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Turbulent '60s Live Again at Funeral for Activist : Radicals, Friends Bid Hoffman Farewell

April 20, 1989|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | Times Staff Writer

WORCESTER, Mass. — They marched from his mother's small white frame house to the red brick temple to say goodby Wednesday to Abbie Hoffman, the radical activist whose searing humor and street theater once galvanized vehement protests against the Vietnam War.

Someone carried a small sign proclaiming "Abbie is free," and folk singer Pete Seeger, a longtime friend and fellow veteran of countless demonstrations, sang "Down by the Riverside" before jumping onto the back of a slowly moving police car.

"I think he (Abbie) might have stood atop the police car," Seeger said.

Walton Offers Eulogy

Hoffman's funeral was part peace march, part reunion, part tribute to the turbulent '60s. Participants ranged from now gray-haired radicals to neighbors with their small children to basketball star Bill Walton, who, towering above the synagogue's lectern, eulogized:

"It's funny calling Abbie a fugitive from justice. As I see it, justice was always a fugitive from Abbie."

"It's scary isn't it," said Jerry Rubin, once Hoffman's almost constant counter-culture companion. "I thought about it when I was shaving this morning. This is the 'Big Chill.' " In that movie, a reunion of some '60s-era college students takes place after the death of a friend.

Hoffman, 52, was found dead by a neighbor on April 12 in the apartment he rented in New Hope, Pa. He was discovered fully dressed and in bed. A coroner announced Tuesday he had died by taking a massive overdose of the sedative phenobarbital mixed with alcohol.

Friends said that in recent months Hoffman, who had been diagnosed as suffering from manic depression, had been both in psychic and physical pain. He had been hurt in an auto accident and was dismayed as he lectured on college campuses that activism was unfamiliar turf for students interested in careers and accumulating wealth.

"There is a very boring and prosaic reason he committed suicide. Abbie was manic depressive." Rubin said in an interview. "I learned that one year ago he stopped taking Lithium (a drug to counter mood swings).

"At one level he fell victim to brain chemistry. On another level . . . he died of a broken heart. He sees all of the pain in the world. He sees no one cares," Rubin said.

Rubin, a founder of the Youth International Party with Hoffman as a means of recruiting counter-culture youngsters to protest against the Vietnam War, was the only other Chicago Seven defendant to travel to the memorial service.

The defendants in that trial were charged with inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Hoffman and four other radicals were found guilty of crossing state lines to incite rioting. But their convictions were overturned on appeal.

After gathering in front of the home of Hoffman's 83-year-old mother, Florence, in a light drizzle, boyhood friends, fellow radicals, and neighbors formed one last march for the former pharmaceutical salesman turned activist, who once bragged that he was arrested 42 times.

Seeger led the procession through a light drizzle to Temple Emanuel, only a few blocks away. Some 500 people marched, some carrying cut out doves of peace and placards.

"Abbie was a man who had guts and chutzpah. He was a true patriot," said Aron Kay, a fellow Yippie who wore traditional Yippie garb--a tie-dyed T-shirt and a multicolored hat with a small attached Yippie pin.

"He was a hero who tried to be a clown," said Mary Schultz of Greenfield, Mass., who had marched with Hoffman in Washington protests. "Today, there are clowns trying to be heroes."

Outside the temple, an additional crowd waited. Every pew was packed with mourners, who numbered about 900. Hoffman's body was cremated earlier and his ashes had been given to longtime companion Johanna Lawrenson. In addition, Hoffman leaves a sister, and three children from two marriages.

The memorial service mixed prayer and sadness with the energy of a radical organizing meeting. At times people stood and cheered, other times they sang and wept.

Hoffman's brother, Jack, wore Abbie's prized possession to the service--a green Boston Celtics basketball team jacket. And Walton brought down the house, when he proclaimed of the dead activist, "You are the Celtics sixth man."

But it fell upon Sydney H. Schanberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and Newsday columnist to try to put Hoffman, his cousin, into historical perspective.

"Abbie participated in democracy. He did it to make our system healthy, to make it accountable," Schanberg told the mourners. "He said one time in an interview he wanted to die with his integrity intact. He did . . . I think that is why we care about Abbie so much because he had the courage for the rest of us."

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