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Thursday, July 5, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Irene Hull: 60-plus years of avid political activism

Seattle Times staff reporter

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She lives on the eighth floor of a retirement community on Capitol Hill with sweeping views of downtown and the comfort of a recreation room with a library corner, an organ and stationary bikes. But Irene Hull doesn't spend much time on stationary bikes.

For more than 60 years, she has lived life on her own terms as a political and social activist.

At 4 feet 10 inches and 115 pounds, Hull is as fiery as her red hair. She's a crusader of the senior activist movement and an emblem of the long-standing tradition toward protest in a town steeped in labor history.

"I spend three-fourths of my time on my activities," she said, sipping decaf. "My housework has had to take second place to my work."

She belongs to the Communist Party - a membership she has held since World War II - and was named by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. She will be a delegate at the party's 27th national convention in Wisconsin tomorrow.

At 88, Hull is still involved in the local chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, which she helped found in 1974. And while back surgery kept her from participating in the World Trade Organization protests in late 1999, Hull joined recent community rallies to protest the police shooting death of black motorist Aaron Roberts in Seattle's Central Area.

The issue closest to Hull's heart these days, the one that gets her white-sneakered foot twitching, is comprehensive and affordable medical care and prescription-drug coverage. Last month she and 300 others, mostly senior citizens, held a rally to announce the formation of the Alliance of Retired Americans, a political-action group that's promoting lower prescription-drug costs, universal health care, and housing and transportation services for senior citizens.

As a member of the Puget Sound Council of Senior Citizens, Hull has made two trips to Canada to stock up on medicine. "My medications are two-thirds cheaper there," she said.

Jim Moore, a political analyst in Portland, said Hull is part of the thriving senior activist movement in the Northwest. Her politics fall left of left, but her passion is no different than that of many people in her generation.

"In the past 15 years, senior activism has really taken off," said Moore. "They came from a generation where they went out and did things. When there was a depression they went out and got jobs, when there was a war, they went out and fought. The term `silent generation' is a bit of a misnomer."

Hull's life growing up in Southern California was shaped by the poverty of the Depression. Her father, a jack-of-all-trades, instilled the importance of organizing workers.

"He told me the carpenters had a union and that's how they got $1 a day," she said. "He was very pleased about what the union had done, so he gave me that kind of a sense of where people should be and that is in unions."

After getting her degree in education from UCLA in 1934, Hull met and married her husband, Lou. It was her father-in-law that Hull credits for many of her views, including support of socialism and women's rights.

In 1942, with the Soviet Union an ally of the United States in fighting World War II, Hull joined the Communist Party U.S.A. A restaurant worker in Seattle, she was inspired by her union affiliation to start thinking about a world economy based on workers owning the means of production.

Never one to back down from a conversation or keep her political views to herself, Hull has remained proud of her Communist affiliation. She says she was a member of at least a half-dozen "subversive organizations" so labeled by the FBI and anti-communists, including the American League for Peace and Democracy and the Civil Rights Congress.

Earlier in her life, those affiliations subjected her and her family to social stigma.

Hull was one of 300 Washington residents named by Barbara Hartle, a star witness during anti-communist hearings in Seattle in 1954. Her mother-in-law notified her that she had been called to testify before U.S. Rep. Harold Velde's Committee on Un-American Activities, after watching Hull and several others being publicly accused of being Communists, on television.

The FBI visited the restaurant where Hull worked as a salad maker. She was fired. She found work as a bindery worker and joined the Graphic Communication International Union 767M. But she lost that job, too, shortly after.

Hull's youngest daughter, Marj Sutherland, was in her teens when her mother was named by the Velde committee.

"I remember lying in bed thinking I was going to send a postcard out to all my friends telling them that these were my mom's beliefs, not mine," said Sutherland, who now lives in Tacoma.

Mostly what Sutherland remembers of that time was her mother's strength.

"When the FBI came to the front door pressuring Mom to talk to them, she told them, `I have nothing to say to you.' But I saw her hand trembling," Sutherland said. "I don't think they saw that."

Sutherland speaks in awe about how her mother continued her activism during the McCarthy era, even in the face of name-calling and threats.

"She still trudged around door to door with petitions," the daughter said, "and she did it in her own neighborhood. She didn't go somewhere else or to some other neighborhood where people didn't know her."

Hull never had to testify before Velde's committee, and she managed to find work in the years that followed, as a temporary bindery worker and as a schoolteacher in Seattle. But aside from the two jobs she lost because of her membership in the Communist Party, she figures she also lost a few friends.

"McCarthyism destroyed some very beautiful lives," Hull said. "People committed suicide. I reached a lot of low points myself. I heard about one woman who jumped off the Montlake Bridge and she lived, and I thought, `I could understand' " why she tried to commit suicide.

That experience didn't slow Hull down. She stayed active in politics in the decades that followed, taking on everything from equity in public schools, to civil rights for blacks, to subsidized child care. Today, wearing a black T-shirt with red letters that read, "Replace Sidran. Support the Bill of Rights," (a reference to City Attorney Mark Sidran's bid for mayor).

Hull estimates she's participated in 90 percent of the marches and rallies in Seattle since 1945.

At this weekend's Communist Party convention in Milwaukee, Hull will mingle with 200 to 300 other Communists, including perhaps 20 from Seattle. They will hear reports from various committees, attend workshops and talk about the direction of communism today.

Though Russia and countries in Eastern Europe have disavowed it as a form of government, Hull remains no less committed. She points to Cuba, which she has visited three times, and its health-care system as an example of how communism can work.

Hull calls Cuba a beautiful country and says the workers she met there seemed happy and to have what they needed. She doesn't discuss the issue of political freedom.

Communism "is a working system, not a stationary thing," she said. "It's not perfect. There's no utopia."

Hull says she doesn't feel ostracized because of her political beliefs or affiliation with the Communist Party. She thinks that's because people like the work she's doing, regardless of her political philosophy.

"The time will come when socialism will prove to be the best solution, but that's a day or two off," she said.

Hull said the same neighbors in her Capitol Hill apartment building who once asked her to tone down her activism are now asking her advice on politics and are signing the petitions she carries around in a luggage cart festooned with buttons and stickers.

Recently, she was circulating petitions for Initiative 775, a proposed ballot measure that would give home health-care workers collective-bargaining rights. She has also been gathering signatures for Initiative 771, which would keep Washington's blanket primary in place.

"What's gotten better is that there are more people out and getting involved," Hull said. "I'm encouraged that more people are out and trying to develop unity."

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