Little guy, big cause

Harry Baltzer, activist advocate for elders, takes on America's healthcare system

From class-action lawsuits to Internet protest sites, consumer activism in America has largely become a child of litigation and technology.

But with the quick stepping vitality of a man half his age, 70-year-old Harry Baltzer - former Peace Corp engineer, eccentric, and self-dubbed "social misfit" - shows that good old fashioned get-out-and-shout protest is far from dead.

It's late morning in the tiny town of Huron, a rural farming community set against the vast and unvarying plains of eastern South Dakota, and Mr. Baltzer has begun his routine. He paces in front of a drugstore, carrying a large sign that reads: "Pharmaceutical companies are great rip-off artists." Nearby, several similar signs lay strapped to a cart hitched to Baltzer's rusting bicycle (his only mode of transportation).

Passersby seem to either gawk or ignore. But Baltzer is accustomed to both stares and physical stress.

Case in point: This summer, this son of a South Dakota "dirt farmer" strapped his signs to a small cart, hopped on his other bike - a 10-speed - and pulled his signs 600 sweltering miles on a kind of protest tour to nearby towns.

Over a coffee at the local McDonald's, Baltzer lays out his grievances, which are surprisingly vague. He has no single beef with a particular drug company, he says, and no singular event that has set him on this path. It's enough that he, his friends, and his relatives have been affected by outrageous drug prices.

Vehement and articulate, Baltzer hesitantly shares the eccentricity of his lifestyle while never straying far from a soapbox.

A single man, he relies on little more than Social Security for income. He lives in a mobile home during the summer and rides out the winter in a small apartment.

Baltzer says he doesn't spend money on food. Instead, he "dumpster dives" behind the local supermarket, sharing the better unopened goods he finds with poor families. He also sings for local nursing home residents.

Enough about himself, he's soon back to issues.

"There are other things that are more critical, I think, than drug companies - things like campaign finance, world hunger, and defense spending," he says. "I wish I could do something more, but I hope this makes some difference."

Baltzer has always had strong beliefs and hasn't been shy about making them known. In a time when society tended to equate professional success with job permanence, Baltzer, who studied engineering at South Dakota School of Mines, bucked expectations and sampled several careers: engineering, land surveying, construction, teaching, dormitory counseling.

He worked for three years in Lyndon Johnson's Job Corps, and spent most of that time in the US Forest Service. He also traveled widely; his destinations have included Oregon, Alaska, Nicaragua, Pakistan, California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. In Alaska, while working for the Bureau of Public Lands as a surveyor, he lived in a tent and learned from "hippies" how to scrounge for food.

It was during his two-year stint as a Peace Corps engineer in Pakistan that he became deeply disillusioned with America's implementation of its stated values.

"The people in Pakistan sure didn't see us as the land of the free and home of the brave," he said. In the 1960s, he protested against the Vietnam War, "a war that still ticks me off," he says.

During the 1980s, he got involved with a group from Anchorage, Alaska, that opposed then-President Ronald Reagan's policies toward Central America. In 1989, Baltzer traveled to Nicaragua to work for a small development organization. "I believed that we were following a misguided policy, and I wanted to show the people in Nicaragua that there are nicer people up here," he says.

To say that rural South Dakota isn't a hotbed of political protest is an understatement that highlights the potential difficulties of choosing a confrontational civic life here. But Baltzer certainly doesn't let fear of social scorn temper the isolating toughness of his messages. In a letter to the editor of a local paper, for example, he took many of his fellow Huron citizens to task for building a new church when people in countries like Afghanistan and Tajikistan are facing "literal starvation."

Does he think his effort makes a difference? "I think it might be encouraging people to protest, or at least I hope it does. Other than that, I feel like I go out there when I need some exercise," he says with a self-effacing smile.

He says that only a very few people in the local area share his beliefs. "I can think of one guy who thinks like I do, but he's invested in the community," he says. "I have no standing here. That's why I can do this."

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