeat him, he eventually came to terms with it and carved out a rich life in the process.
A Bronx tale
Born on Nov. 21 1940, Jezer grew up in the Bronx, a third-generation Jew born into what he called "a magical time to grow up in New York City" -- the late 1940s and early 1950s.
"New York City was the biggest and greatest city in the world -- everybody said so -- and my friends and I, sauntering cockily through the streets, felt a part of it," he wrote in "Stuttering."
He played lots of stickball and schoolyard basketball, breezed through school with excellent grades, and developed his lifelong love of jazz and rhythm and blues.
Like many of his generation, he read Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" in 1958, which he said "gave my life a purpose. I would become a beatnik, live for truth, poetry, and art." Though he was going to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, Jezer found himself spending many of his weekends in Greenwich Village.
The nice, quiet Jewish boy found himself joining the ranks of a rebellion against conformity as he became, as he put it, "a witness to the birth of the 1960s: the civil rights movement, the counterculture, rock and roll, political activism, feminism, the politics of identity, the idea of personal and political liberation. As I became more aware that others shared my feelings of restlessness, I became more confident and even more rebellious."
Of course, in the waning years of the 1950s, it wasn't easy being, as he put it, a rebel "who at first, had a stutter rather than a cause."
Back then, Jezer wrote, "nonconformity was viewed as a negative, hostile and self-destructive act. ... But I persevered and transformed my rebellion into a way of life."
"On The Road" and Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" inspired Jezer to be a writer. "I always felt I had something to say and writing is an obvious compensation for a person who stutters," he wrote.
Jezer graduated from Lafayette in 1961, and as he put it, "partly to forestall having to go to work," went to Boston University to do post-graduate work in journalism. He never got his degree. At 23, he left Boston and went back to New York to be a retail copywriter for Gimbel's department store. He hated it. He later became a staff writer for the Merit Standard Encyclopedia, a gig that was slightly more rewarding intellectually, but still not quite what he had in mind.
Jezer drifted away from a conventional life. He wrote that he joined the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) in 1964, just as "its idealistic, multiracial, nonviolent period (of the civil rights movement) was coming to an end."
Through the pain and rejection he went through as a stutterer, Jezer felt a kinship with the civil rights movement. To Jezer, it was about empowering everyone on the margins of American society to assert themselves. The Vietnam War soon displaced civil rights as the defining issue of the 1960s, and Jezer jumped wholeheartedly into anti-war activism.
He was a co-founding editor of WIN (Workshop in Nonviolence) magazine, a publication sponsored by the War Resisters League that outlasted the anti-war movement and survived until 1983. Jezer also wrote for Ray Mungo's Liberation News Service and Paul Goodman's Liberation magazine. He worked with draft resisters.
The FBI took note. Jezer wrote that his FBI file is about 125 pages long. In one report, it noted that Jezer was "vastly talented in writing."
As it did for many in the anti-war movement, the violence that occurred during the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago dampened Jezer's desire to keep protesting and get tear-gassed and clubbed for his beliefs. So he and a few other friends moved to Guilford to start a commune at an old hill farm.
Total Loss Farm
Jezer was among the many young and disaffected people seeking to craft a new life in Windham County in the late 1960s, a life that was close to nature and distant from what they believed was the maddening materialism of urban life.
Strange young people -- hippies, as they were derisively called -- started up communes such as the now famous Total Loss Farm in Guilford. The locals didn't know what to make of them and got many a laugh when it came to farming skills or getting through a Vermont winter.
The communes faded away, but the hippies didn't. Many stuck around and integrated themselves into the community. In the process, they transformed Windham County and the rest of Vermont socially and politically.
Jezer was one of the original members of Total Loss Farm. The city kid from the Bronx took to country living easily. For Jezer, it also was a way out of communicating with other people. He did the farm work and chopped wood and did very little talking outside the commune.
