The Thomas Merton Center membership shares in the loss of one of its most active members, Jan Neffke, and expresses our solidarity with her partner, Ginny Hildebrand. All are welcome to the celebration of Jan’s life on Sunday, July 28, 4-6pm at the Union Project.
Several TMC members and friends, reflect on Jan’s meaningful life.
From Molly Rush I first joined the Catholic Interracial Council (CIC)in 1963. I was asked to represent CIC on the board of ACCCR, the Allegheny County Council on Civil Rights. There I met Jan Neffke, who was on staff at the YWCA. I was taken with her unassuming manner. As a novice activist among community leaders of the NAACP, Urban League, the Pittsburgh Presbytery, and other community and faith groups, her presence helped me feel less intimidated. The group was working on the upcoming March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his classic “I Have a Dream” speech. Jan did an incredible job of organizing the Pittsburgh buses to DC. Well over 500 traveled by bus and train from the Pittsburgh area.
From David Hughes My earliest memory of Jan was in the fall of 1973 when I was an organizer for the Indochina Peace Campaign and preparing for a tour to come to Pittsburgh that included Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden. I was looking for a venue for a public event and was referred to Jan to do the event at the downtown YWCA. I remember clearly how Jan was so helpful and easy to work with. I will never forget that. The event at the YWCA was a great success, mainly because of Jan’s help. She didn’t have to say a thing about her politics; it was clear from her incredible accommodation to assure a successful political, anti-war rally.
From Kipp Dawson As a newcomer to Pittsburgh in 1977, it did not take me long to learn that anything effective that happened in Pittsburgh around black or women’s rights most likely had Jan Neffke’s input, often as the main organizer. Under her leadership, the downtown YWCA had become the place where many such big events happened. And while others almost always took the stage, and often the credit, for them, there would have been no such stage or credit to take without Jan’s having brought together the people and publicity and facilities that made them real. Jan never seemed to seek any limelight, getting pleasure instead from seeing people gather to applaud others, and in the process, see themselves as important parts of the struggles. I remember seeing this in action at one such gathering at the Y, most likely around abortion rights, and seeing Jan calmly and firmly walking around the edges making sure everything was going as it should.
This knowledge proved especially important to me one day a decade later. I was half-way through my 13 years as a Washington County underground coal miner. I had stopped at the gas station at the foot of the country road on my way to an afternoon shift in the mine, and spotted a pile of flyers in the phone booth there. A closer look revealed that they were flyers for a Ku Klux Klan action to protest Mel Blount’s plans for a youth home in the area. The flyers were unabashedly racist in their attacks on Blount and the children likely to be coming there. Horrified, I pictured my black coworkers, including some of the most marvelous women I’ve ever known, stopping there and seeing these flyers. Following my instincts, I immediately contacted my union, the United Mine Workers whose constitution forbids KKK membership, and, yes, Jan Neffke. What followed was a strong mobilization against the Klan, both in Washington County, and in Pittsburgh proper, in which Jan once again played a pivotal, but behind the scenes, role.
For the last several decades I’ve been fortunate to share more personal time with Jan and her life-partner (and my long-time close friend), Ginny Hildebrand. Even in her own home, Jan seemed loathe to take credit for the beauty she had done so much to create there, or even for the wonderful food and drink and company. But I think she would let herself be pleased that we are saluting and celebrating her, by name, and on center stage, today. She would know that in doing so, we are encouraging others to find their ways to her kind of eminently productive and beautiful life.
From Marcia Snowden I will always remember Jan’s great commitment to civil rights when she was at the YWCA and her leadership on so many social justice issues. She was so generous and supporting of organizations and persons who were active with human rights. We are all grateful to have known her and experienced her leadership and support. May she rest in peace as her spirit lives on in the community who so loved and admired her. From Marcus Rediker and Wendy Goldman Jan Neffke always struck us as having everything a good activist needs: deep intelligence, profound seriousness, a clear vision of what needs to be done, and a warm, generous view of humankind. The look in her eyes always said, this woman means business. Her commitment to the cause of anti-racism was exemplary over many years. The world is much the poorer without Jan in it and we shall miss her very much.
From Rosemary Trump In addition to supporting civil rights and women’s rights, Jan Neffke was an ardent supporter of Labor Rights! I will always appreciate her support of SEIU’s efforts to organize low wage service workers in the public, healthcare, and janitorial sectors. Without hesitation, Jan would always make available a meeting room, at a very reasonable cost, to meet with workers who were trying to organize, negotiate a contract, ratify an agreement or engage in steward training. Solidarity Forever, Sister Jan!! From Michael Drohan and Joyce Rothermel Jan’s life and values aligned greatly with those of the Thomas Merton Center. In TMC’s 47-year history, it is hard to think of anything that Jan did not lend her support for, whether it be witnessing for peace and justice, participating in activist events or financially supporting them. Her inspiration gives us hope to carry on.
The celebration of Jan’s life will be Sunday, July 28th 4-6pm at the Union Project, 801 N. Negley Avenue (corner of N. Negley and Stanton Avenues) in East Liberty. There will be tributes, music, food and libations and air conditioning (Jan wouldn’t even attend her own Celebration of Life in July if there wasn’t AC). Rosemary Trump will chair the event. The TMC and its projects will staff a literature table that will include envelopes for donations in Jan’s memory. This will not be a “spectator sport.” There will be sing-a-longs. Participants are invited to bring finger foods.