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Ebel leaving NHCLU, remaining true to cause

New Hampshire Sunday News

January 26. 2013 10:55PM

Claire Ebel has retired after 30 years at the helm of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, passing the torch to its new executive director, Devon Chaffee (seated). (Shawne K. Wickham/Union Leader)

CONCORD - Claire Ebel concedes she wasn't prepared for the emotional impact of clearing out her office at the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union.

There are case files that date back to the founding of the organization itself. Letters from individuals begging for help. Research material on bills.

"Some of it still brings tears to my eyes. Some of it still makes me angry," Ebel said. "So there have been a lot of emotions in trying to triage 30 years of stuff."

Ebel, who is 70, officially retired as executive director of the NHCLU on Jan. 2, but she jokes it will take her until "early in 2025" to finish going through everything she's saved.

Last week found her poring over cartons filled with paperwork, her 100-pound Newfoundland, Lambeau, lounging companionably at her side. It's a process that prompts introspection about her legacy.

"I think I would like to be remembered as someone who believed what I said, who acted on what I believed and, within the abilities of my intellect, told the truth," she said.

When Ebel came to this job and this state in 1982, she was a 39-year-old single mother of two young children. She wanted to raise them, she said, "in a place where the schools are good, where the playgrounds are safe, where they can walk on a street and not have to look behind them to see if they're being chased, and where the neighbors really are neighbors."

"And all of that has been true. It's a remarkable place to live and raise kids," she said.

But not a perfect place, she added.

So every new year found Ebel at the Legislature, working with simpatico lawmakers to craft bills that protected individual rights, or testifying in committee hearings when she perceived those rights were threatened.

In the early years, Ebel recalled, she got used to questions "about whether I thought this or that issue was a Communist conspiracy."

So she would tell the lawmakers how she came to join the American Civil Liberties Union at the age of 11.

She had come home from school one day and found the television on and her mother crying. When she asked what was wrong, her mother would say only, "Ask your father."

Later, after dinner, her father told her about the Army-McCarthy hearings that were being televised. "And he told me about the attempts by some of these people to blacklist individuals who wrote plays they didn't like, who wrote songs they didn't like, who wrote ... books that they didn't like, who spoke out against things they didn't like. That these people were trying to ruin their lives.

"And I was horrified."

Young Claire asked her father what she could do. "And my father said, 'Well, you could join the ACLU.'"

So the following Saturday, he took her to the bank, where she withdrew $2.50, and he helped her fill out the form and mail it in. "And I became a member of the ACLU, and I've been a member ever since."

Ebel calls herself a "First Amendment nutcase."

"I think that if we only had one amendment in the Bill of Rights and it was the First Amendment, that we would still be served well as a civil society," she said.

But the threat to the rights guaranteed in that amendment is real and present in a technological age when private information is being amassed by commercial and governmental entities alike, Ebel said.

"If they can control what you read, they control what you think. If they can control your religion, then they have control over your moral beliefs. If they can control your association, then they're picking your friends.

"And if they do not allow you to complain loudly to the government to redress your grievances, then they've made themselves invincible."

Still, she's not a libertarian, Ebel said, because she believes that government has a critical role in caring for those who need help. She was raised Irish Catholic to believe that "we as a society owe it to our neighbors and the people that we share this planet with to treat all of them with respect and to help them when they need help."

Asked about the high and low points of her three-decade career, Ebel said the last legislative session stands out as the worst she can remember. "It was uncivil and it was uncivilized," she said. "And that was very disquieting and very disappointing because that's not New Hampshire."

People here don't like to throw money away and "do not suffer fools gladly," she said. "But when somebody needs help, they give; they share the burden. They do something to make it better.

"And that wasn't what the legislative priorities were in 2011 and '12."

Still, the high points outshine the low. There was the "victory" over Real ID, for which she credits Rep. Neil Kurk, R-Weare - "my privacy angel."

A successful battle against the Merrimack School Board over a controversial policy restricting how teachers could speak about homosexuality still moves her to tears.

And she recalled working with former Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, to craft a law that increased the penalties for an assault on a woman that led to the death of her fetus.

But Ebel has also been a staunch defender of women's reproductive rights: "I am absolutely ... devoted to the concept that a woman is entitled to free and unfettered reproductive autonomy, that she has the same rights as a man to make every medical decision on her own," with advice from her family, her pastor and her doctor.

She remains a fierce guardian of privacy, both her own and everyone else's. She's not on Facebook or Twitter, proudly describing herself as a "Luddite."

And she fears for younger generations who have given up their privacy - and, she contends, their ability to converse - in their embrace of technology. "I think we're losing our humanity," she said.

Freed from her NHCLU duties, Ebel said she's looking forward to doing things she hasn't had time for in years: Reading the stack of books she's piled up. Planting tomatoes. Relearning to play the guitar she bought years ago in Harvard Square.

But she's not going away, and she won't be silent. "I will no longer speak for the NHCLU but there are certain issues that I will be there for," she said. "I will be there as Claire Ebel, resident of Concord, New Hampshire.

"As my father said, I began speaking at about the age of 9 months, and never shut up."

It was also her father, Ebel said, who "taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be, that I could do anything I wanted to do."

"He always told me that ... if you loved what you did, you would be good at your job and happy in your life.

"And he was quite right. I was good at this job. And I loved it."

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