In time, however, he became one of the more public members of Total Loss Farm. He served on the board of directors of the Common Ground restaurant and helped start the Brattleboro Farmers Market and the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
Jezer eventually contributed eight chapters to the 1973 collectively written account of the Total Loss Farm saga, "Home Comfort: Life on Total Loss Farm." But he admits that not once in the book does he confess to stuttering.
Dealing with his stuttering took up a great part of Jezer's life in the 1970s and 1980s. He went through gestalt therapy, speech therapy and even an experimental drug trial with the National Institutes of Health.
Nothing really worked and eventually, Jezer gave up on the idea of "curing" his stuttering. He learned to adapt to being less fluent in speaking than he was in his writing.
"It tickles me to think of myself, a guy who stutters, as having an impact on my country's politics," Jezer wrote in "Stuttering." "I enjoy that image. I enjoy my life. Yet, as is obvious, it took me a long time to make peace with my stuttering and to find my path to self-acceptance."
Jezer split his time between Brattleboro and Montreal in the 1980s. It was in Montreal where he met Mimi Morton, a college professor, and began a relationship that lasted 10 years.
In Brattleboro, he got involved in politics and formed a local chapter of the Clamshell Alliance, an anti-nuclear group. He was one of 1,414 arrested at the massive protest in April, 1977 at the Seabrook Nuclear Plant in New Hampshire.
But perhaps his proudest moment as an activist was a peaceful counter-demonstration he organized in 1982 when members of the Klu Klux Klan decided to stage a rally on the Brattleboro Common.
He became a doting father and house husband at age 42 with the birth of his daughter, Kathryn Ruth Jezer-Morton. It was a productive time for him personally, for it was during this time that he wrote "The Dark Ages" and the Carson and Hoffman biographies.
In 1988, he co-founded the Working Group on Electoral Democracy, an association of grassroots activists and researchers devoted to campaign finance reform. Jezer helped draft legislation for "clean elections" that was eventually adopted by Maine and Arizona.
Back to Brattleboro
After he broke up with Morton, Jezer returned full-time to Brattleboro to stay in the early 1990s. It was a town that he truly loved.
"The worst thing that can be said about Brattleboro is that it engenders a certain smugness. We all feel lucky to live here, and you can see it on our faces," Jezer wrote in "Stuttering."
He flourished in his second stretch of full-time Brattleboro life. He met his last great love, Arlene Distler, his partner of 12 years. He began writing weekly political columns for the Reformer, started a book-indexing business and became a leading self-help advocate in the stuttering community. The National Stuttering Association honored him with its Member of the Year award in 1999.
Jezer was first treated for testicular cancer in 2003. When the cancer returned a year later, spreading into the vertebrae of his lower back, he kept writing even though he was in deep pain that made even sitting up in bed excruciating. The cancer appeared to be in remission last fall, but it returned with a vengeance just a few weeks ago.
Fighting off cancer takes a huge toll on the mind and the body, but Jezer was determined to stay engaged with the political issues of the world. The activist in him demanded nothing less.
"I believe in the bumper-sticker slogan 'Question Authority.' One should never accept the statements of people and parties in power," Jezer wrote in January 2005. "But to this I always add my own little saying, 'Question Assumptions.' Never accept without question the ideas and arguments of people on your own side. Always question everything."
That was his writing style. He always sought common ground. He challenged his readers but never lectured them. And above all, he wrote in the hope that someone might change their minds or, at least, consider the other side of the argument.
"I like to think that I've educated some people and opened up a few minds," wrote Jezer. "That is what motivates me, in sickness and health, to sit down at my computer and turn out this column."
Jezer's last column appeared in the Reformer on May 21, right about the time he found out that he was in the final stage of his cancer. He was writing about a benefit show for his friend, Gary Rosen, who was recently diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), but the words also serve as a perfect epitaph for Jezer.
"'Keep singing,' (Rosen) exclaimed, his voice rising clear above the exultant finale. Keep singing, yes! Over and above personal misfortune, political defeats and social setbacks, keep singing. Singing in itself won't solve any problems, personal or political. But singing will give you strength and spirit. So keep singing, keep singing."