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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
IN MEMORIAM ANN E. ZINDLER
February 25, 1935—January 4, 2013
By Frank R. Zindler
It’s been a long goodbye, but now it’s final. The only woman I have ever loved has died, two months shy of her seventy-eighth birthday. Eighteen years after her first breast cancer in 1990, she developed another cancer. Then she suffered liver failure, and a heroic four-and-a-half-year battle against the metastatic disease came to an end. She knew she wouldn’t make it to her birthday. Consequently, upon starting hospice-at-home, she requested that I order from Kroger’s an “un-birthday cake” with lemon filling and white frosting with red roses, get some French vanilla ice cream from Graeters, buy some cheap pink champagne, and have the family join us to have an un-birthday party. We all were there: our daughter Catherine, her consort “Big Mike,” and our three grandchildren Michael, Steven, and Laura. Exactly one week later, at about the same time of day that the party had been celebrated, her heart shut down and she breathed her last belabored breath.
Ann died at home, but she had spent so much time in hospitals and rehab centers during the year 2012 that any one of them might have begun to feel like home away from home. From January to January, one medical crisis after another developed and I devoured an up-to-date pathophysiology text so I could alert her doctors to subtle developments and allow prompt interventions. At least three times during the year, Ann eluded the Reaper. Alas, during all the “down time” when she was fighting acute illnesses unrelated to the cancer, she could not receive chemotherapy and the tumor cells multiplied steadily until there was nothing more to be done.
My wife, lover, and best friend—my better self—is now gone and I need to sort out the facts about her that I hope will be remembered—the facts that may help to show why her life was important not only to me and our family but to the entire Community of Reason as well.
Ann was born on February 25, 1935 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Charles Gordon Hunt and Ruth Elizabeth Prather Hunt. Her father was nonreligious during most of his life until he had a heart attack and caught a bad case of religion from his wife. (The disease proved incurable, and he lived only a few years longer.) Ann’s mother, however, was a life-long member of the Church of Christ (not to be confused with the Christian Church, which scandalously allows the use of musical instruments in its services) and was an evangelical to the max. Throughout Ann’s childhood and early adult life, Ruth tried to make Ann get religion. Ann remembered how, at about the age of five, her mother made her put her nickel in the collection plate during the collection. She always enjoyed recounting how much she resented having to give Jesus her money when she could buy so much candy with it. “Jesus doesn’t need money to buy candy,” she thought, “so why should I give him my nickel?”
Ann attended Roosevelt High School, a school operated by Eastern Michigan University. It was, of course, quite secular—not exactly what Ann’s mother preferred. Ann was “encouraged” to attend a revival-like meeting of the church at which she claimed she was “hypnotized” into getting dunked. The bapt’ypnosis didn’t last, however, and it wore off in a few days—leaving Ann more skeptical than ever. More drastic measures being needed, Ann was sent off to get religion at Harding College, a bible-college-like school in Searcy, Arkansas. Not surprisingly, Harding College was where Ann “learned to sin.” It seems that many other Christian parents had sent their wayward offspring to Harding to be reformed, and so Ann found many other like-minded free spirits with whom to associate. There being around forty rules (“commandments”) governing life in the dormitory, she and another ne’er-do-well systematically set out to break them all. Coming to the prohibition against “soliciting,” they were unsure how to understand the rule but decided that reselling candy bars up and down the dormitory hall would suffice to violate the rule. Ann was not asked to return the following year. The snakes and turtles in the bathtub may have been partly to blame.
Returning from Arkansas to Ypsilanti, Michigan, where she had been reared, she enrolled at Eastern Michigan University to study biology and art. To earn tuition money, she worked part-time at the University of Michigan in neighboring Ann Arbor as a desk clerk and telephone operator in a men’s dormitory—the dorm in which I had just come to live. I have only vague memories of conversations with her from that period, and didn’t really get to know her until the summer after my graduation.
I had decided to stay in Ann Arbor that summer to take the intensive Greek course. One day, as I was walking with the cinematographer-to-be Michael (Alessandro) Degaetano to the Michigan Union to get a drink and a bite to eat, I saw a woman walking about fifteen feet ahead of us. “I think that’s Ann Hunt,” I said to Michael, a bit louder than I realized. Furiously, she whirled around and confronted us. “Are you talking about me?” she snapped. “Yes,” I said. “Aren’t you Ann Hunt?” “Who are you?” she fumed. “I’m Frank Zindler.”
Immediately her annoyance disappeared. It turned out that we had had many friends in common and she knew my name. We went together then to the Union and three months later we were engaged to be married.
We realized much later that I actually had been to a New Year’s party at her apartment but had passed out after one drink, got very sick, and spent the night on the bathroom floor of an apartment across the hall. That was the first of the silent migraines that have plagued me sporadically throughout my life. In any case, Ann had become known for the “salons” over which she presided. She was a magnet for some of the most brilliant young artists, mathematicians, and scientists at the university. It was joked that one should receive graduate credits for attending her gatherings.
