August 10

    Frances “Poppy” Northcutt

    Frances “Poppy” Northcutt

    On this date in 1943, Frances Marian “Poppy” Northcutt — computer engineer, attorney and women’s rights activist — was born in Many, La. She was raised in Luling, Texas, and as a teen was named Miss Watermelon of Luling. Her brother nicknamed her after reading Poppy: The Adventures of a Fairy, a 1934 children’s book. (Aviation Magazine International, March 1970) While the character Poppy was only 4 inches tall, Northcutt as an adult would top 5-foot-9.

    After graduating with a mathematics degree from the University of Texas, she went to work as a 22-year-old “computress” (the actual job title) in 1965 at TRW, an aerospace contractor for NASA in Houston. In those days, classified ads had separate sections for male and female employment. Jo Ann Evansgardner and her husband, both later FFRF Life Members, successfully sued in 1969 to stop the practice.

    Northcutt was the first woman stationed in NASA’s Mission Control. Her team designed the return-to-Earth trajectory for Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon, and for missions through Apollo 13. Television broadcasts that showed her brought heaps of fan mail. ABC reporter Jules Bergman once asked about her potential to distract from the mission: “How much attention do men in Mission Control pay to a pretty girl wearing miniskirts?”

    She answered: “Well, I think the first time a girl in a miniskirt walks into [Mission Control], they pay you quite a lot of attention, but after a while they become a little bit more accustomed to you and pay more attention to the consoles.” She told Teen Vogue in 2019 that “all women at that time, in all the places around the world, were living in a sea of sexism.”

    In 1981 she graduated from the University of Houston law school while continuing to work as an engineer and as the city of Houston’s first women’s advocate, working to promote equal opportunity municipal employment and pay equity for women. She became the first prosecutor in the domestic violence unit in the Harris County district attorney’s office and worked with the nonprofit Jane’s Due Process to ensure legal protections for pregnant minors in Texas.

    Northcutt is not a fan of religion, while not saying publicly what her personal beliefs are. On Oct. 3, 2019, she tweeted a USA Today story detailing the Catholic Church’s successful lobbying to limit lawsuits by survivors of clergy sex abuse. About Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s comment “The Problem is Not Guns, It’s Hearts Without God,” she tweeted in August 2019 that “I seriously doubt that most of the mass shooters are atheists. Show me the data, Governor.”

    On May 22, 2020, she tweeted about several COVID-19 “superspreader events” at churches. “All this money to churches is appalling,” she tweeted on July 10, 2020. “They amass huge holdings free of taxes, litigate zealously to be free of following laws with which they disagree, and then my tax dollars go to them!”

    “I think we share the same opponents because both the trans cause and the feminist cause challenge sex roles, and sex role stereotyping is central to most fundamentalist religions. We challenge what our opponents view as ‘natural’ and ‘necessary’ and ‘God-ordained.’ I think they are very afraid of us because we cast doubt on things they view as certainties. And if one certainty bites the dust, then what else might fall?”

    — Northcutt, on how people opposing rights for transsexuals also oppose reproductive choice; The Conversation Project (Nov. 30, 2015)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn; 1969 CBC photo.
    © Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

    Antonio Banderas

    Antonio Banderas

    On this date in 1960, actor-director José Antonio Domínguez Banderas was born in Málaga, Spain, to José Domínguez Prieto, a police officer, and Ana Banderas Gallego, a teacher. He attended Catholic school as a child. After completing his studies at Malaga’s School of Dramatic Art, he joined the National Theater of Spain and caught the eye of director Pedro Almodóvar and had his 1982 film debut in “Labyrinth of Passion.”

    He then made several more movies with Almodóvar, including his breakthrough role in 1990’s controversial “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” as a mental patient who kidnaps a porn star played by Victoria Abril. In 1991 he was introduced to Hollywood in the pseudo-documentary “Madonna: Truth or Dare,” which led to his critically praised 1992 performance as a struggling musician in “The Mambo Kings.”

    Hollywood kept Banderas incredibly busy in the 1990s. He appeared in six movies in 1995 alone. He married actress Melanie Griffith in 1996 after ending his nine-year union with Ana Leza. He and Griffith divorced in 2015 after having a daughter, Stella, in 1996. Banderas then began a relationship with Nicole Kimpel, a Dutch investment banker 20 years his junior. As of this writing in 2021, they live in Spain.

