In e-mail era, Shippenville man makes liberal use of post office
By ADAM MILASINCIC
Seated at his dining room table behind the keys of an old typewriter, Kenneth Emerick of Shippenville puts his thoughts on paper.
SHIPPENVILLE - Kenneth Emerick has the mailbox of a very rich man.
Each day, the postman deposits 15 to 20 fund-raising solicitations at the curb of Emerick's modest Shippenville ranch. Add to that the frequent flood of outgoing letters-to-the-editor, and Emerick easily ranks among the post office's most loyal customers in this e-mail era.
Like the tide, Emerick's back-and-forth flow of mail is always assured.
Every animal rights group and anti-war organization under the liberal sun wants its humble slice of support from the 81-year-old retiree. Most of the time, he's happy to consent.
"I think we get more mail than anyone in the neighborhood," Emerick says. "It takes a long time to open and go through all of it."
The more he gives, the more he's asked for. But he does it anyway.
Each charity receives its check precisely once per year. Emerick logs the donations by hand in a small notebook to make sure that no one double-dips.
The painstaking daily ritual detracts time and attention from the other mail that pours into Emerick's home: Periodicals by the rubber-banded bundle.
He receives at least five per month, and the former Clarion University librarian is precise in calling them "periodicals" - not magazines.
The Progressive lies open atop Emerick's green wool sofa. In previous years, his name has graced the letters pages of that venerable Robert LaFollette venture (once as an early Iraq War critic and once to decry President Bush as "a self-promoted Christian in words, not deeds; an arrogant fake.")
Around the living room perimeter, 21 other books are stacked upon end tables and plant stands. Gore Vidal's stern visage peers up from a perch just inside the front door.
Less austere is the cardboard-framed picture of Bridgette, a white Welsh Corgi who is one of Emerick's many beloved late pets.
Across the room, Emerick stores an in-house multimedia collection of well-labeled VHS cassettes; many contain television tennis matches. It's everywhere apparent that he has not forgotten the cataloging techniques that were the mainstay of his 50-year career.
If Emerick had his way, he would be little known outside this cloistered home reference section. But that wish was not to be.
Emerick's passion for clarity, for fine details and for what he sees as setting the record straight have made him into a political celebrity of sorts.
"I don't think I'm being immodest when I say that in Clarion County, I was easily the most active opponent of the Vietnam War," he says.
His profile has escalated since then with pointed critiques of every subsequent U.S. military action. He opposed the first Gulf War, and he opposes the current one - a fact that is well-known to readers of this newspaper's opinion page..
To some, Emerick is a left-wing crank whose frequent letters to the newspaper are an unwelcome contrast to the region's conservative consensus. To others, he's a progressive hero willing to take punches for a host of locally unpopular positions.
"Saying no to entrenched power and conventional wisdom through scholarship, analysis and persistence requires fortitude - a quality Ken has demonstrated over the years," said Frank Jeffers, Emerick's long-time friend from suburban Philadelphia. "His numerous letters to the editors of area newspapers are beacons of good scholarship, good common sense and a high level of morality."
Emerick joins a long-line of chronic letter writers reaching back to the earliest years of American democracy. The likes of Samuel Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were relentless pamphleteers who inserted their viewpoints into any backwater newsletter with sufficient stocks of ink and paper.
For decades, small-town voices of all ideological stripes routinely clamored for editorial space in the rural dailies. Letters to the editor were the blogs of a pre-computer era.
Emerick has carried on this tradition to achieve a lightning-rod local status that he says he'd rather forfeit. During his brief stint as a Clarion News columnist in the 1960s, Emerick wrote under the pseudonym "Ross Emerson" to avoid constant questioning about his unorthodoxy.
For him, a writer's notoriety is a necessary nuisance. He wields his pen as a restless anti-warrior; the lion in winter is ready to cede his scepter.
"The last thing I need is personal attention," he says. "In fact, I wish some other people would do some of the writing."
In spite of his protestations, however, Emerick shows no signs of scaling back the commentary. His recent writings have focused almost exclusively on the Iraq war - a topic he said he feels duty-bound to cover - but he hopes to eventually tackle less weighty subjects like retirement and travel.
("So many people think going to Orlando is traveling," he chuckles. "I don't consider that traveling at all.")
Emerick regards his mission as one of relentless fact checking, of shedding light on viewpoints seldom held in Clarion County. He remains in every way the librarian - classifying the facts as he sees them and packaging them for mass distribution.
His speech, like his letters, is precise and methodical. When veering even slightly from his core points, Emerick quickly returns to course with a "well, anyway," or "but that's probably not interesting."
For a man whose political rhetoric is so animated and unsparing, Emerick is surprisingly reserved and self-effacing about almost every other topic. In a three-hour conversation, he raises his voice only twice: once to lambaste retirees who waste their golden years on household busywork and once to recall the contrast of rich and poor in the Great Depression.
"Those many years of extreme economic hardship formed and color so much of my views, attitudes and the person I am," Emerick said. "Although as a child I accepted my and our circumstances as they were, now I can reflect on what was little short of being inhumane conditions."
As the son of a Brookville railroad mechanic, Emerick says he grew up quite literally on the wrong side of the tracks. Class status in childhood wasn't obvious for what was said, but for what wasn't.
