Breakfast with The Eagle: Sherwood Guernsey II rejects life on sidelines of politics
It was the Kennedy decade, after all.
Though Guernsey's brief teaching career passed a half century ago, a mention of "civics" over breakfast the other day got him talking about that classroom in Lisbon, N.H., a hardscrabble town west of Mount Washington.
Educational assumptions were in flux in 1969. Soon enough, this college kid was stirring the pot, inviting people to his civics class to talk about civil rights and the Vietnam war.
It landed Guernsey in hot water. Parents were upset he'd tossed the civics text with its blah-blah-blahing about bills becoming law and had students reading Claude Brown's autobiography, "Manchild in the Promised Land," exposing country kids to a harsh Harlem childhood. The principal had to mediate a tense meeting with parents.
Guernsey, now 71, has done a lot of talking since then — as lawyer, legislator, activist and philanthropist. It's how he earns his living. What more could you want from a breakfast companion?
The through-line in all that talk, its essential thread, is what it means to be a responsible citizen.
"Democracy requires work," he said over steaming bowls of chow by the big front windows at Otto's Breakfast & Deli in Pittsfield. "Democracy requires being involved."
Guernsey's unfinished business remains inciting people to come off the sidelines.
That might surprise people who dimly recall his eight years in the state House straddling the 1980s and 1990s.
A barn at his home in Williamstown offers a look back on Guernsey's public life. Inside lie remnants from his political campaigns, including bumper stickers many people traveling Berkshires roads today have never seen. His political resume includes four terms in the House and service on the Democratic State Committee. He is co-founder with Lee Harrison of Berkshire Democratic Brigades, which musters progressives to aid political campaigns around New England.
Guernsey once ran unsuccessfully for the now-defunct County Commission and lost to John Olver of Amherst in a primary for the seat in Congress long held by the late Silvio Conte.
But that was then. What's he done for the U.S. lately?
One clue is the large safety pin affixed to the lapel of his jacket. It symbolizes his commitment to helping members of the immigrant community. The First Congregational Church in Williamstown, his spiritual home, is hiring an outreach worker to assist immigrants.
"I couldn't not wear this, because it's so important," he said of the pin. "Right now, we have well-known people in this community who are leaving — they're U.S. citizens but recent immigrants — they're leaving because they feel like this country doesn't want them. That's atrocious. That's so contrary to our American values, where we have for so long, prior to this Republican administration, we have supported people of all kinds coming to this country. We no longer welcome them. We express our hatred of them."
Guernsey has a teacher's way of speaking slowly so he can be understood. Or maybe it's his years in politics, and a wish to be quoted correctly.
He brought a map to breakfast showing the 19th Congressional District in New York State, one of his current preoccupations. It includes Schoharie, N.Y., southwest of Albany, where, he says, he absorbed his first lessons in citizenship.
"Every night at the dinner table as I was growing up, my father discussed politics and the issues of the day," Guernsey said. "Elections mattered in my home. Democracy mattered. Helping and caring for the less fortunate mattered."
Today, he chairs a group, the Catskills Freedom Network, whose goal is to keep U.S. Rep. John Faso, a conservative Republican, from winning re-election.
At the same time, Guernsey is reveling in what he sees as a surge in activism.
"There are more politically active new organizations in the Berkshires and around the country than ever before. Period. Absolute fact," he said. "To name a few, there is Greylock Together in North County. There is Indivisible in Pittsfield and in other places. The Green Tea Party in South County.
"The majority of the people in these groups have never been active before. They voted, certainly, and may have donated, but like most people they've been on the sidelines. As Democratic activists for 40 years, we are so excited to see all these people rising up."
In early October, he stopped by a rally during the registered nurses' one-day strike at Berkshire Medical Center and spoke on behalf of the Berkshire Democratic Brigades.
He'd like to see the hospital come to terms with the Massachusetts Nurses Association; the two sides have been negotiating a new contract for more than a year. As Guernsey sees it, that's too long.
Everything in his political experience puts Guernsey on labor's side.
"I think it's a blotch on the community," he said of the drawn-out dispute. "I know the administration. They're good people. I've known them for years. I don't understand spending so much money from the hospital coffers to fight this.
"I think that working men and women in this country really made this country, and so I think that the issues here should be resolved in favor of the working men and women," he said.
Paycheck issues decided the last presidential election, in his view.
"Many people in this country realize that they have no opportunity, or limited opportunities, and they lashed out. So let's provide those opportunities, and we're a much more healthy community as a result," he said. "We as a country have to show by what we do, not just in politics but in our businesses, that those who are earning a daily wage really count. The essence of moving away from poverty and insecurity is to have a good job."
That's a principle he hasn't had to dust off or revise. It was in his early tool kit, back when he was teaching, then in the Peace Corps in Panama from 1969 to 1971 along with his wife, Carol, then in law school.
"I wanted to be a lawyer to understand our Constitutional rights. I wanted to fight those who tried to undermine those rights, and help those in need," he said.
Idealistic? For sure. Guernsey wears the label without shame — and when, come to think of it, did that term become a pejorative?
He and Carol returned to Panama a few years ago, back to the village of La Laguna de Pocri, where they served in the Peace Corps. Guernsey had already rekindled his connection with the program, serving in the late 1990s on its senior staff in Washington, D.C.
Their visit wasn't a one-off. The couple decided they could still make a difference in the village. They called a community meeting and listened to residents. It led the Guernseys to create a foundation that runs Learning Centers Panama, which operates two computer learning programs, one in La Laguna de Pocri and the other in Paritilla de Pocri.
"They didn't even know the word 'internet,'" Guernsey said. The couple now travels to Panama several times a year. "Forty years later, you can go back. The Peace Corps changed my life and informed my views immensely."
After more than 50 years of political work, Guernsey keeps answering a call to public service.
I asked him if he felt more urgency, considering his age. The years, he said, have clarified what's most important.
"There's no secret. It's basically two things. Find out what really is your passion, and what you feel you're best at. And then do things that are consistent with those two," he said. "My passion is working with people who may be different from us and helping them and helping to gain respect for them, and at the same time finding a way to make change to support our democracy. Finding common ground is very possible, but you have to start by finding common values."
Can you hear the teacher talking?
People in Guernsey's world will likely hear a lot more.
"Life is short. I'm not retiring," he said. "I feel that 71 is the new 51. That's a political spin, but what the hell."
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
On the menu ...
Where we ate: Otto's Breakfast & Deli, 95 East St., Pittsfield.
What Sherwood Guernsey II ordered: Breakfast bowl and coffee.
What he's looking forward to: Meeting his seventh grandchild, due soon to his son's family in Arlington.
Price: $8.84 before tax.
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