February 20, 2010

In Memory of Bertha Kurki

by Rick Kurki

Bertha was born the youngest of nine children to Finnish immigrant parents, Heikki and Sanna Maatta, who homesteaded in rural northern Wisconsin.

Bertha's father worked as a dry-driller in the mines of Utah and Michigan's Upper Penisula until he became debilitated by miner's silicosis caused by continued exposure to ore dust, which was common to the negligent working conditions of the time.

After leaving the mining trade, her father built a small farm near Marengo, Wisconsin. Like many Finnish immigrants her parents became involved in the cooperative movement and the Finnish Worker's Hall. Her father and uncle organized a mutual fire insurance company which is still in operation today.

In her youth, Bertha was active in the Worker's Hall participating in plays, dances, and in language and educational programs. The halls were cultural centers for those who felt that their concerns about the economic inequities and exploitation under capitalism were not addressed by the church or in the mainstream culture. The halls hosted political speakers, musical programs, drama productions, athletic events and weekend dances.

Bertha met Alex Kurki while performing in a play together at the local hall. They were married in September 1939. Both Bertha and Alex shared a vision and a commitment to social, political and economic justice. Throughout their lives they involved themselves in a number of political organizations that championed the causes of working class people, the civil rights movement and the need for nuclear and military de-escalation.

As a young mother and housewife Bertha also worked as a secretary and mailer for the Finnish language newspaper Tyomies Eteenpain in Superior, Wisconsin. She worked there for three different periods totaling 15 years and retired as a copy-editor and typesetter in 1989. After retirement she served as the President of the Tyomies Board of Directors for 10 years. In the late 1940's Bertha joined the University of Wisconsin Extension Homemakers and remained a member for over 60 years holding local, county and district offices. Her first active role in partisan politics came in 1948, when she ran for lieutenant-governor on the Progressive Party ticket which represented the hope for maintaining and furthering the goals of the New Deal.

In the atmosphere of paranoia and hysteria that characterized the McCarthy period of the 1950's Bertha and her family (like many others) were subject to suspicion, harassment and even FBI surveillance. In the face of this hostility and political intolerance, Bertha remained true to her ideals and continued to work for positive and peaceful social change.

Her personal kindness and courage were mirrored in her actions and commitments throughout her life. In her later years she participated in a number of activist groups including Stop Project Elf and Grandmother's for Peace. Her compassion and caring were very evident in how she lived her life and in the welcoming and friendly spirit with which she met the world. She passed away on October 14, 2009. She will be sorrowfully missed.

1 comment:

B. Kinetic said...

Thanks Rick for sharing a wonderful life story of achievement in the cause of social justise.