Peg Franzen, human rights advocate, is remembered

December 16, 2013

Times Argus

By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau

BARRE — Even now, Joyce Werntgen can’t quite recall how her new friend convinced her to host counseling sessions for struggling teenagers inside her home.

Werntgen was a single mother of three young children at the time, and wasn’t particularly interested in taking on the task. But she did it, as most people tended to do, when Peg Franzen was doing the asking.

“If there was something that needed attention, or a group of people that needed help, she found a way to make something happen,” said Werntgen, who later married Franzen. “And she never took no for an answer.”

About 200 people packed into the Old Labor Hall in Barre Sunday afternoon to celebrate the life of a human rights advocate whose career in activism culminated in a grass-roots push for universal health care. Peg Hurley Franzen died last month after a period of declining health. But friends and family remembered her Sunday as a tireless organizer who enlisted marginalized Vermonters in the fight for their own dignity and respect.

“She had an amazing ability to connect people together, and make you think you could achieve greatness,” said Sarah Wendell Launderville, executive director of the Vermont Center for Independent Living. “Peg taught us not to be ashamed of our disabilities ... but to speak proudly our story.”

The disability rights organization co-founded by Franzen in 1979 is among the legacies of a woman who spent decades working for social justice and economic equality. Franzen co-founded the Peace & Justice Center in Burlington in 1977, and later, while working at the Committee for Temporary Shelter, started the now famous COTS Walk that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Vermont’s largest homeless shelter.

Franzen most recently served as president of the Vermont Workers Center, where she emerged as one of the forces behind the Health Care is a Human Right Campaign. James Haslam, executive director of the VWC, said when he met Franzen about a decade ago, “It quickly became clear that she didn’t only want to take on big challenges, but was ready to roll up her sleeves and do everything she could to help.”

He recalled meeting her once at the State House, where they were scheduled to talk with a group of lawmakers about single-payer health care, and said he could see something wasn’t right.

“She looked awful,” Haslam said.

Franzen had fallen on her way in, Haslam would learn. But he said she refused to skip the meeting.

“It turns out she had broken her nose. But she didn’t miss a beat,” Haslam said. “In her 70s, sucking it up, doing what needed to be done. There’s no one I ever met that was as tough or as strong as Peg.”

A 10-piece brass-and-drum band — playing as per one of Franzen’s final requests — belted out upbeat standards as mourners filed into a building that serves as a shrine to the radical socialist politics of the Barre labor unions that constructed it more than a century ago.

Family members said Franzen invested as much time and energy into her loved ones as she did into the causes she held dear.

“In many ways, she was a mother to our movement, always taking the time to check in with people on how they were doing, however they were handling situations, and if there was anything she could do to support them,” Haslam said.

Haslam said Franzen will live on as a guiding star for a health care movement she helped galvanize.

“When I said goodbye to her, I said to her we would win the campaign for universal health care,” Haslam said. “She said, ‘I know.’”

peter.hirschfeld@timesargus.com