Category Archive : ACORN Memorial Orchard

ACORN Memorial Orchard

Thousands of men and women as leaders, members, and staff made signal contributions to the growth and development of ACORN from June 18, 1970 through its growth in the United States and then around the world. The ACORN Memorial Orchard located on a half-acre of the ACORN Farm in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans seeks to pay small tribute to many of just a few of them that were giants in ACORN’s history.

Terry Andrews – Over Ten Years with ACORN (c. 1976 to 1986)

Terry was from Fairfield County, Connecticut but he ended up working for ACORN first in Philadelphia and then moving from there to run the Dallas office of Texas ACORN for many years before relocating. His contributions there were vital, but within the ACORN world he set the standard for self-less, disciplined service always ready to work, always willing to take on the hardest jobs and assignments at whatever cost and sacrifice. Health problems led to both his early departure from ACORN as well as his untimely and sudden passing as a young man.

Dewitt Clinton Armstrong IV (1950 – 2013) (ACORN Time 1973 – 1983)

Dewey Armstrong came to work in Arkansas almost as soon as he graduated from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. After proving himself there he was willing to head up the organizing team opening the first expansion state for ACORN in the United States in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in early 1975. After several years in South Dakota expanding the organizing to Huron and Rapid City and initiating and winning a number of campaigns, Dewey headed up our organizing in Florida before returning to New Orleans to the headquarters office as the first National Political Director during the 20/80 campaign, including shepherding the ACORN Convention delegates in New York City in 1980 and managing the work on our lower income affirmative action committee won from the Democratic Party and operationalized through the Leland Committee, chaired by Democratic Congressman from Houston, Mickey Leland. Dewey left ACORN to become a carpenter in the Miami area to be close to his daughter. While in South Dakota, Dewey often was asked if he had any connection with Armstrong County and of course he did as a relative of General George Armstrong Custer. Dewey came from a long line of generals including his father, and he was a general in the ACORN army as well.

John Beam (1950 – 2014) (ACORN Time 1973 – 1982)

John Beam was from Dallas, Texas and came to work for ACORN not long after finishing school at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. His seniority day on August 5th was a regular even for him and Wade Rathke, since it was Wade’s birthday. They used to joke about the coincidences. John began work in Arkansas. He handled some interesting projects including the northeastern part of the state including the very conservative Tri-County Action Group and helped supervise our first foray out of Arkansas in a short lived project in Missouri in the boot heel of the state. John opened up Memphis as head organizer there between leaves to travel in Latin America, and came back as one of the first Regional Directors for ACORN working out of New Orleans. He helped out even off of the staff while living in New York City with his wife, former ACORN organizer, Polly Chase, by writing proposals and serving as director of a program for New York ACORN on school reform.

Picture of Little Rock Staff Meeting 1976.  Dewey Armstrong at the end of the table with a cigarette. Kaye Jaegar in the middle laughing and John Beam next to her with a coffee cup.

Elena Hanggi Giddings (1941 – 2014) (More than 20 years)

Elena often told the story of living near McArthur Park, raising her children, and staying out of controversy no matter her opinion until some people knocked on her door, including an early ACORN organizer, Barbara Friedman, and started talking about the Wilbur Mills Expressway being built nearby and the fact that it might take her home. After many sessions around her kitchen table with Barbara and other members, she came to the first meetings of her ACORN local group, emerged as a leader of the group and the fight against what became I-630, and never looked back. Elena was the first woman president of ACORN and helped expand the organization nationally during her terms in office. She stood down from election in order to become director of the AISJ, then the Arkansas Institute for Social Justice and later the Institute for Social Justice, a training and research organization closely support ACORN leaders and staff. One of Elena’s biggest contributions was leading ACORN’s annual week long summer Leadership School for many years and mentoring scores of dynamic ACORN grassroots leaders. She went to law school at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock later but that didn’t quell her fire for example when she was arrested in Chicago at the convention action and along with Maude Hurd and other leaders was arrested for protesting inside a Capitol hearing.

Elena Hanggi  ACORN Preisdent in 1978

Picture of Elena Hangii Speaking as ACORN President in 1978

 Jon Kest (1955 – 2012) (More than 30 years)

Jon came down for a summer and stayed a lifetime, contributing mightily throughout his decades with ACORN. He ran our office in Hot Springs after dropping out of Oberlin, and then later when he went back to school at the University of Pennsylvania we followed him there as he became the founding organizer of Pennsylvania ACORN with his partner and wife, Fran Streich, for many years, until moving to Brooklyn and becoming the founding organizer of New York ACORN where he worked as head organizer until his death, when the organization was known as New York Communities for Change, after the ACORN attack. Jon was tireless in building the New York organization and helped many other offices as a regional director and even in a brief stint as field director on campaigns, dues collection, strategy, and tactics. His best work may have been the leadership on the squatting campaigns in Philly and later a similar campaign in New York, which ended in the agreements that created MHANY (Mutual Housing Agency of New York) which manages several thousand properties in the city. Jon was also one of the key organizers and founders of the Working Families Party of New York.