It wasn’t possible to actually get married until more than a year later, when I was teaching biology and earth science at Holland High School in Michigan. We wanted to have a “Life magazine wedding,” that is, a wedding so unusual that it would make the pages of Life. I had become acquainted with the anthropologist Margaret Meade and we planned to have her perform the ceremony—in front of the Brontosaurus skeleton in the Field Museum in Chicago. I also knew Marlin Perkins at the time and we thought it would be nice for him to supply a couple chimpanzees from the Lincoln Park Zoo to serve as ring bearers. Unfortunately, Margaret Meade was not licensed in Illinois to perform marriages, and even if she could, it didn’t seem likely that the museum would allow chimpanzees inside its Mesozoic sanctuary.
We decided then to be married in the Unitarian Church in Ann Arbor—a hotbed of heresy filled with atheistic professors from the University of Michigan. Alas, Ann’s mother had heard about Unitarians and that quickly became as impossible as chimpanzees beside a Brontosaurus. We had to get hitched in the home of Ann’s parents in Ypsilanti. I composed and recorded a wedding march that was played as Ann descended the open staircase to the living room where about sixteen guests were assembled. Her mother’s hillbilly preacher and I were waiting for her in front of a large bay window that faced the assembled guests.
Earlier, Ann had told the preacher that she wanted the bare minimum of ceremony—no sermon, no obeying, etc. Just the minimum that would be legal. Right. The preacher had his back to the window, facing the audience. Ann and I were facing the window and the preacher, with our backs to the guests. No sooner had the preacher started the ceremony, the spirit fell upon him and he launched into a sermon. As he was just about to enter the theosphere, Ann—whose nose was about two feet away from his—made a face. It was an omigawd-won’t-you-spare-us-this-nonsense type of face.
Although it was a cool day in mid-October, sweat spurted from the preacher’s forehead. He faltered in his fantasy, stammered, and proclaimed, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” Ann and I then decided we really should exchange rings in order to make things legal. And so began an amazing marriage that lasted more than forty-eight years.
Ann was what I call a natural Atheist—someone who simply cannot believe in things without evidence. I, by contrast, had been very religious as a child—so religious that after graduating from eighth grade I had been offered an eight-year scholarship to attend a Lutheran high school and seminary in Milwaukee. Although Ann did not call herself an Atheist at the time we met, after reading the copy of Homer Smith’s Man and His Gods that I gave her that summer she realized that “Atheist” was the perfect word to describe her Weltanschauung. And so began a philosophical, activist, and loving partnership that never faltered until it was dissolved by death.
In the 1970s, when I was a professor at SUNY-Johnstown, we lived in Upstate New York, in the Mohawk Valley. About the year 1976, Madalyn Murray O’Hair came to New York City to organize a chapter of her Society of Separationists, the forerunner of American Atheists, Inc. (She was not allowed at the time to charter a corporation with the word “Atheist” in the name.) As did I, the nuclear physicist Renato Bobone and his wife Mary of Schenectady attended her meeting. We decided to start a chapter with Mary as Director in Schenectady, only a half-hour drive from Amsterdam where we were living at the time. Cable-access television was just beginning at the time, and Ann and the Bobones and I decided we should produce a weekly Atheist-education program. Ann took the training needed to use the cameras and recorders, and proceeded to design and build a television studio in our garage. Absolutely hating to speak in public herself, Ann did everything possible to allow me and the Bobones to occupy the spotlight.
About a year later we moved to Columbus, Ohio, where we founded the Central Ohio Chapter of American Atheists with Ann as Assistant Director. A very activist chapter needing many picket signs, Ann did all the graphics, made the signs, and marched with all of us as we picketed mosques, churches, government buildings, and other threats to the wall of separation between state and church. Hating public speaking, she busied herself in creating the necessary infrastructures needed for others to glory in the spotlight of public attention. I got all the credit for the work that Ann had done. Fat ladies didn’t get much respect in those days.
Shortly after founding the Columbus chapter, we resumed cable-access TV, producing a weekly half-hour program called American Atheist TV Forum. Sometimes the show involved interviews, but often it was highly didactic—an Atheist primer if you will—for which many elaborate graphics were required. Guess who produced them! A monthly chapter newsletter was needed, and Ann made use of newly available computer layout and typesetting technology to produce the publication. The newsletter turned quickly into a small magazine.
In the mid-1980s, Madalyn Murray O’Hair conferred life memberships upon us and asked us to join the Board of Directors. Madalyn really loved Ann, and treated her like a daughter. The affection was mutual. We often were invited to Madalyn’s home in Austin, Texas, and several times the “Unholy Family”—Madalyn, Jon, and Robin—visited our home in Columbus. Until the murder of the Murray-O’Hair family in 1995, we functioned as though we were a family of five.
