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MIDCAREER CHECKUP

Working for Change Has Been Their Reward

Two professional activists look back on careers of little wealth and few regrets.

May 20, 1996|BARRY STAVRO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The time of protest in the 1960s and early '70s grows ever more distant, seen now through the prism of history. Many who marched or protested or worked for a cause during the peak of the antiwar movement dropped out of that orbit long ago.

It takes a bit of looking, but you can still find people from that time who have continued their fight for a social cause, such as Jeff Dietrich, 50, and Ed Maschke, 48. One was a draft resister, the other a military man who began questioning America's involvement in Vietnam after joining the Navy.

While most of their peers eventually chose traditional career paths, Dietrich and Maschke put social activism ahead of their bank accounts, and their regrets are few. It is their way of making a difference, and their way of making a modest living as well.

"Who among us is certain we've taken the right path? I'm always wondering. But on the whole, I feel pretty grateful," said Dietrich, a Vietnam War draft resister who now helps run a Skid Row soup kitchen.

When the day came for the Cal State Fullerton student to be inducted into the Army in the late '60s, he showed up but refused to take the oath. He expected to be jailed, but probably because a torrent of others had done the same, Dietrich said, he was never indicted.

Left free, he hitchhiked across the country and met people from the Catholic Workers, a national group founded in the 1930s by pacifists dedicated to helping the working class and charitable causes.

"They were feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and burning draft files. That sounded to me pretty much like what Jesus would be doing if he were alive today," Dietrich recalled.

Back in California, he joined the fledgling Los Angeles Catholic Worker group. That was 1970, and Dietrich is still there. He is now head of the local troop, which runs the soup kitchen for the homeless.

Dietrich lives with 11 co-workers in a Victorian house in Boyle Heights, which they have turned into a hospitality house, taking in people from the street. There are eight to 10 "guests" in all, as Dietrich calls them. Some stay for a few weeks, some several years. And they welcome one AIDS patient at a time, usually someone they've met at a clinic, who moves in and "comes to our home to die."

Dietrich still takes part in political protests. Last year he helped take down a fence at the Nevada Test Site on the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. He spent 35 days in jail for that one. In all, he's been arrested a couple of dozen times. Being in jail is "a pretty good time for reflection," he said.

The Los Angeles Catholic Worker movement scrapes by on donations, mostly by individuals from Catholic parishes. The $120,000 a year the group raises helps provide Dietrich and the others with a modest way of life. They receive room and board and $10 a week. Dietrich's wife, a former nun, also lives there. They don't own a car; the organization has three cars and the workers take turns using them.

Dietrich is steadfast in his social commitment, but sometimes he mulls over the route his life has taken.

"Every day I hope what I'm doing is actually good. I don't know for sure. But it can't be any worse than selling computer software," he said, laughing. "You take your risks in life. We all do."

One thing he yearns to do, and hasn't because of the lack of time and money, is to visit Ireland. "I'd love to go there. We have friends there. It's one of my wife's favorite places in the world."

And like many baby boomers, "I have anxieties about getting older and not being able to support myself and not having health-care insurance," he said. Dietrich depends on the county's health-care system.

"It's bad and not getting any better," he said, laughing. "I'm not going to get any Social Security because I've not had a job."

Money isn't really the point for Dietrich: "It's just providential to have found a place to practice things I thought were important within a spiritual tradition."

Maschke, executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group in Santa Barbara, has chosen a similar path. CalPIRG is the local wing of a national, Ralph Nader-inspired organization, mostly staffed by college volunteers who work on environmental and political campaigns, such as thwarting rollbacks on Environmental Protection Agency funding.

Maschke took his detour toward liberal causes while he was in the Navy during the Vietnam War era as a specialist in missiles and weapons systems. "You weren't supposed to ask questions why we were doing these things," but he started to, he said. After nearly four years in the Navy, he was granted an early discharge just before he was scheduled to ship out on a battleship.

At UC Santa Barbara, he became an environmental studies major. "Coming out of the madness of the Vietnam era," he said, helped shape his personal philosophy about how politics, the environment and social causes are linked.

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