In January 2012, I called Katchen Coley shortly after she'd had minor surgery to offer my help with household tasks. I made the mistake of thinking this would be a quick call to arrange a time to visit her, and I squeezed this phone call into my busy day between meetings and appointments. In response to my offer of help she answered, "That is very nice of you now I must tell you that last week I met with the Planning Director and..." she continued on for five full minutes before I interrupted her, to which she replied indignantly, "I need to tell you about this because you might have to take my place in this discussion!" Her sense of urgency did not escape me. In her late eighties, pragmatic Katchen squarely faced the reality that she didn't have a lot of time left as an activist.
Katchen's intense tone commanded attention, though at times (like when I telephoned to offer my help) her oratories were met with exasperation. A common refrain at the monthly meeting of the Middletown Conservation Commission went something like this:
"Katchen! This is not the time for this. You are out of order!"
Boundaries were not Katchen's strong point. It was sometimes hard to tell whether she purposefully eschewed decorum or rather just lacked certain diplomatic skills, but the former seemed more likely, given Katchen's consistent intentions.
I did stop by Katchen's house a few days after that phone call, but she didn't take any help from me and instead we sat at her kitchen table and talked for two hours. Afterwards I was left wondering how we talked about so many different things in such a small amount of time. The Tea Party, drilling in ANWAR, the energy use of exit sign lighting, climate change, President Obama, and the gulf coast were all topics we touched on.
I asked her directly about the frequent reprimands that her interjections brought her at the Conservation Commission meetings. She said that she got rather annoyed at times when she was dismissed. She felt that she had important and relevant things to add to the discussion and she didn't understand why her comments were a problem. She conceded that the chair was doing the best job possible of keeping the meeting running efficiently. Katchen was born in 1924; maybe her mannerisms were held over from coping strategies she may have developed in her earlier life during decades when women's voices were not always taken seriously. In my time on the Conservation Commission for the last 5 or so years, Katchen was one of many vocal women who make up the majority of the Commission.
Having earned many accolades and awards for her decades of tireless advocacy, she still regarded her experiences as considerably more important than recognition. I asked Katchen if she considered herself to be an expert, or an activist, or something else. She said that if categorization were necessary, she preferred to call herself “what Rush Limbaugh would – an environmental wacko.” While much of Katchen's knowledge was anecdotal or experiential rather than scientific, I told her I thought this was overly self-deprecating. She responded with an unrelated digressive story. She evaded most of my questions, choosing to educate me on the legislative process, the differences between local and national politics, and the origins and histories of one of the many organizations with which she was involved.
At the beginning of our talk, Katchen immediately began asking me questions about myself. When I confessed my frustrations with the Conservation Commission, with its many big challenges and seemingly few concrete accomplishments, Katchen gave me her version of a pep talk. She cited several specific examples to illustrate the cyclical nature of progress. She described her years of attending congressional briefings and testifying in support or opposition of various legislative bills, and the associated successes and setbacks. “You have to accept the idea of taking two steps forward and one step back”, she said. “You have to be constantly vigilant... Seeing defeat after defeat after defeat, you have to keep picking yourself up off the ground and trying another angle. I don't want you to get sidetracked. Sometimes I ask myself why I am doing this. Why not play bridge like some other retired people do? But I can't do that. Why are we knocking ourselves out? We have to for the world to continue. That's why I want you to keep on fighting.”
Katchen and her energy were an inspiration. She passed away on August 19th, and her memorial is Thursday October 3 at 2pm At Beckham Hall 2nd floor of the Fayerweather Building, Wesleyan University.