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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Memorial event honors Dottie Gutenkauf Saturday

Dottie Gutenkauf enjoys a black-and-white ice cream soda.
Photo by her dear friend Joan Hervey.
Family, friends, colleagues and comrades of Plainfield's late Dottie Gutenkauf will gather Saturday for an afternoon of music, reminiscences, poetry and food to honor and remember a one-of-a-kind community activist. The event will be from Noon to 4:00 PM at Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church.

We all knew Dottie as a powerhouse in local Democratic politics, as well as a force in keeping Muhlenberg Hospital open, and in the Abbott Nursing Home controversy in the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District. She was suave, sassy, salty and streetwise -- a force of nature.

Dottie and I first met while working together on school board elections in the late 1980s, when Plainfield switched from an appointed to an elected school board.

That was in the days before elections were politicized and slates then were nonpartisan, and interested in improving the school district's performance.

Over time, Dottie and I became quite friendly and I was often a guest at their Randolph Road home, where Joe always had a pot of homemade lentil soup on the stove and the coffee pot was at the ready.

Being some of the most leftish folks in Plainfield, we would swap stories of union organizing, the civil rights and antiwar movements and other encounters on behalf of social justice.

Dottie would regale us with her rendition of The Internationale, the anthem of the international workers' movement. But she and Joe had wide-ranging musical interests, ranging from singing with famed folk singer Pete Seeger to never missing Gilbert and Sullivan productions in New York.

Though we loved to talk national, state and local politics, Dottie and I only ever had one serious disagreement. And that regarded an elected official who bore both Plainfield and statewide roles. While I had no complaints of this person's Trenton performance, I felt their local contribution was marred by poor judgment and micro-managing.

Dottie and I agreed to disagree. But in her last years, she endorsed Adrian Mapp for mayor and aligned with those who insisted Plainfield needed changes to meet 21st century challenges.

One other thing I learned from Dottie was that she was a recovering alcoholic. This came up about 15 years ago, when I stopped drinking and we had a serious conversation about the subject.

"If it weren't for AA," Dottie said, waving her trademark cigarette, "I would be dead by now."

Up to her final bouts with retinal melanoma, she regularly took part in three or four Plainfield AA meetings per week. She was pleased, during a stay at Aristacare on East Front Street, that she only had to walk across the parking lot to United Presbyterian Church for a meeting.

One of the drawbacks of her final stays at JFK Hartwyck at Cedar Brook she felt was that getting to AA meetings was not really feasible.

She was terribly pleased to celebrate her 82nd birthday in November, and said to me that if she made it to May of this year, she would mark 37 years of sobriety.

Sober she was, but never a sourpuss.

Right up to the end she was acutely interested in the political situation and did not hesitate to give me advice (sought or unsought), though her ability to get out and about personally was hampered by mobility and balance issues.

In thinking about how to sum up a life so well and actively lived, I am mindful of the words of George Santayana, the Spanish-American poet, philosopher and novelist --

I give back to the earth what the earth gave,
All to the furrow, nothing to the grave.
All are invited to come for all or part of the event, and to join in the repast that will be on hand in the church's parish hall.

Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church is at East 7th Street and Watchung Avenue. Parking in the church lot on First Place, on the street, or in the Swain Galleries lot.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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