Helen Dery Woodson, Presente!

Helen Dery Woodson, Presente! 
June 26, 1943 – December 2, 2023
Catholic peace, justice and anti-nuclear activist, mother and grandmother.
Helen was the longest jailed nuclear resister, having spent 27 years behind bars for the Silo Pruning Hooks plowshares action and subsequent actions.
May she rest in peace and power. ☮️

Helen Dery Woodson died on December 2, 2023. An only child, she was welcomed to the world 80 years earlier, on June 26, 1943, by her mother, Helen Dery and father, Carl Strauch.

Helen had a large family of one birth child and many adopted children, most with disabilities. In the early 1980s, while raising her family in Madison, Wisconsin, Helen started the Gaudete Peace and Justice Center and wrote and published its newsletter, Harvest of Justice. She became involved in nuclear weapons protest, sometimes resulting in her arrest. After being convicted of charges for the 1984 Silo Pruning Hooks plowshares action she took part in with three others at a nuclear missile silo in Missouri, she spent 27 years in prison for that and subsequent actions. She has the distinction of being the longest jailed nuclear resister.

Helen was released from prison for the last time on September 9, 2011. She “retired” from protest activities and lived a quiet prayerful life in Kansas City, Missouri. She was a devout Traditional Catholic and was a member of both St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Catholic Church and St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, both in the Kansas City metropolitan area.  She died fortified with the sacraments of Holy Mother Church. A Requiem Mass will be held on Monday, December 11, 2023, 10:30 am at St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Catholic Church, Mission Woods, Kansas. 

Helen is survived by her children and grandchildren, friends and people around the world who continue to be inspired and encouraged by her actions for a nuclear-free future. 

Requiescat in Pace.

from the Nuclear Resister (issue #202, page 2)
by Felice and Jack Cohen-Joppa

What can we say about Helen, who we’ve known for 42 years? That we met her before she was ever arrested for anti-nuclear protests, and she went on to be the longest jailed nuclear resister, having spent 27 years behind bars for the Silo Pruning Hooks plowshares action and subsequent actions? That when at ages 22 and 25 we were living in Madison and had several issues of the Newsletter of the National No-Nukes Prison Support Collective (the Nuclear Resister’s original title) under our belt, we got a call from a woman in town we didn’t know, who said, “I saw your newsletter, I’m sending you a donation and by the way, do you need a place to live? I have room for you.”? That we soon met chain-smoking Helen at the helm of a lively houseful of kids (one birth child and the rest adopted, most with developmental disabilities) and later discovered that the three of us share a June 26 birthday? That when Helen and Fr. Carl Kabat, OFM received an 18 year prison sentence for the Silo Pruning Hooks plowshares action in 1985, we looked at each other with wide eyes and realized that we would need to continue the work of the Nuclear Resister for that long? That Helen’s later actions alienated some when they veered from a common understanding of nonviolence, such as pulling a starter’s pistol in a bank to get the money, then lighting it ablaze in the lobby while making a statement about the love of money being the root of all evil? That after years of supporting our friend Helen and visiting her in three different prisons, we drove to Kansas City (where she would live for the first post-release six months with activists Henry and Jane Stoever) to help welcome her to freedom and teach her how to use a cell phone and computer? We will miss her.

2011 photo by Felice Cohen-Joppa, of Helen and Jack

Helen Woodson, Plowshares anti-nuclear activist who spent 27 years in jail, dies
by Patrick O’Neill

Catholic peace and environmental activist Helen Dery Woodson, whose bold actions befuddled both the judicial system and often her fellow peace activists, died Dec. 2 of heart failure. She spent 27 years in jail and federal prison for acts of civil disobedience ranging from sabotage to bank robbery.

From left: Oblate Fr. Paul Kabat, Helen Woodson, Oblate Fr. Carl Kabat and Larry Cloud Morgan after they used a jackhammer to damage a Minuteman II missile silo cover at Whiteman Air Force Base in Knob Noster, Missouri, Nov. 12, 1984 (CNS/Bob Roller)

Woodson, 80, is best remembered for her initial daring “Plowshares disarmament action” she engaged in with Oblate Frs. Carl and Paul Kabat, biological siblings, and Native American peace activist Larry Cloud Morgan.

On Nov. 12, 1984, the foursome, calling themselves the “Silo Pruning Hooks,” a reference to Isaiah 2:4, cut a padlock on a fence surrounding a Missouri-based ICBM silo containing a Minuteman II nuclear-armed warhead. Using a rented jackhammer to chip away some concrete — the damage was negligible — resulted in sabotage charges and shockingly long prison sentences.

Woodson, the last of the four to die, and Carl Kabat, both received 18-year sentences. Paul Kabat received 10 years and Cloud Morgan eight years.

Following her release from federal prison in 1993, Woodson changed tactics when she held up a Chicago bank on June 17, 1993. In a newsletter, Woodson wrote she was sent back to prison for robbing the bank, lighting the stolen bills on fire and “distributing a statement denouncing the materialism and obsession with wealth and power that caused environmental destruction, wars and various other social ills. For this, I was convicted of robbery by force.”

