Moments after hearing about the death of 94-year-old singer and activist Pete Seeger, June Atley, 39, sat on her Chapel Hill, NC porch reminiscing about growing up with 70s-era union rep parents. Pete Seeger—whose five-string banjo twanged out the backdrops to the civil rights, social justice and labor movement—provided the family soundtrack. “I remember sitting in the back of our Volvo station wagon belting out 'Bring ‘Em Home' and 'Wimoweh,'" Atley says. “Pete Seeger was a hero to me, and I’m going to start living in a way that respects that.” Atley works in software marketing, but she’s going to cut back her hours so she can start volunteering at a local animal shelter. “I know that would make Pete proud,” she said.
In the tony Los Angeles neighborhood of Hancock Park, 52-year-old plastic surgeon Jake Reardon watched as a lawn sprinkler made its way, in a twinkling arc, from the rose bushes surrounding his stoop to the citrus trees edging his curb. “When I heard Pete died, I realized that if I don’t start living my life in a way that respects my values, it’s not a life worth living.”
Reardon was on his way to trade his BMW X5 for a bicycle. Then he was going to ride to the hospital where he worked to inform the powers that be that from now on, he was only doing pro bono work on burn victims.
“Pete didn’t do anything halfway,” said Reardon, who had just posted his favorite song, 'We Shall Overcome,’ on Facebook. “And from now on, I’m not going to either.”
Across the street, Karen Palmer, 42, waved at her neighbor and came out into the street to chat. “I’ve been listening to 'If I Had a Hammer: Songs of Hope and Struggle' on vinyl all morning,” she said. She had an architect coming over in an hour afternoon to draw up plans to turn her 3900-square-foot California Tudor into a homeless shelter. “There’s only so many times you can hear 'Which Side Are You On?' without thinking 'Do we really need this much space?'”
Atley was the first to report that her plans had changed.
“Turns out I’m allergic to cats,” she said, reached at her home this morning. So the animal shelter was out. She considered volunteering at a literacy program, but their introductory meetings were on Sunday nights, a no-go zone. “Have you seen 'True Detective'? It’s like, can’t-wait-for-the-DVR good. Also, my team has been working so hard on the rollout of this amazing video hosting software, and we’re really a family at this point. And there’s nothing more important than family.”
Palmer had also hit a stumbling block. “Zoning laws,” she said. “The architect said we might have been able to work around them, but in the meantime, my daughter was like, 'I am not sharing a bathroom with my brother,' which is totally fair. Also, last night, I had a dream where Pete Seeger came to me and reminded me how rare California Tudors are. And you know, I get it. Pete would not have wanted to just rip this place up."
Palmer said she started to realize the changes might not be as simple as they seemed when, on Wednesday, she went across the street to check out Jake Reardon’s new bicycle and saw that his X5 was still sitting in the driveway. The Reardons had decided to replace their landscaping with drought-resistant plants, and they realized they were going to need the BMW to transport materials from the garden store.
“I totally respect their decision,” Palmer said, adding that her neighbor hadn’t informed the hospital about any changes in his practice. “Jake felt that Pete would have found that the gesture, without the bicycle, lacked a certain poetry, and I think that’s right on the money.”
Not long after, Reardon called to report that his wife, Marina, had bought the most beautiful pincushion cactus to go in their garden. “It’s flowering, and we’re going to plant it in Pete’s honor and have a little ceremony. I just feel so grateful to be able to pay tribute to him. What an inspiration.”
Atley, who met the Reardons on the Facebook Forum “Pete Seeger’s Death Woke Me Up," plans on flying to California for the cactus-planting ceremony. She acknowledged that yes, a lot of life-changing plans had been dreamed up and abandoned in a short space of time, but maybe that was okay.
“I think the important thing is that we’re all listening to more Pete Seeger," she said. "Walking around. In the car. Dancing. I never used to dance before. And now I’m dancing. Yeah, I know Pete spent 94 years fighting systemic oppression, and that’s so, so amazing. But in the end, I think I know what Pete really wanted. He wanted me to dance.”
Sarah Miller is the author of Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn and The Other Girl. She lives in Nevada City, CA. Follow her on Twitter @sarahlovescali.Photo by Subbotina Anna via Shutterstock.