My Turn: Willard Uphaus – the man who said ‘no’

  • Protesters march against the imprisonment of Willard Uphaus in New York’s Rockefeller Center while N.H. Gov Welsey Powell attends the opening of a state tourist bureau in the center on May 10, 1960. Uphaus was jailed for refusing to disclose names of those attending a conference at his summer retreat. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 12/15/2019 7:00:30 AM

It is worth considering what happens when witch hunt meets moral integrity. We hold a chapter in that story right here, in Concord. Yesterday, Dec. 14, marked its 60th anniversary: the day Willard Uphaus decided his integrity was more important than his freedom.

The witch hunt that impacted Uphaus was sniffing out possible subversive activities in New Hampshire, more specifically, communists. Sen. Joseph McCarthy had led the charge against communists in Washington, D.C., but many states took up their own investigations as well. In New Hampshire it was Attorney General Louis Wyman who put himself in charge of doing the hunting. And though McCarthy was stopped in 1954 when he was censured by the U.S. Senate, Wyman’s investigation continued into the 1960s. (One of the 22 votes against McCarthy’s censure was New Hampshire Sen. Styles Bridges, Wyman’s mentor).

Uphaus had been director of the World Fellowship Center, a summer retreat that was, and still is, located in Albany, N.H. From the very beginning of Wyman’s investigation, World Fellowship and Uphaus had been a primary focus. Wyman even went so far as to have an informer spend a summer at the center. He believed that communists were coming to World Fellowship to hatch plans for taking over the United States. Uphaus, a minister and lifelong peace activist, at first tried to cooperate with the investigation. But when Wyman demanded his personal correspondence and a list of all who had stayed at World Fellowship, Uphaus refused.

At a court proceeding in Merrimack County Superior Court, Wyman demanded the list under threat of contempt. Uphaus refused. An appeal was filed by Uphaus’s attorney, Robert Reno of Concord. That appeal went all the way to the U.S Supreme Court, which eventually ruled that Uphaus must cooperate with the state’s attorney general.

Having lost his case, Uphaus was again subpoenaed by Wyman to appear at the Merrimack County Superior Court with the guest list for World Fellowship. In the days preceding the court date, Gov. Wesley Powell’s office was flooded with mail pleading for him to intervene on Uphaus’s behalf. It was to no avail. On Dec. 14, 1959, 69-year-old Willard Uphaus appeared in a Merrimack County courtroom. As recalled by his other attorney, Hugh Bownes (later to become a federal district judge), “It didn’t take very long.” Wyman asked for the list, Uphaus refused, Judge Grant sentenced him to a year in the Merrimack County jail for contempt of court. As Willard was led out of the courthouse and off to jail, a crowd of supporters gathered outside sang “America.”

Uphaus would spend the next year confined at the Merrimack County jail. In Concord and Boscawen there were regular protests and demonstrations calling for his release. Dudley Laufman once told me that he used to take his fiddle and play outside the Boscawen jail in hopes that Uhpaus could hear. Newspaper editorials in New Hampshire and across the nation condemned his imprisonment. When Gov. Powell traveled to New York to speak about tourism in New Hampshire, he was greeted with pickets condemning the state for holding a political prisoner.

In December 1960, attorneys Bownes and Reno quietly went to Judge Grant to make an argument a few days before Uphaus was due back in court. They pleaded that Uphaus would never give up the names and would end up dying in jail. Did the judge want that on his conscience? They suggested that Uphaus be released early into their custody and they would get him out of state before Wyman could get him back in the courtroom. As Bownes would later reflect, “Judge Grant bought the idea.” Without Wyman’s knowledge or assent, he and Reno picked up Uphaus at the jail and drove him down to Massachusetts, out of Louis Wyman’s jurisdiction and grip. Thus ended the story. And though Uphaus continued to spend his summers at World Fellowship, Attorney General Wyman never attempted to take further action against him.

Willard Uphaus was just one of many caught in the net of Attorney General Wyman’s investigation, which finally came to an end in the mid-1960s. It should be noted that after 15 years of investigation, Wyman did not find one communist in New Hampshire. All he really found was a way to make headlines by exploiting people’s fear. I remember talking with him years later and there was not a trace of regret or second thought about what he had done. He carried a kind of pride about it all.

It was a pride I would never want attached to my name. No, I think the more admirable character in this story is Willard Uphaus. A man of moral integrity, who chose jail over compromising his beliefs or causing possible harm to other people.

There is a saying about someone who is jailed for contempt of court: “He has the jail door keys in his pocket.” All he had to do was turn over the list of names and he was free to go. Easy enough, you might say. Easy enough.

No, the person who chooses integrity over expediency gets my vote every time. Wish we had a few people like that today.

(John Gfroerer of Concord owns a video production company based at the Capitol Center for the Arts.)

A bill to forgive

In the next session of the Legislature, Rep. Renny Cushing of Hampton will be putting forward a bill that would posthumously exonerate Willard Uphaus from his contempt conviction. In addition of Uphaus, the bill also reaches back to posthumously exonerate Eunice “Goody” Cole, who was arrested and charged with practicing witchcraft in Hampton in 1680.

The measure aims to recognize that at times in our state’s past, there have been unjust laws or policies which adversely and unfairly caused harm to people such as Willard Uphaus.

As the bill states: “The legislature recognizes that on occasion mistakes may be made in the criminal justice process that do not become evident until after the person who was the subject of the mistakes is deceased, or with the passage of time the manifest injustice of a law or policy for which someone was arrested and prosecuted and punished becomes apparent after the person is deceased.”

Martin Luther King once said, “The moral arc of the Universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Though Willard Uphaus and “Goody” Cole have long since passed away, perhaps passage of this bill will lead to some reflection for those of us alive today about the consequences and harm caused when public policies trample the rights of individual citizens in our communities. To be clear, it is up to us to ensure that the moral arc of the Universe keeps bending in the right direction.

– John Gfroerer




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