In a third incident, Woodson mailed what she called “warning letters with .38 caliber bullets affixed” to various government and corporate officials, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, two corporate CEOs and the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Woodson wrote that her “letters said that their actions were like bullets fired into the heart of creation. For this, I was convicted of threatening communication and being a felon in possession of ammunition.”

The Nuclear Resister, a quarterly publication that serves “as a clearinghouse for information about contemporary nonviolent resistance to war and the nuclear threat” published an account of the bank caper in 1993:

Three days after her release, Woodson walked into a Chicago bank, produced a starter’s pistol and asked the teller to empty all the cash drawers. When patrons began to catch wind that something was amiss, Woodson announced she had no intention to harm anyone, and asked everyone in the bank to please sit down and hear her statement.

After receiving about $25,000 in cash, Woodson piled it in the middle of the floor, doused it with lighter fluid, and ignited it. She made a statement elaborating on her belief that money is the root of all evil. 

Cash now ashes, Woodson asked the patrons to leave the bank with her. If police were waiting, she would surrender peacefully; if not, she intended to walk on to other planned actions. Police were waiting, and Woodson was taken back into custody.

Tom Hastings, a fellow peace activist who visited Woodson in prison, called the bank robbery, “Helen’s Woody Allen caper,” a reference to Allen’s 1969 comedy, “Take the Money and Run.”

In the film, Allen’s character botches a bank robbery when he gives the teller an unintelligible hold-up note.

“It was a silly action that she did in my view, that was symbolically meaningful to her,” Hastings told NCR. “It was meaningless to a lot of us. You could not stack it up against their incredibly powerful Plowshare action.”

Hastings, who also was jailed for two Plowshare actions, gave Woodson high praise when he compared her to Philip Berrigan, the late founder of the Plowshares movement: “Outside of Phil Berrigan you couldn’t really find any resister who was more committed than Helen Woodson. She just didn’t have the through lines that somebody like Phil had. She had different through lines of her own.”

Woodson was a person who let her actions speak louder than her words. Although well-educated, Woodson, who held a master’s degree in library science, rarely wrote any articles or gave interviews about her beliefs or actions. She did maintain friendships with many, mostly Catholic peace movement friends, through letters and phone calls.

Woodson made an exception when she agreed to an interview with the late Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory, who visited Woodson at Federal Correctional Institution Alderson, a West Virginia prison for women.

In her April 15, 1986, column titled “Saga of an American Dissenter,” McGrory wrote:

I first heard about Helen Woodson in Moscow. During a human rights discussion with weathered, wary Kremlin officials, one burst out, “Everyone speaks of [Soviet dissident Andrei] Sakharov. What about in your own country a female, the mother of seven, imprisoned for 18 years for damaging a Minuteman missile concrete? Nobody speaks about it. Nobody writes about it.”

Clare Grady of Ithaca, New York, who was incarcerated at Alderson with Woodson for a different Plowshares action, called Woodson a “bright, warm, funny and faithful sister.”

“While my two-year sentence in the mid-’80s was brief, I’m so glad I had overlapping time with Helen,” Grady told NCR. “All the years that Helen was imprisoned, she never complained, despite much physical pain and challenges. Her heart was singularly focused, and continued to be as she was released and devoted her time praying for peace.”

Jane and Henry Stoever of Overland Park, Kansas, attended the Silo Pruning Hooks trial, and Henry, a lawyer, also facilitated pretrial jail meetings for the four defendants. Woodson lived with the Stoevers for six months after her final prison sentence ended, and the couple remained in contact with Woodson ever since. Both Jane and Henry visited Woodson in the hospital during the final week of her life.

Henry said Woodson was criticized for leaving her children behind to go to prison. “Some person said, ‘How could a woman just walk away from those kids?’ And Helen’s response was, ‘If I was a male and I was sent to Vietnam or somewhere else people would say, “Thank you for your service,” slap you on the back.’ And she said, ‘This is a world crisis. I am doing what I believe God has called me to do.’ ”

2011 photo by Felice Cohen-Joppa, of Helen and Jane

Jane said Woodson was a good pianist, and filled their home with “noise from the piano and singing. … She clung to the happiness.”

Jane said Woodson “had very strong views that were different from some of our views. She had a highly conservative theology, and she would argue chapter and verse and give you biblical citations.”

“Still we loved her, and she loved us,” said Jane.

Nuclear Resister founders Felice and Jack Cohen-Joppa were close friends with Woodson for more than 40 years.

“She was absolutely clear and consistent and faithful in what she felt needed to be done in the world to get rid of nuclear weapons, and she never wavered from it,” Felice said.

In 2011, Woodson, who had always said she would likely die in prison, changed her mind, and announced she was going to “retire” from activism when she was released from prison after a combined 27 years.

2011 photo by Felice Cohen-Joppa, of Helen (with Henry, Jane and Jack behind her) getting off of the Greyhound bus in Kansas City after her release from prison

“She said she was going to retire and she did,” Jack said. “Even though that was a change of heart from her. And when she left prison, she was done.”

During retirement, Woodson did not maintain contact with her former codefendants and most of her peace movement friends to avoid being sent back to prison for a probation violation.

