WICHITA, Kan. - When my friend Colleen Kelly Johnston died on August 18, 2012, she left behind a huge void that will likely not be filled.
She also left behind her husband James, six children, and many grandchildren and great-children as well as a large circle of friends, all of whom loved her.
More importantly, she left behind her influence on those of us who looked to her for strength, guidance, and inspiration as we became involved in the many liberal and feminist movements that have marked the years since the '60s.
I first knew Colleen through the pages of the Wichita Eagle, which I read in Winfield where I taught high school journalism. As much as I liked living in Winfield, a lovely little town thirty minutes away from the Wichita metropolitan area, I knew I was missing all the important action that was going on among activists in the city. Colleen was one activist whose name stood out from the rest. She was involved in everything, from historical preservation to women's rights. I wanted to emulate her before I knew her.
Her activities are well documented in the Wichita Eagle article about her. I first met Colleen face to face when I joined Wichita NOW in 1991 in response to Operation Rescue's attack on Wichita and its abortion clinics. I stood in awe of Colleen as she led NOW members in developing strategies to counter OR's anti-woman siege. Colleen was everywhere, speaking out publicly for women's rights, a cause she fought for all her life.
When I attended my first pro-choice rally in Washington, D.C., during the George H.W. Bush administration, Colleen, as a National NOW board member, was at the front of the march. I was proud to know that one of my acquaintances, a woman from Wichita, was leading the parade of women and men who supported a woman's right to use her own conscience to make her choices.
Despite our age difference, Douglas, Colleen's youngest son, and I became friends before my friendship with Colleen developed. I don't remember how Douglas and I became friends, but I do remember working on his successful campaign for the Kansas State House of Representatives. Douglas also joined other pro-choice advocates in many of our activities in which we countered the anti-choice forces that were pushing their way into Kansas.
Douglas moved to the East Coast after he lost a bid for the Kansas State Senate, but by then I had developed a friendship with Colleen and was able to keep up with him. Colleen, her daughter Kerry, and I enrolled in a fiction writing class at WSU. Now I knew another side of Colleen and another of Colleen's children. I became friends with her oldest son Kelly when he, a Democratic Party activist, became chair of the Sedgwick County Democrats. What I didn't know, but found out later, was that Kelly was an accomplished poet, as was Colleen. In fact, some of my best memories of Colleen came from the times she, Kelly, and I got together at the local Panera's to critique each other's writing and to talk about ways to get our work published.
When I started going to Weight Watchers, Colleen joined, as did Liz Hicks, another Wichita feminist leader. After our weigh-in and the weekly pep talk, the three of us would go to lunch together. As time went by, we decided to skip Weight Watchers and go to lunch. Thus, the Tuesday lunch bunch was formed. The group has grown to include other women, including Colleen's daughter Casey, who in the past few months drove her mother to the restaurant we had chosen for the week and joined in our conversation.
Our lunchtime conversation covered the waterfront--we talked about everything from books we were reading to the often dismal Kansas political scene. Coming from different walks of life, we are all liberal women and we're all proud of that fact, as Colleen was her whole life. We discussed family issues, weight, movies, clothes, all the things that all women talk about. We shared books we had enjoyed reading. But most of all, we talked about politics. We were all thrilled when Liz Hicks announced that she was running for the Kansas State Legislator. We all got on board, offering to do what we could to help. Colleen, according to Liz, became her chief strategist. That was one of Colleen's strengths--analysis.
That strength came into play when she asked me to join her writers group. I had been writing poetry since I entered the creative program at Wichita State University in the early '80s, but I had slacked off in recent years because I had lost my motivation. Thanks to this group, I found myself not only writing again, but also benefitting from the sharp insights of the women in the group.
Colleen was particularly suited to take a piece of writing and see what needed to be changed to fix it. She asked probing questions and gave helpful advice. She also wrote the most wondrous poetry, much of it relating to her Irish heritage. She was quite proud of that heritage, as well she should have been.
Colleen and her attorney husband James were partners in many, many ways. They stayed married until "death do us part," they raised six wonderful children, they both worked for civil rights and for humanitarian causes, they both gave selflessly to a world that is so often marked by "I've got mine; too bad for you."
As for me, I'm a bit player in Colleen's life, but I will always be grateful for our friendship. She was generous beyond words to me, giving me books of poetry that she thought I would enjoy, taking me to science fiction movies--we both loved Star Trek and Avatar--suggesting authors I might like and lending me books, and best of all, going with me when I was selected to read my poems in Salina as the recipient of the New Voice Award.
I cannot imagine a world without Colleen. I will continue to look for her curly strawberry blonde hair when I get together with my friends. I still hear her voice in my head when I write a poem or a letter to the editor.
The poem below is in her memory. She used her life to keep the promises that we all must make to those who share our planet, promises that take us away from the easy life and thrust us into a messy world. Colleen never shirked fulfilling her promise.
I promised myself a place of retreat,
of saving grace away from the noise
and heavy footfall from a street
littered with people's debris, their
messy lives. A safe place,
a cocoon, so to speak,
insulated, insular, white, neat. Yet,
what do I find there? Sterile air that
I can't breathe. No room to move,
no one to touch or hold.
Cut off from a world
of woe, cut off
from a world of joy.
So the promise is to seek
low places, to lift
those who need my strength.
That's the promise we make
at the day of our birth.
September 12, 2012