Jean Gams, 87 Years an Activist: Annie Laurie Gaylor

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

Jean Gams who first joined the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 1979 and later became a Lifetime Member, has become even more determined to support the separation of church and state as she watches the national debate on the constitutional principle deteriorate.

Jean, who will turn 87 in May, doesn’t ever remember really believing, although she knew of no other skeptics to aid in her break with religion:

I’ve been a rabble-rouser all my life.” To occupy her mind during church and Sunday school as a youngster, “I took something to read or write,” she recalls.

Jean was “dragged bodily” to the Plymouth Congregational Church by her family, and forced to attend primary, intermediary and then senior instruction. “Then I dug in my heels and said ‘No.’ “

She refused to join the church when her class joined. Only 15 years of age when she made her formal break with religion, Jean remembered thinking, “I was the only one.”

As she got older, “I read everything on the subject I could get my hands on. I’m still reading.”

Jean’s mother had noticed her knack for fixing neighbors’ hair, which Jean started doing around the age of ten for fun. After Jean graduated from high school in her hometown of Oshkosh, Wis., her mother encouraged her to go to trade school to become a beautician.

“I got my license,” she noted, “and lasted a day and a half. I hated it.” Jean pointed out that this was back in the days when people often didn’t bathe frequently and wore clothing that was difficult to wash, making a beautician’s working condition sometimes distasteful.

But Jean, who wanted to become a registered nurse, had an entirely different feeling about the personal touch when it came to medical care. She was rejected from training because she was half-blind.

“My surgeon saw something in me,” Jean said, hiring her for office work, but making use of her medical knack by letting her participate in care.

Jean always worked outside her home, even though it was not expected of married women in those days: “I couldn’t stand to stay home!” She worked in various office jobs, and particularly enjoyed a real estate position in Wautoma, Wis., until she needed to relocate back to Oshkosh upon the death of her husband, Frank Gams, after 40 years of marriage.

Jean regularly protested a Wautoma state/church violation, in which the Knights of Columbus erected a crche on public land every year. “They had a four-acre church lawn on a major highway, but they wanted to put it up in a public park!”

Her boss warned Jean, “You’re going to have eggs on your front window,” but it never happened, even though Jean “raised moderate to large hell every year.”

Despite some health setbacks in the last year, Jean is actively pursuing a state/church complaint in Oshkosh, protesting city approval to erect a “Christmas Box Angel” in city-owned Menominee Park. Jean objects on both state/church and aesthetic grounds, noting an angel is a purely religious symbol. The impetus to place an angel statue comes from Compassionate Friends, a support group for parents grieving over loss of children.

The “Christmas Box Angel” has commercial ties. It would be the first time the angel would be placed on public land in the state of Wisconsin. Others have been placed, appropriately, in cemeteries or religious hospitals.

Jean and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are protesting the plans, pointing out there are secular alternatives.

In a letter to city officials, the Foundation noted:

“We all sympathize greatly with parents who have the tragedy to outlive their offspring (nothing could be more tragic), but it is not necessary to violate state/church separation or exclude the nonreligious in order to honor their feelings.”

A recent Harris Poll shows that 68% of Americans literally believe in the existence of angels, which are biblical creatures tied to a belief in heaven and an afterlife. An aesthetic objection is that an angel monument to dead children in a public park will make it look like a cemetery (not to mention being a downer).

Jean and the Foundation are concerned that the “Christmas Box Angel” movement, which started in Utah and is picking up steam, might grow into a campaign similar to that of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, which littered public land with Ten Commandments monuments.

“There are so many appropriate places for such a statue,” Jean wrote Oshkosh city officials, such as “church lawns, hospital grounds, and cemeteries, to name a few. So–why a public park? Of the 63 such statues already in place in the United States, most of them are in cemeteries, according to the salesperson in Utah, where the ‘business’ is located.”

The Foundation has won two decisions in the last six years before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in which courts ruled that two different Wisconsin communities should not have accepted or erected religious monuments, and had to divest themselves of them. (To help, see below.)

“Just keep a soap box handy,” advises Jean, and get on it “wherever and whenever called for. We can do that on our own at any time. It doesn’t cost any money. Remember: show respect, get respect. I’ve always tried to be respectful . . . at least starting out!”

Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and editor of Freethought Today.

Write City of Oshkosh

To help Jean complain, you can write or email:

Mayor William Castle
City of Oshkosh
215 Church Ave
PO Box 1130
Oshkosh WI 54903-1130

Freedom From Religion Foundation