“She was happy in her post-prison life by all indications,” Jack said.

Hastings said Woodson “followed her own light.” While he honored Woodson’s commitment, “I just didn’t follow her line of thinking,” he said.

“She never exhibited a single bit of self doubt. There was really no other way to look at it. There was no gray area,” he said. “There was little point in arguing with Helen Woodson. When she said something, you just kind of rolled with it.”

Woodson’s funeral will be held Dec. 11 at her parish, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Catholic Church in Westwood, Kansas. The church only celebrates Mass in Latin, calling itself a “personal parish of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.”

A version of this story appeared in the Jan 5-18, 2024 print issue under the headline: Helen Woodson, Plowshares anti-nuclear activist who spent 27 years in jail, dies.

2011 photo by Felice Cohen-Joppa, of Henry and Jane Stoever at their home with Helen soon after her release

 from PeaceWorks Kansas City

Farewell, Helen Woodson, world peace leader
December 7, 2023
by Jane and Henry Stoever
Helen, from your phone calls to us—usually from prison—we grew to love you. The first call from you to Henry was cloaked in mystery. You asked for help returning some equipment the next day, and you assured Henry he’d hear more the next day. He did, but his services were not needed. The equipment—a jackhammer and compressor—had been taken by the military. You, Helen, got sentenced to 18 years in jail for your Silo Pruning Hooks action in 1984. Father Carl Kabat, OMI (Oblate of Mary Immaculate); Father Paul Kabat, OMI; Larry Cloud Morgan, called White Feather; and you had busted into a missile silo near mile marker 45 on I-70. You poured blood and jackhammered away at the concrete platform protecting the silo. Its missile was aimed at Russia.

You meant peace and, for that, served 12 years of the 18-year sentence, the longest sentence given to any peace resister. We heard you tell the judge something like this: “Don’t you give me a lesser sentence than the longest sentence you give to any of these men just because I’m a woman!”

During your prison time, you became notorious for helping women get out of jail. You’d do an action, serve time, compose requests to judges on behalf of cellmates, come out of prison for a few weeks, and do another action. Resistance, especially against nuclear weapons, was your second life’s work, after your earlier life’s work of raising special-needs children.

2011 photo by Jane Stoever: l-r, Felice Cohen-Joppa, Henry Stoever, Helen Woodson, Jack Cohen-Joppa, after Helen was released from prison

Fluent in Latin, you played “Jubilate Deo” (rejoice in God) on our piano and sang it at the top of your voice, along with Jane. Your friends Felice and Jack Cohen Joppa, founders of The Nuclear Resister (nuclearresister.org), collected funds for you during your imprisonments. They brought some of the many books they’d stored for you to our home to welcome you from jail for the last time in September 2011. You lived with us for 6 months, partly because you had kept asking states if you could live there and the first 5 states said absolutely not—you were too well-known a recidivist. Finally Henry said, “You could live with us!” What a deal, for you and us!

Having been accustomed to living in cells all on a single floor, or using elevators, you had to teach yourself, the first night with us, to climb stairs—up was easier than down. Soon, Henry shopped car lots for you, finding a Buick at the Honda lot(!), and taught you in the church parking lot to learn to drive again.

Jane had looked forward to having you look out the second-floor bedroom window on our backyard of trees and birds and squirrels, life in abundance. But you pulled the curtains and shut the bedroom door, so accustomed were you to finding safety in a closed-door cell.

After about 6 months, you moved to the gracious Catholic Worker home of Charles Carney and Donna Constantineau, where you happily got your first post-prison cat. You found your Kansas City, KS, church home at St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Catholic Church. Social worker Charles, two years later, helped you move into a Kansas City, MO, apartment, purposely on the same block as St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. You made fast friends at both Traditional Catholic churches. Lawyer friend Christie King of St. Vincent spoke for you to hospital staff after your heart attack during your short time (9 days?) before dying in the hospital. The St. Rose Philippine women’s auxiliary cleared out your apartment, and that community held the funeral Mass gratis.

The week you went to the hospital on Friday, Jane got to visit with you on Monday and Wednesday. During both visits, you insisted you wanted to die—“I’ll be happy in heaven!” You refused to go to urgent care because it seemed to you, after 3 days of vomiting, that you were getting better by yourself. And what you really wanted to do was to let go, to go to God. In the hospital, both Jane and Henry got to visit you, and you were studiously noncommunicative, eyes shut mostly. At the first visit, you held Jane’s hand and listened to her, and when Henry began to speak, you reached out your hand to him, sure sign you recognized him.

Blessed Heaven to you, Helen! We miss you!

And to all readers—please see Helen’s obituary at https://www.muehlebachchapel.com/obituaries/helen-woodson

—Jane and Henry Stoever, longtime nuclear weapon resisters of a lesser breed than Helen, belong to PeaceWorks Kansas City. © 2023, Jane Stoever, Henry Stoever, Christie King, Felice Cohen-Joppa, Jack Cohen- Joppa, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International License.

2011 photo by Felice Cohen-Joppa, Helen’s first cell phone call