Jeff Hohenshell tried. He reasoned with her, pleaded with her, argued and cajoled. He practically begged her to reconsider.
His 76-year-old mother still wants to serve six months in federal prison. Don't forget the $5,000 fine. Rita Hohenshell expects to pay that, too.
"I love my mother," said her exasperated son, a corporate attorney in St. Paul, Minn. "Who wants their mother to go to jail?"
That's exactly where Rita Hohenshell appears headed. The gray-haired Des Moines woman goes on trial Tuesday in Columbus, Ga., where she and 25 others face federal charges of illegally entering Fort Benning last fall during a mass protest of the School of the Americas.
For the trial, she packed a week's worth of clothes, her seven prescription medicines and a speech she hopes to deliver to the judge.
The grandmother of five left behind her home of 46 years and a blooming backyard raspberry patch.
"I decided to plant my garden," she said. "There's enough people around that will harvest, although I don't know if they'll pull the weeds."
Hohenshell admits she's guilty. In her view, though, she's not as guilty as the U.S. government, which has trained more than 60,000 Latin American military officers and soldiers at the Fort Benning school.
Critics call it the "School of Assassins" because some graduates have been implicated in the killing and torturing of innocent people, including the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador.
"I want to get publicity," Hohenshell said. "I want to close the school."
Going to prison would complete Hohenshell's decade-long transformation from mother of four, full-time worker and devout Roman Catholic to late-blooming rebel with many causes.
If you need someone to sign a petition, attend a rally or commit an act of civil disobedience, Hohenshell is the person to call.
She has entered Fort Benning four years in a row to protest the School of the Americas. She has demonstrated at Camp Dodge against using the Iowa Air National Guard to patrol the no-fly zone in northern Iraq. She has joined other protests in Nebraska and Wisconsin against various U.S. military operations.
She is a member of what the Rev. Frank Cordaro, the Des Moines priest and longtime peace activist, refers to as "a radical group of blue hairs."
This year, for example, Hohenshell has refused to buy new clothes because she believes too many are produced in low-wage foreign sweatshops. She won't buy Kraft food products because the company is owned by Philip Morris, the cigarette manufacturer.
When Hohenshell's grandchildren visit, she treats them to Ben & Jerry's ice cream (she's partial to New York Super Fudge Chunk), because the company donates a percentage of profits to her favorite causes.
There's a bumper sticker on her car - Do we fear our enemies more than we love our children? - and she wears T-shirts that either make a political point or go for a chuckle, like this one:
I am woman.
I am invincible.
I am tired.
She insists she's not a rabble-rouser.
"I'm just bringing attention to the things that people need to know," she said.
That includes the School of the Americas.
"I think things are so horrible that people don't realize what's actually going on," she said.
Are the American people being duped?
Hohenshell rolls her eyes. Her expression suggests Aunt Bee trying to explain something obvious to Opie.
"Well, heavens yes."
Last November, Hohenshell joined an estimated 7,000 protesters who converged on Fort Benning. Military police arrested 1,700 people, including the actor Martin Sheen (President Bartlet on "The West Wing"). Of those, 65 had been warned previously against trespassing.
Hohenshell and two Dubuque nuns were among the 26 people - 13 men and 13 women - who were indicted. The Iowa nuns, blood sisters Dorothy Hennessey, 89, and Gwen Hennessey, 68, also go on trial Tuesday and face the maximum penalty of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.
"I think we're all saying we want to put the School of the Americas on trial," said Gwen Hennessey, the former director of the Catholic Peace Ministry in the Des Moines Diocese.
If convicted, Hohenshell and the others likely will be allowed to return home briefly before beginning their jail terms. Hohenshell expects to be assigned to the federal prison in Pekin, Ill.
Critics of the training school say the U.S. government has handed them a public relations bonanza. They hope the sight of three elderly Iowa women being carted away in handcuffs will sway American opinion against the school.
"We couldn't have named three of our own as good as the government chose," Cordaro says. He describes the three Iowa women as "God's warriors."
