Local Activist Martha Ferger Passes Away at 99

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Tompkins Weekly         7-12-23

By Eric Banford

If you were lucky enough to meet Martha Ferger, I’m sure you remember her beautiful smile and her seemingly endless energy. Sadly, she passed away on June 24th at the ripe old age of 99. She has been a mainstay in the social justice and environmental movements in our area for decades, so I reached out to some of her friends to gather memories to share.

Martha Fuchs Ferger was born in 1924 in St. Louis, MO, and attended Swarthmore College where she met her eventual husband John Ferger. They married in 1946, and thankfully for us they settled in Dryden, NY in 1953, where they raised their three daughters. After their children were grown, they traveled the world together, spending time in Alaska, Nepal, Turkmenistan, and Ethiopia.

As noted in her obituary, “Martha founded and chaired the Unitarian Church’s Social Justice Committee, headed up the Friendship Center in Ithaca, helped found PARKIT (Prevent Alcohol Related Killings in Tompkins), worked to defeat a proposed nuclear power plant on Cayuga Lake, circulated nominating petitions for local and national Democratic candidates in every election, campaigned against fracking in NY State, and, at age 91, got arrested as part of the We Are Seneca Lake campaign to stop natural gas storage under Seneca Lake. Her work was local, collaborative, often unsung, and never ending. She led by example and was a role model to many.”

2015 Valentine’s Day ‘We Are Seneca Lake’ blockade, where Martha (second from the left) was arrested at the age of 91. Photo by Michael Dineen.

“Citizen Martha!!!” recalled Gay Nicholson. “I first met her in the early 80s when she tested me on biochemistry in the auto tutorial option at Cornell. Martha responded to every call for justice, democracy, and stewardship on our planet. She never seemed to tire, and I will never forget her intrepid walking at the big 2014 NYC climate march. We walked huge distances that day – Martha using her walking sticks and outlasting many of us! And always she was in good cheer, appreciative of others’ efforts, committed and happy to be active and involved in making our shared future.”

“Whenever the Dryden Democrats needed something done – making phone calls, collating literature, standing on street corners with a ‘Vote Today’ sign, and more – Martha was there,” shared Martha Robertson. “It’s fair to say nobody ever heard her complain or wonder ‘why do we have to do this?’ Martha loyally attended meetings long after she could barely hear what was said. She was also a generous donor to Democrats at the local level, helping to elect progressives down the ballot as well as up. We’ll long be inspired by her quiet, fierce passion for justice, the environment, and for doing whatever action you can possibly take to make the world a better place for all.”

“Memories of Martha Ferger pop up from time to time as I contemplate the end of her fruitful life,” shared Tony Del Plato. “What I admired immensely about Martha is her time on the line with the direct action group ‘We Are Seneca Lake’. On one occasion, we were arrested together and I remember thinking that one can participate in eco-justice issues at any age.”

Hilary Lambert noted that, “Early in the fracking fight, members of DRAC (Dryden Resource Awareness Coalition) carried out a ‘listening project,’ going door to door across the Town of Dryden asking for people’s opinions about fracking. We wanted to get a sense of public awareness and attitudes. Two of us were assigned to the Village of Dryden, and soon knocked on a door that was opened by Martha Ferger. She knew right away what we were up to, so she invited us in, served us a cool beverage and cookies, and we talked for a long time. After that, Martha attended our weekly DRAC meetings; showed up for every event, rallied with us on street corners for election day candidates, and rode the buses to Albany for rallies. This was just a small portion of her busy life, but she gave her time generously and willingly, with deep intelligence and long lived experience. We will not see anyone like her again.”

“So grateful to have known and collaborated with Martha Ferger,” shared Joe Wilson. “She did good and made good trouble for all the right reasons since before I was born. We will keep on keepin’ on in your name and with your spirit, Martha.”

Judy Pierpont shared that, “Martha was a strong and subtle influence in my life. She showed me what it means to go on being committed to making lives better for everyone. Her vision was inspired; her organizing, careful and informed; her activism, persistent, and forceful. I felt the depth of her presence, especially standing with her in support of a just society and a livable world for all.”

“Martha has always been a role model of a well-rounded and well lived life,” shared Buzz and Linda Lavine. “There were not many female PhDs in the 60s, and often they took the form of a life that did not balance work and family. But there was Martha with an early PhD in biochemistry, working with a Nobel laureate, a delightful family, and a passionate commitment to civic activity.”

“Beyond all of those factoids, was the welcoming embrace that Martha and John extended to us,” they continued. “It was the beginning of our adult lives and they made us feel like part of the family, as we grew beyond our families of origin. We wish we could say that we’ve been as committed and steadfast as Martha over these many decades. Whatever we have contributed has been an attempt to live up to that standard.”

“When I remember Martha, I remember her laugh and her twinkly eyes,” shared Marie McRae. “Martha always seemed delighted by the world – as though the people she met and the natural world she saw were reasons to smile. At the same time she brought concern for the welfare of all beings and would always step up to help if she could.”

Donations in Martha’s memory can be made to the Finger Lakes Land Trust, the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, or to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. To share a memory of Martha, please visit www.perkinsfh.com.

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