Fighting the 'good fight' for 70 years, Elizabeth Sarcka's still in front lines
Hallowell, Maine — When Elizabeth Sarcka's application for internship landed on the Washington desk of Chip Reynolds, field director of Freeze Voter '84, he was in for a surprise.
''I'd reviewed dozens of student applications claiming campaign experience when I picked up Elizabeth's form,'' Mr. Reynolds said. ''It said she'd graduated from Barnard in 1917. I got a kick out of that. Assuming it was a typo , supposed to read 1971, I thought to myself, 'Oh good, my generation; someone with real experience.' '' But when he phoned Elizabeth and heard a deep, plucky voice comment, ''So you're interested in a 90-year-old lady,'' Reynolds began to find out what real experience was all about.
''That was no typographical error,'' he says with a laugh. And she was no typical woman. He eagerly assigned Ms. Sarcka a summer internship, and the veteran peace activist packed up her bags and moved from Queens, N.Y., to work at the Freeze Voter office here in Hallowell.
Her task? To help Freeze Voter '84 identify, endorse, and work for pro-nuclear freeze candidates in this year's elections. The organization does not offer direct monetary contributions to candidates, but rather recruits and trains thousands of volunteers to work for freeze candidates across the country.
Maine Freeze Voter '84 director Betsy Sweet clearly remembers Elizabeth Sarcka's arrival. ''She came two days early. She'd been in Montreal on vacation, staying at an elders' hostel, and hitched a ride with some folks she met who were coming this way. She showed up all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and said, 'Put me to work.' ''
The first thing this silver-haired hitchhiker did was go out and talk. Says Ms. Sweet, ''Elizabeth would sit down in cafes, bars, anywhere, and talk with anyone about the nuclear issue. In her short time here she came to know more people than I know after two years.''
Elizabeth's specialty was ''tabling'' - spending hot Saturday afternoons running the Freeze Voter '84 booth at fairs of all sorts. ''At the Damariscotta Oyster Fair, Elizabeth didn't let a single person pass without reading the Freeze Voter stuff,'' Sweet recalls, chuckling. ''And no matter where she went she carried Freeze buttons in her purse. She'd come back to the office after a walk through town with $10 from buttons sold. She even took fliers to the hairdresser's. She's just a hot ticket.''
She's been that way for a long time, this woman with cheeks like plums and hair like morning hoarfrost. She became a bellwether for peace the instant she discovered the possibility of war. ''Perhaps only those born before the turn of the century realize the impact of the First World War on my generation,'' she says. ''We grew up in peace and progress, thinking war was an anachronism, outdated and outgrown. ... But war came and our world was shattered. Right there I wanted to be part of building peace.''
And right there she began. While attending Barnard and working as a volunteer at the Jacob Riis Settlement House in New York, young Elizabeth Man joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a peace organization. After graduation she continued social work with a child placement agency and with the settlement house.
But after the 1919 founding of the League of Nations, she turned to what would become a major mission in her life. She took a ''small job'' with the league, and by 1926 had been named executive secretary of its Greater New York Association.
On the side, the tireless Ms. Man established the first Girl Scout troop in the Richmond Hill section of Queens and sat on the first Queens Council of Girl Scouts. Through this work she met and fell in love with Wayne Sarcka, who helped direct charitable drives, including raising money for the Girl Scouts.
In 1927 Elizabeth left the league and Mr. Sarcka to see a remote part of the world for whose peace she was working. She joined friends who were filming native culture and animal life in what was then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). While in Africa, Elizabeth received a cable from Sarcka, proposing marriage. After the year-long adventure, she returned to Queens and married him.
The couple honeymooned by hiking the Long Trail section of the Appalachian Trail in Vermont. ''We ... completely lost our hearts to the area. The land was going for a song, so we bought a stretch of it with the idea of having a summer place.'' There was lots of work to do to make the niche habitable, and the Sarckas found a way. ''That first summer we gathered boys from the settlement house and the YMCA to work with us each morning clearing land, building roads, and so forth. The afternoons were for play.''
The Sarckas' impromptu work-play camp lasted three years. During the third summer the son of a distinguished New York psychiatrist, Dr. Bernard Glueck, and one of Dr. Glueck's patients joined the group. Amazed by the leadership growth of his boy and the progress of his patient, the doctor urged the Sarckas to pioneer the first halfway house for the mentally ill in the United States. ''We said yes, and started with two patients,'' Elizabeth recalls. ''It was a tremendous struggle, but it worked. Spring Lake Ranch recently had its 60th anniversary. It is my pride and joy, still going strong.''
Elizabeth and Wayne ran Spring Lake for 30 years before entrusting it to the hands of others. In 1960 they moved ''to the benign climate of Jamaica,'' Ms. Sarcka says. ''We had no intention of retiring. We started a night school, working for literacy among the hill people.'' When Wayne passed on in 1968, Elizabeth wrapped up their work there and a year later returned to Queens.
Again, there was no thought of retiring. ''I immediately contacted the UN, with which I'd been in touch since its founding. I took a volunteer job as Education Director of the UN Association (UNA) in Queens.'' A head-on car collision interrupted that work and Elizabeth says she suddenly found herself living alone, in her 80s, and severely handicapped.
''But,'' announced this stiff-upper-lipped woman, ''there in bed I thought to myself, 'I have a telephone and a typewriter.' I could continue working for the UNA right here.'' She did its publicity from her home. ''That work was a lifesaver,'' says Elizabeth, who was subsequently out of bed and serving as UNA president from 1974 to '78.
In 1980 ''they appointed me board representative to the Queens Coalition for Peace and Justice, a coalition of 20 peace-oriented organizations immensely active in the Vietnam war and now winding up again.'' Then came work for the Queens Disarmament Campaign, where she has served as secretary for the past two years. And her internship in Hallowell.
When it comes to peace, Elizabeth Sarcka believes ''there is absolutely no choice but to act.'' It keeps her on her feet and encourages others involved in the arduous task of building peace. ''It's really helpful to have someone who's been in it for the long haul,'' says Betsy Sweet. When her Hallowell internship ended in August, Elizabeth returned to Queens and her work for the Queens Disarmament Campaign as well as her local Freeze Voter '84 office. And still no thought of retiring.