After the murders in 1995, Ann’s role in American Atheists really shifted into high gear. Publication of American Atheist had lapsed almost a year prior to the disappearance of the family, and Ann and I decided the journal had to be resurrected. Ann had to reconstruct all the logos and formatting of the magazine from scratch. Artwork, including covers, had to be created in such a way that it could be printed on the antiquated printing press at American GHQ in Austin. (No printing company in Austin would print Atheist material, and so Madalyn had had to do all her own printing in-house.) In like manner, the monthly national newsletter had to be recreated from scratch. And then there were books. Ann’s artistic talent proved indispensable in producing covers and other graphics for the books that she created with the same complicated computer software used to produce Time and Newsweek. My darling wife became a computer geek. With foresight, she passed on many of her skills to our daughter Catherine, who now is in charge of production of books for American Atheist Press.
Throughout the forty-eight-plus years of our marriage, Ann was plagued by frequent illnesses. Reactive hypoglycemia and then diabetes induced the obesity that made the misery and embarrassment of her life. There was a reason for her shunning of cameras. The obesity led to osteoarthritis and a sequence of surgical interventions. Hospitalizations were not entirely without fun for her, however. Avoiding Catholic hospitals at all cost, she always went to Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus, where there was the always-present annoyance of Christian chaplains who thought it their duty to discomfit the sick. Ann thoroughly enjoyed returning the “favor.”
In 1990, a small cancer was discovered in Ann’s left breast. Fortunately, a lumpectomy was possible and only radiotherapy was required. Alas, eighteen years later, in August of 2008, a second tumor was discovered in the same breast. By the time of its discovery it had apparently metastasized, but it was several years before the location and extent the metastases was realized. Things became critical in February of 2012 and it was necessary to make arrangements for hospice-at-home. Ann was prepared to die. Her birthday was on February 25, and she thought she would die soon after. We threw a birthday party for her in the nursing home. Roses, birthday cake, Graeter’s ice cream, the whole family—and a poem.
I had felt that Ann had actually recovered more than was realized and I thought a bit of psychological boosting might help. The muse of doggerel came to my aid. With Ann sitting up in bed and surrounded by our family, I read the following lines:
TO ANN ON HER 77TH BIRTHDAY
My dearling, my lover, my copilot Ann
Stay with me, love me, as long as you can.
The road that we’ve traveled has still far to go;
Continue our journey, whichever winds blow.
Lend me your compass when clouds start to grow.
Stay true to our mission, reject not my hand;
Stray not from our path, sink not in the sand.
Cease not, in this journey, beside me to stand;
Faint not on the pathway we’ve trod through this land.
Continue to love me, hold tight to my hand.
Let’s finish the projects our young hearts had planned.
It worked! About a week later, when Ann was supposed to come home to hospice, she simply came home. We had a beautiful summer, visiting state and metro parks, “camping out” at picnic tables working on crafts and writing, watching birds and reveling in the world of nature that was so crucially important to both of us. Throughout her adult life, Ann had been an amateur ornithologist and freshwater biologist. Swamps were her passion. She loved to swim and snorkel, paint and draw, sew, cook, create miniatures of all sorts, and breed tropical fish and birds. During the years we lived in New York, she became a stained glasswright and became rather famous from Boston to DC for her acid-etched stained glass creations. Glasswrights from all over would call her for instruction on how she etched the delicate designs into glass—only to be dismayed to learn that because of the deadliness of hydrofluoric acid she did most of the etching in the fume hoods in my chemistry laboratory at the college where I was teaching. During the last few years of her life she took up the art of making delicately designed glass beads. Sadly, she did not live long enough to attain the fame she had earned for her stained glass artistry.
I have already opined that Ann was a “natural Atheist.” Never, in the forty-eight years of our life together did I ever detect even a hint that she took into consideration the notion that there might be a life after death or any paranormal or supranormal reality. To the end, Ann was a philosophical materialist who realized the truth of the beer commercial that said “You only go around once. Go for the gusto!” At the same time, she daily exemplified the definition of “Materialism” that she printed at the back of every issue of American Atheist:
“Materialism declares that the cosmos is devoid of immanent conscious purpose; that it is governed by its own inherent, immutable, and impersonal laws; that there is no supernatural interference in human life; that humankind, finding the resources within themselves, can and must create their own destiny. It teaches that we must prize our life on earth and strive always to improve it. It holds that human beings are capable of creating a social system based on reason and justice. Materialism’s ‘faith’ is in humankind and their ability to transform the world culture by their own efforts. This is a commitment that is, in its very essence, life-asserting. It considers the struggle for progress as a moral obligation that is impossible without noble ideas that inspire us to bold, creative works.”
Ann now has been transformed from a material being into a torrent of cascading memories, but the world of reason is the better for her having lived. It is not entirely likely that American Atheists would have survived the death of its founder had it not been for the practical publishing skills that Ann brought to the team of Atheist stalwarts who rescued the organization after the disappearance of the Murray-O’Hair family. Most of her contributions have been so fine-grained that they are invisible to the eyes of the present membership. Nevertheless, Ann’s legacy reverberates throughout the Community of Reason. Her presence can be felt everywhere, even if only a few can identify the source of the feeling.