Action Jeff Elmer, Jon Kest, Wade, maybe Zach DC

Picture of Jon Kest talking to Wade Rathke at an action In Washington D.C.   Jeff Elmer also pictured.

Norka Maldonado (1957 – 2015)

Norka never worked for ACORN though for years she was a regular at ACORN events in St. Louis and Philadelphia as the partner of Craig Robbins during his time as head organizer in those cities, nonetheless she, as much as anyone, triggered the growth of ACORN on an international level. She was born in Lima, Peru, but she and many of her siblings, active in the student movement of her time fled the country to the United States during the repression of the left occasioned by the disputes between Sendero and the Fujiori dictatorship. When Toledo was elected ending that period, Norka lobbied effectively with ACORN organizers that there was a vital role that the organization needed to play in rebuilding civil society in Peru, which triggered a weeklong visit. Her family opened their doors to ACORN, housing the organizers, connecting them to various people in the new government and in the emerging rebuilding, and in one of her sister’s cases even serving as an attorney for the organization when it began. The long and short led to a partnership between ACORN and several locally based organizations, the comadores and a union of water workers, that then led to ACORN Peru working to build the first international affiliate of ACORN International. Small steps begin a long journey.

Steve McDonald – First National President of ACORN

Steve McDonald became a member of ACORN in the earliest days of the organization in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1971 when he became active in the Vietnam Veterans Organizing Committee (VVOC). He was a former career military veteran who often explained his deep involvement with ACORN as his investment in change since he had missed the civil rights movement having been in the service. He retired once diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was an inspiration to other leaders, members and staff as he unflaggingly devoted himself to the organization even as the disease progressed from to cane, crutches, motor scooters, and virtual immobility. Steve also lived in the Centennial neighborhood which was a centerpiece of the “Save the City” campaign, the first comprehensive community-based organizing drives undertaken by ACORN in 1972. Serving on the Arkansas board he was a delegate to the first meetings of the Association Board directing national ACORN and was elected as the first national president in 1975, chairing the organization through its early expansion first conventions, and the 20-80 plan. His steady hand was a key and universal respect was a key stabilizing force that allowed the early organization to grow.

St. Louis March Line 1979 McDonald, Dale, and Others

Picture of Steve McDonald (wheelchair) being pushed by Dale Rathke 1979 in St. Louis

Dale Rathke (1950-2015) (ACORN Time 1978 – 2014)

Dale originally came to work with ACORN to handle obtaining and building out the office space on 628 Baronne Street in New Orleans as ACORN was opening the National Organizing and Support Center and moving most of its national operations from Little Rock to New Orleans. He first worked as a CETA funded employee during the Carter Recession and then began helping the Controller. Eventually, he ended up directing Citizens Consulting Inc. (CCI) which managed all of the bookkeeping, audits, legal, and most other shared services for ACORN and its family of organizations. Dale’s tenure was troubled in some aspects, but he almost miraculously held the financial life of the organization together for many years and his commitment to the organizations continued until his death. Many friends and colleagues donated to the ACORN Memorial Orchard in Dale’s name and the fruit of the number of the trees is part of his ongoing legacy.

Dale with PA Marchers

Picture of Dale Rathke (right) with PA ACORN Marchers

Barbara Bowen Splain (1946 – 2012) (More than 20 years)

Barbara was a California girl down to the fact that she was in the first graduating class at Pitzer College, one of the Claremont Colleges, outside of Los Angeles. She did not formally begin working with ACORN until the 1980’s but her association with people like Wade Rathke, ACORN’s Chief Organizer, went back to the days when she was working Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization in the late 1960’s originally as a VISTA volunteer. She was one of the organizers dispatched to Springfield the day after the riots in October 1969 and used to tell the story of calling Boston from a phone booth to report on the situation. She was an early organizer for the United Labor Unions in Boston and other cities as well. After working for ACORN she did time with SEIU and other unions and ended up working as the coordinator of the Organizers’ Forum domestic and international dialogues for eight years in the 21st century until she retired, shepherding organizers around India, South Africa, Australia, Russia, Turkey and the United States always dedicated to her lifelong commitment to social chan