December 15, 2009

RIP Tess Koenig

Iron Range native and Veteran for Peace Tess Koenig died in October at her winter home in California. Tess' Northland friends are invited to a memorial service on December 20, 2-4pm at the Friends Meeting House in Duluth (1802 E 1st St).

Tess Koenig, Nurse, Mentor, Activist, Friend

By John Heid
(reprinted from the Winter 2009 Nukewatch Quarterly)

At sunset on a mid October Saturday, Tess Koenig died as she had lived — peacefully. There were no large font headlines in the Los Angeles Times the following morning. Amidst the fray of health care reform, H1N1, the housing market collapse, the World Series and war-withoutend, Tess passed as inconspicuously as a soft autumn breeze through a stand of northern white pine.

Her death gave me pause. Not because it was sudden. It wasn’t. Not because she was young. She wasn’t, except at heart. What provoked me was a simple query. “What is the
value of a singular life?”

In an American Idolized society chock full of air-brushed stars and super heroes, who counts? In a culture that mass markets the pleasure principle and militarizes identity — “be all you can be” — how does one stand?

Tess was one who found her bearings. Born on Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range between world wars, she knew something of modesty and making-do. She left the Range, but it never left her.

The so called “war effort” drew Tess into the service of caring for the wounded and ill as an army nurse and afterward, at the Veteran’s Hospital in West Los Angeles, she continued this work. Tess witnessed war from the vantage point of its victims. She came to understand in a hands-on way how war turns the moral order inside out.

In later years Tess was to become a proud member of Grandmothers For Peace and Veterans For Peace. Post war, she married another veteran later-to-become-peacemaker, Bob Koenig. The two became parents. Stories are told of their dual energies. Bob coached youth basketball and baseball. Tess attended the injured players and kept score. Tess always knew the score on the court and later in the courts.

In their retirement Tess and Bob metamorphosed. Their family widened. They went communal. This was how I came to know her… at the Loaves and Fishes Catholic Worker in Duluth, Minnesota. She prepared meals and faithfully attended peace vigils. Tess had the compassion to serve the hungry and the audacity to challenge the causes of their hunger.

In time I discovered that Tess (and Bob too) were known across the country. From Baltimore to LA, from Clam Lake, Wisconsin to Ft. Benning, Georgia. Tess knew who she was, and what she wasn’t. She lived life fully and by so doing helped others recognize what it means to do justice, to be fully human — warts and all.

Tess Koenig was not my heroine, but rather a mentor and friend. She eschewed the cul-de-sac mentality of the hero/heroine model, a model that panders to narcissism, a model of the impossible, the unattainable, the superfluous, a model antithetical to radical nonviolence.

Tess was down-to-earth, and roll-up-your-sleeves practical. This simplicity kindled a visionary spirit within her. She could delight in a pristine sunset over Lake Vermillion or the diamond in the rough visage of each guest sitting at the dining room table, as clearly as she could decry war.
The last time I called Bob and Tess, their answering machine still had the familiar message in her voice: “The Koenigs say bring ‘em home!” Tess’s last words. A fitting epitaph.

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