If Rita Hohenshell is God's warrior, she's also Jeff Hohenshell's mother. He's worried about her high blood pressure and aching shoulder.
"I worry about her health," he said, "and I worry that she's not getting a balanced perspective from the people who are supporting her.
"Nobody questions her courage and her conviction. I'm just questioning, from a pragmatic standpoint, what's the point? I object to the futility of it."
For one thing, the School of the Americas no longer exists, at least by that name. The U.S. Army responded to the annual protests by revamping the school's curriculum and renaming it the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
Former Army Secretary Louis Caldera delivered this eulogy to the former school last December:
"Let me say very clearly that any soldier in Latin America who had even the most remote connection to the School of the Americas who has ever committed a human rights violation did so in spite of the training they received . . . and not because of it."
Rita Hohenshell, sitting at her kitchen table in Des Moines, peered over her eyeglasses and responded: "Oh, baloney."
She said the changes are cosmetic. The U.S. Army, she said, still will train Latin American soldiers. Innocent people still will be killed. Nothing will have changed.
So Hohenshell, who has been arrested several times but has never spent a night in jail, will gladly go to federal prison for six months.
"This is what I want to do," she said, then laughed half-heartedly. "All they can do is torture me."
Her son Jeff, a patent attorney for 3M Corp., knows how to win an argument, but his advocacy skills proved no match against his mother's commitment to the cause.
Why not write a letter to the editor? he asked her. Or phone your congressman? Why not protest without getting arrested? Why not paint a sign and stand on the sidewalk?
"I do all that," his mother replied. "It's not my fault that it takes breaking the law to get some attention."
Jeff Hohenshell said his parents taught him to love his country, respect the people in the military and search for positive approaches to life's dilemmas.
"This is why it's so ironic to me," he said. "It seems to me there are more positive things she can do with those six months. I've lost sleep over this."
His view is not shared by everyone in the Hohenshell family. Rita's daughter, Kim Clingman, and her 9-year-old granddaughter, Tricia, who live in New Virginia, will accompany her to Georgia for the trial. Rita's youngest child, Liesl, says she supports her mother without reservation.
"I think it's a pity that more people aren't socially active," she said.
Rita Hohenshell said she always has been interested in peace and justice issues. She has voted in every election - and never, she points out proudly, as if there existed any doubt, for a Republican.
She traces her recent activism to the 1991 death of her husband, Lecil, an IRS auditor whom everyone called "Shorty" and whose passions leaned more to attending Lincoln High School softball games than to distributing political leaflets.
"He wouldn't stop me, but I don't think he would be in favor of this," Rita Hohenshell said. "He'd be more like Jeff."
Two years after her husband died, Rita was invited to attend a meeting of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. A protester was born.
"They did good things and they didn't play bridge and that sort of stuff," Hohenshell said.
Her husband was gone, her four children were grown and she had retired from full-time work with Rock Island Motor Transit and Travelers Insurance.
"I'm not responsible for anyone," she said. "I can do what I want. There is freedom now."
Hohenshell belongs to Christ the King Church in Des Moines and helps teach religious education to preschool children.
"She's a very strong Catholic and very devoted to her family," said Jean Basinger, a Des Moines friend and activist. "Now she is looking for other ways to make a difference in the world."
That's fine, but 9-year-old Tricia Clingman would like to know who's going to pick her up after school on Wednesday afternoons if her grandmother is in prison. Who's going to scoop the New York Super Fudge Chunk?
Tricia grimmaces. All this talk of prison and principles scares her.
"I can talk her out of being scared," Hohenshell said. She turns to Tricia: "I can explain it to you."
Tricia smiled, but her eyes showed worry, her lips tightened and she said, "Hmmmm . . ."
"Well, you know why I'm doing this, right?" her grandmother said.
"Yes, I know," Tricia said softly.
"She's not happy that I'm doing this, but she understands why."
Tricia nodded quietly, looked down and draped an arm around Hohenshell's shoulders.
"They'll always remember that their grandmother stood up for something that she thought was right."
Tricia leaned in closer. Right or not, six months sounds like a long time when you're 9 years old.
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