Another Mentor, Another Quaker Jailbird

Because of recent events involving Turkey and the Kurdish people, yesterday I wrote about my mentor, Sherry Hutchison. I was remembering her civil disobedience related to the Iowa National Guard being sent to the Middle East in 2002.

I’ve been blessed, as I hope you have been, to have had several mentors in my life. Don Laughlin was another Quaker mentor for me. Don served a prison sentence for his refusal to register for the military draft as required by the Selective Service System. To this day, any young man living in the United States is required to register with the Selective Service system at 18 years old.

I spent two years–May 1944 to August 1946–in California Quaker CPS camps under the Forest Service. During that time I made two trips to Europe, under the United Nations Relief Administration. One trip took cattle to Danzig and the other horses to Trieste. During this time I accepted a CO classification under the draft.

I was on the staff at Scattergood School at the time of the 1948 peace time military draft and felt differently about the governments right to impose such. On my twenty-fifth birthday in December, 1948, I became illegal. Shortly after that an FBI agent showed up. We drew up a statement of my position which I signed.

Harold Burnham, teacher at Scattergood School, and I had our trials together in Waterloo, Iowa. We made the trip there on a cold February day, accompanied by Leanore Goodenow, Scattergood Head, and my wife, Lois, and our six-month-old son, David. Leanore spoke as a “friend of the court” asking that we be given probation, rather than a prison sentence, since we were essential to the operation of the school. We both got eighteen month sentences instead. We were offered the opportunity to go home and “settle our affairs” and return in a month to start our sentences, but we were prepared to start that day. Our tearful good-byes were said then and Hal and I were escorted to the Waterloo County jail.

Don Laughlin

My mother was a student at Scattergood Friends School at the time, and remembers when Don and Harold Burnham were sentenced. The loss of these two men impacted the function of the School.

My experiences with Don began when I was a student at Scattergood Friends School (1966-1970). Don and his wife Lois lived just a few miles away from Scattergood.

I spent the summer of 1969 in Iowa City with a group of students who had received grants from the National Science Foundation. My project was to work with Don in his medical engineering lab at the University of Iowa Hospitals. The pulmonary function lab had just purchased one of the first commercially available desktop computers, and I wrote the software to use it to calculate patient predicted values, which were being done by hand. This was before even electronic calculators were widely available. I remember purchasing a slide rule for calculations that summer.

We used a new computer program from IBM, the Electronic Circuit Analysis Program, to design a sensor to be placed on a patient’s chest to detect heart movement, for use in the field in emergency situations. Each time we wanted to analyze a circuit, I had to carry three boxes full of punched computer cards to the computer center, and then come back for the results several hours later. He taught me how to solder components under a microscope as part of that project.

I also remember going to the weekly peace vigil with him, standing on the street in front of the old Capitol building. As I mentioned, Don was a draft resister, and his example, and that of many Iowa Friends, helped me make my own decision to resist the draft. Don wrote this letter to my draft board when I was thinking about applying for conscientious objector status. In the end, though, like him, I decided to become a draft resister instead.

Don Laughlin’s letter for CO application

Don was one of the people who wrote An Epistle to Friends Concerning Military Conscription that is included at the end of this.

Since I spent my adult life in Indianapolis we didn’t see each other that often, but I always looked forward to those opportunities when we could.  We did exchange many email messages.

I sent him a story about a new friend. Don’s comment (June 28, 2016) was “Thanks Jeff, I like your comments and ‘leadings.’  You seem to make contact with spiritually alive people.” I replied,  “I was intrigued by your comment about Tom Korbee being spiritually alive (which I shared with him).  I don’t think I’ve heard that term before.  Did you ‘create’ it?”

Don’s response:  “I haven’t heard that term either so I guess I did ‘create’ it.   But I look around and see so many people so involved in the ‘world’,  with little concern for the spiritual values of love and beauty (which I define as part of God) that I think it must be true,  Your photographs often depict this spirit of beauty.

We both shared a deep interest in environmental science, which unavoidably led to profound concerns about increasingly extensive and severe environmental deterioration.  I was finally able to see his environmentally designed home when I attended the climate conference sponsored by Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and FCNL at Scattergood in 2013.  We stayed up late into the night working on his project related to using LEDs for lighting. Some photos below show Don demonstrating the use of a bicycle to generate power at Yearly Meeting.

One of the thoughts I’ve had–increasingly so–is to envision what kind of a society we would have, in the short term, if we environmentalists were totally successful. Suppose the XL didn’t get built–suppose fracking was abandoned–suppose tar sands mining was abandoned. Obviously we would be in a major social upheaval. How would people in our Meeting, who live ten or more miles from any town get their necessary supplies–food, repairs, etc. Without fracking gas would become extremely expensive. Could we afford to heat our homes?

Sudden change won’t happen, of course, but we need to act as if it would. You made a very significant statement– We have to embrace inconvenience. We have to admit our privilege, and stop taking advantage of it–for a beginning. I find no one embracing inconvenience. Even retired people–who might have time on their hands–travel by flying “to save time.” When will we admit that climate change is, and will, change our standard of living?

