As her 103rd birthday approaches, Irene Mensalvas steadfastly refuses to yield in the struggle for peace

The Baltimore Sun

SANDY SPRING -- Irene Mensalvas walked a little unsteadily to her door and thumped on a small sign hanging below two American flags. She carefully read the message aloud -- "War is not the answer."

"It is not the answer," she repeated. "This is my theme."

Mensalvas' voice is just one amid what has become a loud chorus of anti-war sentiment, but she has a claim that distinguishes her scratchy, unwavering tones from the others: She is one of the oldest active anti-war protesters in the country.

Mensalvas, whose four children served in the military during or immediately after World War II, is robust enough to take her message to the street -- albeit with a walker to help her balance as she holds a sign aloft. On Jan. 17, a birthdate she proudly shares with her hero, Benjamin Franklin, she will turn 103.

"I'm a pacifist, strictly," she said in her home at the Friends House Retirement Community in Montgomery County. "I just go back to the same idea: There has to be negotiation. Why wait until we've killed so many people to negotiate?"

"My feeling about this whole thing [the war in Iraq] is, it was all for profit." She paused. "I don't want to get too political." Another pause. "But I'm not afraid to go to jail."

She pulled out a framed photograph from a protest she and other members of the pro-peace group Raging Grannies staged at an armed services recruitment office in Silver Spring last year.

"We were trying to enlist to free up the young men," she said. One of her gray-haired comrades held a sign that read, "Don't die for lies. Take Granny."

"We were letting them know we don't like war," she said.

"She's always been determined, and if she thinks something is worthwhile, she'll get involved with it. She's persistent," said her daughter Patricia Burgoon, who's 83.

"Seniors are an important part of the movement," said Gael Murphy, co-founder of the women's peace group Code Pink. "We need our elders to remind us that there have been successes in the past, and we have to keep at it and we all have a responsibility, no matter how old we are."

Raging Grannies has a network of "granny gaggles" around the country and internationally. Closer to home, a nonagenarian is a regular at a weekly anti-war demonstration at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Murphy said.

Yet it's rare to find a protester -- let alone a vibrant individual -- who is quite as deep into her winter years as Mensalvas.

"As a Quaker community, [many residents] are politically active and stand up for what they believe. But a lot of them, once they reach a certain age, find it more difficult," said Mary Cozad, the resident director at Friends House. "Irene is unique."

Mensalvas, the oldest resident in Friends House's independent living quarters, has wavy white-gray hair, a no-nonsense air and a tinkling laugh that sometimes starts with pursed lips and a long "oooh!" She was one of five children born to a barber-turned-banker and a farm girl in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1904 -- the year New York City's first official subway system opened and the Great Baltimore Fire destroyed 1,500 buildings.

She was married with four children when, during World War II, she went to work replacing gears on machines at International Harvester, a farm equipment manufacturer that began making tanks during the war. It was there, she said, that she learned about war and profit -- that it was more lucrative to build a tank that would be destroyed than to make tractors that lasted 20 years.

One of her sons enlisted when he was a sophomore at Yale University and became a navigator in the Army Air Forces. Another son joined the Naval Construction Brigade. Her daughter was in the Cadet Nurse Corps, though she was never posted overseas. Her youngest son, who joined the military shortly after the war ended, became a paratrooper and a deep-sea diver.

They all survived their stints in the military. Three of her children are still alive; the youngest is 78.

Mensalvas eventually left Indiana and lived in Washington state, Hawaii and California, where for many years she worked as a supervisor of insurance benefits at Stockton State Hospital. After a change that lowered the mandatory retirement age for state employees -- for which she blames then-Gov. Ronald Reagan -- she unwillingly retired at 68.

"Don't get me started on Reagan!" she said.

Separated from her second husband by then, Mensalvas moved to Ecuador, where a son had a palm oil production company. She worked for her son and later retired to a house in a beach town near Guayaquil. A driftwood path led from her house straight to the ocean.

She wore bathing suits all day, took long walks and collected shells that now occupy an entire bookcase in her apartment.

"That was about the zenith," she said. "The easiest way out of the whole business of life is just to learn to live by yourself."

Later, she followed her son and his family to Costa Rica, where she volunteered for years at the Quaker Peace Center, a social justice organization based in San Jose. At age 82, she became a Quaker -- a Lutheran-Quaker, she said, noting firmly that she never gave up her ties to the Lutheran Church.

Hoping to settle, finally, in a Quaker community and to be close to her two children living in Maryland, Mensalvas moved to Friends House briefly in 1989. She couldn't resist one last stint in Costa Rica, but returned for the third (fourth? fifth?) and final stage of retirement in 1999.

Don't ask Mensalvas about regrets -- "In the first place, that would be impossible" -- and don't ask her about the future, which she says, for all her years, she can't predict.

But with a little pressing, she will tell you about the great changes she has seen -- such as the ever-growing access people have to information: "When enough information is disseminated among enough people, people may be able to get on the right track."

And she'll tell you about her fears that in the future, people will have chips implanted in their brains at birth. And she'll talk about her reluctance to remarry -- "I might have thought about it, but I didn't think it was a very good idea."

She can also say a little something about how, in 103 years of life, events start to repeat themselves. Mensalvas has 13 grandchildren and more great-grandchildren than she can easily count. Family pictures line her shelves.

She pointed to a photograph of her 18-year-old great-grandson. He received a football scholarship to college, but instead of accepting he enlisted in the Marines.

"I'm going through the same thing now" as she did all those years ago when her children fought in World War II, she said.

Protest is well and good, but sometimes causes need a different kind of help. Mensalvas prayed for her young great-grandson, and she recently learned that he is to be stationed in Hawaii for the next year and a half -- not Iraq.

Maybe, she said with a smile, her prayers made a difference.

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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