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Walton and company party for the right to fight

The birthday party for the 77th birthday of Richard Walton, one of Rhode Islandís premier advocates for social justice, was no meager cake and candles affair. Waltonís bash, held Sunday, June 5, at his waterfront house in Pawtuxet Cove, was likely the largest gathering of local progressives this year. Typical of his yearly birthday celebrations, the event attracted several hundred attendees over the course of the day, and raised money for Amos House and the Providence-Niquinohomo Sister City project.

Walton, a 1951 grad of Brown University, began a career as a journalist at the Providence Journal more than 50 years ago. He subsequently worked at the New York World Telegram & Sun (which folded in 1967), and was a correspondent for the Voice of America. The author of 12 books, notably in the area of foreign policy, Walton has also contributed to a range of publications, including the New York Times, the Nation and the New Republic.

Walton is best known these days for his varied peace and anti-poverty activism, and as an English teacher at Rhode Island College. He serves on the board of a number of nonprofits, and was a founder of Stone Soup, the Pawtucket cooperative coffee house, in which he is still active. Because of his varied activities, the annual Pawtuxet Cove bash attracts a broad swath of people from the journalism, music, education, and nonprofit worlds, as well as neighbors and anyone interested in progressive causes. The event, which began on the occasion of his 60th birthday, have also become de rigueur for Rhode Islandís political class; this year a flip-flop wearing Senator Lincoln Chafee was among those wishing Walton well. The shindig capped a busy weekend for Walton, who was MC the day before at the Sustainable Living Festival Expo in Coventry.

There were songs for the venerable activist, and a number of longtime friends and colleagues took the backyard mike to offer tributes. Speakers included storyteller Bill Harley, and a high school classmate who noted that Walton was a clean-cut jock and honor roll student in the 1940s. Waltonís flowing white ponytail, red bandanna, and ample mid-section were evidence that those times are long past. Several people spoke of Waltonís tireless anti-war and anti-poverty activism, as well as his trips to build schools and health clinics in the Nicaraguan city of Niquinohomo. A lighter side of Walton, as a casual baseball player and someone who enjoys a cold beer, also emerged. This latter was demonstrated by how he slept through the 1954 hurricane following a particularly intense drinking session. He was serving as a Journal reporter in Westerly at the time. " All Iíve done, " said Walton following the remarks in his honor, " is live my life the way that seemed the most fun. "

The party was an upbeat affair, but not surprisingly Walton, as a veteran leftist, is discouraged by the current state of the nation. " Iíve never really seen a bleaker time, " he said when I spoke to him by phone two days prior. " What Bush is doing is very scary ó heís developing a polarization along religious lines. " And it is not just the Bush Administrationís pursuit of various damaging policies, including the Iraq war ( " an absolute abomination " ) that upsets Walton, but also his sense that increasingly, " This country doesnít seem to give a damn. " In Waltonís eyes, Bush is bad, but the fact that the American people elected him is even worse.

As several of his guests noted, though, Walton presses on and maintains a rare energy and enthusiasm on behalf of progressive efforts. Further, Walton notes that despite the depredations practiced by the Bush White House domestically, and the military actions being waged abroad, " The opposition has not yet been silenced. "

Issue Date: June 10 - 16, 2005
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