Jay Wenk, Peace Activist And Woodstock Councilman, Dies At 91

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Above Photo: Anti-war vets’ convictions for trespassing at Manhattan Vietnam memorial dismissed. The 12 defendants, mostly veterans, who were arrested at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial when they stayed after hours, celebrate as they hear their verdict in Manhattan Criminal Court on Friday. The charges against them were dismissed. (Jefferson Siegel). Front row, from left: Joel Kovel, William Perry, Sam Adams. Second row: Jay Wenk, Bev Rice, Jules Orkin, Dr. Margaret Flowers, Tarak Kauff. Third row: Felton Davis, Alice Sutter, Ken Mayers, Ellen Barfield. (Jefferson Siegel)

We worked with Jay Wenk and are very sad to learn of his passing.

We participated with Jay on multiple actions. In one campaign to expand freedom of speech and protest at the Vietnam Memorial in New York City, we sought to expand the ability to protest at the memorial after a curfew. The curfew was only applied when protests were held at the monument. Activists led by Veterans for Peace planned a memorial service that resulted in the reading of the names of the war dead, US soldiers and of Afghans killed in the US war on Afghanistan. The reading went beyond the curfew leaving the police with a lose-lose choice of either letting the protest continue after the curfew or arresting veterans and their supporters for violating the curfew. The white shirt commander forced the arrests of which included veterans from every war since World War II. When Jay was arrested the police were ashamed as we let them know they were arresting a decorated World War II veteran.

Jay was well aware of the crimes of the United States from colonists stealing Indigenous land, slavery of Africans through wars of domination that have killed millions. Jay described his evolution in a letter to his local paper “As a youngster, I was suffused with the myths of America; I cried, singing ‘O beautiful, for spacious skies’ and other invented tales, the fervor that had me and millions sign up to fight in World War II. Since that time, I’ve become more aware of the realities of what this and other governments do. I consider the Pledge of Allegiance a myth. Go ahead and try to convince me that we have liberty and justice for all.”

His book about his life, Study War No More, went further into his evolution and his views. He describes how he transformed from the childhood Boy Scout patriotism that got him to sign up for war to someone who saw “the many invasions we’ve made into other countries, the wars we’ve started based on lies, Agent Orange and depleted uranium, constitutional slavery, the new Jim Crow, today’s black-ops and drones that are killing innocent people and children, support of fascist governments, most recently with $5 billion to the neo-Nazis in Kiev, the destruction of most of the Bill of Rights and the Frankenstinian enabling of corporations to become people, the socialist system that allows corporations to weasel out of taxes, NSA spying, cutting back on veterans care, food stamps and so much more.”

Jay was a radical advocate for peace and human rights. He was an amazing long-time activist with whom we were honored to work. May he rest in power.

KZ and MF

WOODSTOCK, N.Y. >> Jay Wenk, a town councilman and local exemplar of peaceful but determined activism, has died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 91.

Conor Wenk said his grandfather died Tuesday evening at home on Meads Mountain Road.

“It’s something he had a battle with once before, and this time he really didn’t want to fight it,” Conor Wenk said of his grandfather’s illness. “I was incredibly proud of everything he did, and he was absolutely my favorite person.”

Wenk was a U.S. Army veteran of World War II, serving as a combat infantryman in the European Theater, but he also was a member of the group Veterans for Peace, which opposed U.S. military action, and he often participated in demonstrations, including at military recruiting offices.

In August 2005, he and several other protesters were charged with trespassing at Kings Mall in the town of Ulster, where such an office was located, though the charges ultimately were dropped.

Wenk served on the Woodstock Town Board from 1990-93 and again from 2008 until his death, and town Supervisor Bill McKenna reflected fondly on Wenk’s penchant for protesting.

“There was one Town Board meeting a couple of years ago, and it was just four of us, Jay was missing,” McKenna said Wednesday. “I looked over at (then-Supervisor Jeremy Wilber) and Jeremy looked over at me, and we were discussing where Jay could possibly be; usually he’d let one of us know if he wasn’t going to be there. Finally, I blurted out … ‘[he’s] probably in jail.’”

A week later, McKenna said, he learned Wenk had “been arrested down in New York City, protesting Wall Street. That’s pure Jay.”

Civil rights attorney Michael Sussman, who represented the protesters in the Kings Mall matter, said he found Wenk to be both gentle and stern.

“What I saw in the person was … tremendous earnestness and a deep humanity,” said Sussman, now the Green Party candidate for state attorney general. “He was someone who saw the need for the average Joe to get out on the street and be as clear as possible about what he or she thought about what the country should stand for. He was honest in a very deep way. …

“When we were fighting against the war [in Iraq], trying to point out the problems with the Patriot Act, he did it from a position of patriotism and was a person who loved this country and didn’t take its ideals without seriousness,” Sussman said.

Wenk’s attempts to make a point sometimes were viewed as going too far, including when he brought a rifle-style BB gun to the Woodstock Town Hall to stress the need for safety locks on firearms.

“He mentioned he had it (the gun), and somebody said, ‘Get that thing out of here,’” Councilwoman Laura Ricci recalled. “He realized his mistake, but he was trying to do the right thing to talk about gun safety. He was always trying to get the right message out — maybe not the right way, but he never quit.”

Wenk also showed up at the Freeman office in Kingston in December 2015 with the gun.

He also was a frequent writer of letters to the editor. One of his most recent letters to the Freeman, published in November 2017, was critical of a “God and Country” event in Kingston that Wenk said was put on by people who “love war.”

Ricci said that even after Wenk became ill, he still attended Town Board meetings and spoke out about issues he viewed as important.

“He would attack even members of the [Town Board], but I knew it was Jay,” she said. “I understood that it was Jay being Jay and making a stand, and I appreciate freedom of speech, and Jay was out there with his freedom of speech.”

Town Clerk Jackie Early said she and other admired Wenk for the tenacity he displayed when he believed something would benefit the entire community.

“Jay and I came from opposite ends of politics, but we worked through it, and we ended up becoming very, very good friends,” Early said. “He seemed to me that he was not happy with America and I loved it, but we ended up … respecting each others’ opinion.”

Early said her favorite “Jay Wenk moment” was finding out “we were both born on the same day, Oct. 1, 30 years apart.”

“The first time we celebrated it was two years ago, and we shared a bottle of champagne,” she said.

Funeral arrangements for Wenk were pending Wednesday at the Lasher Funeral Home in Woodstock.