"Everybody knew everybody," he says. "Their parents were businesspeople. They knew our names and they didn't mistreat us, but the kids from our side of town, we were just in the room. They didn't have anything to do with us. We were just there."
As Emerick's father struggled to provide food for his eight children during months-long layoffs, prosperity was evident in some corners of Brookville. While Emerick's friends played with baseballs they fashioned from burlap sacks, other children partook in the movie matinees. It's here that Emerick becomes riled:
"They went to the movies every damn Saturday!" he says. "I must have been 13 years old before I saw a movie."
As Emerick began his ideological journey, he was Mr. Republican. Mimicking his father's dinner table chitchat, Emerick could be counted on as a faithful apostle of Wendell Willkie and Robert Taft. In history class debates, he blasted FDR and towed the GOP line.
Eventually, Emerick says, he "wised up." His father - a U.S. soldier in World War I - often offered praises for the Germans he fought against.
"I thought it was odd that he had so much affection for the people who were trying to kill him," Emerick says. "I guess that's when I began to question things."
The questions soon amounted to a full-scale ideological break. By the time of his first political foray in 1956, Emerick was an Adlai Stevenson enthusiast. Four years later, he circulated a petition encouraging the two-time loser to challenge Jack Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Emerick's affection for the aloof intellectual is telling. Stevenson's Republican detractors helped bring the word "egghead" into the popular lexicon by applying it to the one-time Illinois governor. Then as now, Emerick held that men of letters shouldn't be dismissed with a disdainful sniff.
He says he feels bad for the uneducated, and he's adamant in his assessment of the culture they produce.
"Some of these little towns are so backward in terms of exposure to the rest of the world," he says. "That's why they're so conservative. The best thing I ever did was get out of town."
Emerick worked briefly in the office of a Brookville glove factory before punching what he thought was a permanent ticket out of the hinterlands.
After a string of Ohio library jobs, however, Emerick returned to northwest Pennsylvania.
He's stayed here since 1961. The allure was Clarion University, where he could work in cataloging and research rather than trifling with the library boards and municipal bond issues that consumed his time in Ohio.
Soon after his arrival in Clarion, Emerick's political activism would reach a new peak. The spark was the Vietnam War.
"The war was not wrong because we lost," Emerick said in a 1978 interview with The Derrick. "It was wrong because we had no business being there."
During that tumultuous time, he picketed military recruiters, attended big-city protests and - of course - wrote letters to the editor.
"He endured numerous indignities at the hands of professional patriots in their frenzied defense of the slaughter there," said Emerick's friend Jeffers.
Emerick selected as his special cause one of the war's most widely denounced groups: U.S. draft resisters who fled to Canada.
"They couldn't bring themselves to mow down, or attempt to mow down, people they couldn't consider an enemy," he said.
Emerick was so put off by society's universal reproof of draft-dodgers that he reasoned the full story hadn't been told. The groups most widely demonized are often the most misunderstood, he says.
Thus, Emerick set off on a personal three-month journey to Canada, where he interviewed, lodged with and befriended some 200 U.S. expatriates.
The results of that journey were printed in a 1972 book that Emerick self-published. That tome - which sold 2,500 copies and remains on the bibliography of standard texts regarding draft resisters - contained all the flare of Emerick's recent letters to The Derrick.
"Is this a free country?" the book's cover asks. "Federal gumshoes have withheld and tampered with my mail from Canada from the beginning. It's been a Hooveresque nightmare."
Emerick is an unreconstructed 1950s liberal, and he's unashamed of what that implies.
"I think Ted Kennedy is one of the best senators in the country, despite the way he's always being knocked," Emerick says.
He was a co-founder of a now-defunct Unitarian fellowship in Oil City, and he drives a Volkswagen Fox with "Out of Iraq" bumper stickers.
Recently, though, Emerick's political ventures have become largely muted. He lives with his second wife, Mary, and their dog, Duffy - a Scottish herding collie whose long gray locks flail about the living room as he leaps up, down and under tables.
("I never wanted to get a dog that big," Emerick mutters.)
He said most of his like-minded friends have either passed away or opted for warmer venues. A son, Schuyler, lives in Florida and has no interest in politics.
Since retiring from Clarion University in 1989, Emerick has spent much of his own time crisscrossing Europe. Still, he always returns to Ridgewood Road.
One senses that Emerick intends to carry on the battle despite how long and lonely it may become.
Perhaps his letters aggravate more readers than they enlighten. Perhaps northwest Pennsylvania will always maintain its unswerving conservatism. That seems to matter little to Emerick.
Whatever one thinks of his outspoken liberalism, he shines bright as a templar of old-school civic activism.
He shares an age and brusque demeanor with Giles Corry, the 80-year-old man tried as a warlock during the Salem witch hunts. Upon his refusal to confess, Corry was pressed to death by stones. Bystanders urged him to give in, and folklore has preserved Corry's reply:
Emerick is a like-minded spirit.
He pounds out another letter on his prehistoric typewriter.
Emerick chooses a black heritage postage stamp.
As a final touch, he scrawls across the envelope - with no particular audience in mind beyond the mailman - "Lies and deceit took us to a needless, immoral Bush war."
"Bush" is underlined 18 times.
With his white hair, thin beard and frail gait, Emerick walks slowly to his mailbox.
The best way to end the war is to support war resisters.
"War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector
enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today."
- John Fitzgerald Kennedy