Letter from Don Laughlin, 1/29/2015

He was very interested in my involvement with the Kheprw Institute (KI) community in Indianapolis, whose work is mentoring Black youth, and which has a strong environmental focus, with aquaponics, rain barrel production, etc.  We explored the possibility of the KI community producing the solar hot water heating system he had developed, but didn’t get that accomplished in time.  He offered to allow them to keep all of the revenue that would have been generated, another example of his generous heart. His death leaves a large hole in mine.

We were in the middle of our last collaboration when he broke his hip. He had been collecting the stories of (mainly) Quakers who had been conscientious objectors and draft resisters, including one about one of his ancestors, Seth Laughlin, during the Civil War. I was helping put them into form for publication. We both felt these were important stories that shouldn’t be lost. I’m very grateful that Marcia Shaffer was willing and able to work with us to get me those stories Don hadn’t yet sent before his stroke occurred. You can find the collection of all of those stories here:
Young Quaker Men Face War and Conscription.

This project (collection of conscientious objector stories)  has gotten bigger than I could ever have imagined.  I have about 17 stories  now with more to come in. They range in length from a half page to 6 to 8 pages.   The stories are really fascinating to read.  I am amazed at how often young men wrestle with the difference between right and wrong—is it right to register for the draft or is that cooperating with evil.  Is prison a waste of time? It certainly was not for Bob Michener—he found his future professional life in prison.”


Following are reflections from the Ashley Shanahan family. Christine Ashley was Head of Scattergood Friends School:

The Ashley Shanahan family is very sad that we could not be at Don Laughlin’s memorial. Each and every one of us hold special images and memories of our time with Don.
As 6 year olds, twins Kieran and Callum declared Don was “their new best Friend” after he introduced them to his spectacular house and its inner workings.

Don helped Mark, David (Scattergood’s former math teacher) Jim Yi ’16 and Sebastian ’15 put up solar panels and connect them to a rain barrel with the idea of trying out a solar shower on campus for the 125th event on campus.

Don was a big fan of strawberries and always came out to pick on campus donating a great deal to the kitchen. He would also reverse his biodiesel truck on to the campus in one of his many trips to campus to shovel out mulch for the trees and making the young people look relatively in effective. Don was always helping out on the campus and farm and he really loved the students and mission. Anytime the students could experience real time/real life learning , Don was happy.

Don was excited about the most recent addition to the farm, the vegetable packing shed and he helped make way for the new by helping raze the red barn ( which he had helped build, decades before).
Don was always looking to reduce reuse and recycle and his donation of the bike with the generator attached was a thrill for all of us.
This was just a few things the family I were thinking about today as we have thanks for knowing and loving Don. He lives in our hearts.

Christine Mark Sebastian Kieran Callum

An Epistle to Friends Concerning Military Conscription

Dear Friends,

It has long been clear to most of us who are called Friends that war is contrary to the spirit of Christ and that we cannot participate in it.  The refusal to participate in war begins with a refusal to bear arms.  Some Friends choose to serve as noncombatants within the military.  For most of us, however, refusal to participate in war also involves refusal to be part of the military itself, as an institution set up to wage war.  Many, therefore, become conscientious objectors doing alternative service as civilians, or are deferred as students and workers in essential occupations.

Those of us who are joining in this epistle believe that cooperating with the draft, even as a recognized conscientious objector, makes one part of the power which forces our brothers into the military and into war.  If we Friends believe that we are special beings and alone deserve to be exempted from war, we find that doing civilian service with conscription or keeping deferments as we pursue our professional careers are acceptable courses of action.   But if we Friends really believe that war is wrong, that no man should become the executioner or victim of his brothers, then we will find it impossible to collaborate with the Selective Service System.  We will risk being put in prison before we help turn men into murderers.

It matters little what men say they believe when their actions are inconsistent with their words.  Thus we Friends may say that all war is wrong, but as long as Friends continue to collaborate in a system that forces men into war, our Peace Testimony will fail to speak to mankind.
Let our lives speak for our convictions.  Let our lives show that we oppose not only our own participation in war, but any man’s participation in it.  We can stop seeking deferments and exemptions, we can stop filling out Selective Service forms, we can refuse to obey induction and civilian work orders.  We can refuse to register, or send back draft cards if we’ve already registered.

In our early history we Friends were known for our courage in living according to our convictions.  At times during the 1600’s thousands of Quakers were in jails for refusing to pay any special respect to those in power, for worshiping in their own way, and for following the leadings of conscience.  But we Friends need not fear we are alone today in our refusal to support mass murder.  Up to three thousand Americans severed their relations with the draft at nation-wide draft card turn-ins during 1967 and 1968.  There may still be other mass returns of cards, and we can always set our own dates.

We may not be able to change our government’s terrifying policy in Vietnam.  But we can try to change our own lives.  We must be ready to accept the sacrifices involved if we hope to make a real testimony for Peace.  We must make Pacifism a way of life in a violent world.
We remain, in love of the Spirit, your Friends and brothers,

Don Laughlin
Roy Knight
Jeremy Mott
Ross Flanagan
Richard Boardman
James Brostol
George Lakey
Stephen Tatum
Herbert Nichols
Christopher Hodgkin
Jay Harker
Bob Eaton
Bill Medlin
Alan & Peter Blood

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