    His debut as a director was in “Crazy in Alabama (1999), starring Griffith. He made his eighth film with Almodóvar in 2019, “Dolor y gloria” (Pain and Glory). It earned him the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actor along with Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. He was nominated for a 2003 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for “Nine” and for Golden Globe Awards for “The Mask of Zorro” (1998) and “Evita” (1996).

    Asked in 2019 about his relationship with the Catholic Church, he said: “I’m not a practicing Catholic, but I am culturally Catholic. I participate in some ceremonies of my hometown, but they are pretty popular. The Holy Week in Málaga, I participate in that. But that is different. This is a way to connect with the transcendental and the spiritual world without people in the middle.” (GQ magazine, Oct. 1, 2019)

    In 2017 he had a heart attack which he later said was “one of the best things that ever happened in my life,” adding, “Now, there is only space for truth and nothing else. So you start searching for it: What is my truth? What am I? What is my role in life?” (USA Today. Oct. 1, 2019)

    Banderas confirmed on his 60th birthday in 2020 that he had tested positive for COVID-19. 

    PHOTO: Banderas in 2009 at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic; photo by Petr Novák, Wikipedia, under CC 3.0.

    “I have to recognize that I am agnostic. I don’t believe in any kind of fundamentalism. I prefer to take life in a different way, with a sense of humor. I try to teach my kids to be open. Whatever they believe is fine with me.”

    — Interview, People magazine (April 6, 2006)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn
    © Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

    Walter Plywaski

    Walter Plywaski

    On this date in 1929, atheist Walter Plywaski (né Wladyslaw Plywacki), who won a landmark court case on religious oaths, was born in Łódź, Poland, to Regina and Maksimilian Plywacki. The family lived above the pharmacy his parents operated. His father, a socialist and former cavalry officer, was a religious agnostic of Jewish descent. His mother was raised in Orthodox Judaism.

    Religion was not a significant influence in his upbringing, Plywaski said, recalling theological discussions with his father. “He wanted me to be a debater, so I read theologians like St. Augustine and Pascal to sharpen my skills.” (Intermountain Jewish News, Jan. 6, 2011)

    The family’s world fell apart in 1939 when Germany invaded and forced Jews and persons of Roma descent into a ghetto in Łódź. They arrived in a railroad freight car at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Plywaski’s 15th birthday in 1944. His mother soon ended up in a line leading to the gas chamber. He would see his father beaten to death by a Nazi camp commander. He later said Auschwitz turned him into an atheist (see quote below).

    Prisoners were moved from camp to camp as it became clear to the Germans that the war was lost. One extermination method was to lock barracks doors or nail them shut, douse buildings with fuel and set them afire. In 1945 Plywaski was among over 30,000 liberated by U.S. troops from Dachau.

    He worked as an interpreter for the Americans and emigrated to the U.S. in 1947. He served four years in the U.S. Air Force before completing a degree in electrical engineering at Oregon State University, then worked for 18 years for the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration and for defense contractors before starting an electronics design company.

    His petition for U.S. citizenship while living in Hawaii in 1952 was denied by a judge after Plywaski told him that as an atheist he could not end the oath with “so help me God” and requested an alternative affirmation. The judge refused. Plywaski moved to Oregon, and with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, prevailed in court in 1955 and was granted citizenship.

    Before divorcing, he and his wife had three daughters: Cybele, Ariel and Gabriella. His Boulder, Colorado, home was destroyed by wildfire in 2010, a loss he accepted. “I have lost more before. It’s almost like water off a duck’s back when you compare it to the Holocaust.”

    Plywaski, who spoke six languages, was actively involved with Boulder Atheists along with speaking to students in elementary and secondary schools and colleges about the Holocaust. Before the 2020 election, he appeared in a No Bystanders video that got 2.2 million views about the importance of voting against hatred and fear.

    He died at age 91 at Sunrise Senior Living in Boulder. D. 2021.

    “I’m an atheist. Once in Auschwitz, we were on lockdown in the barracks. And we hear high-pitched screams coming from somewhere outside. The Kapo comes in and tells us that the Nazis are burning children seven and under alive. Whether that was true or not, I cannot say. But I accepted it as truth. So for me, the voice of G-d at Auschwitz was the scream of a burning child.”

    — Interview, Intermountain Jewish News (Jan. 6, 2011)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn
    © Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

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