front&center: Jean Garton

By Jeff LeMaster Published March 9, 2008 at 6:19 a.m.
0 Comments A A Font Size

— For Jean Staker Garton of Benton, it's almost always been about words.

An acclaimed author and speaker within the prolife movement since the early '70s, Garton has traveled the world speaking on what she calls "the life issues."

But while her fight has been for the rights of the unborn, her weapon has been words.

From the time she entered Concordia College in the 1940s, the English language was something she treasured.

"Growing up in Brooklyn, it wasn't my native tongue," she said jokingly. "My relatives all sounded like Archie Bunker."

Getting to Concordia was a big deal for her, as she was the first in her family to go to college.

"My dad went to the neighborhood drugstore," Garton, 79, said in her noticeable-but-pleasant Brooklyn accent. "That was the only phone in the area. Well, he called this school and enrolled me, sight unseen."

It was from Garton's parents that she learned to be a woman of action.

Her father was a former professional boxer and a captain with the New York City Police Department. Before Garton was born, her mother was one of the first female police officers in the N Y PD, Garton said.

She recalled fond memories of when her father was captain of the Times Square Precinct.

"My sister and I, we would get to go to all the shows on Broadway," she said.

One of her favorites was seeing the Rockettes dance at Radio City Music Hall. She took dance lessons from a former Rockette, hoping to some day join the dance troupe. And though she was voted best girl dancer of her class when she graduated high school - "That's my real claim to fame, doing the jitterbug," she said - her interests soon shifted once she went to college.

There she met H.W. "Chic" Garton, whom she described as "this paratrooper from World War II."The two would marry several years later, but not before Garton finished two bachelor's degrees. After graduating in four years from Concordia, Garton enrolled at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. She wanted to get to the roots of the English language, and Ursinus had just what she was looking for - a degree in Anglo-Saxon. It was one of only two colleges in the country at the time to offer such a track of study, Garton said.

Learning Anglo-Saxon deepened her understanding of English, but it wasn't the most practical language to learn.

"I haven't met many people I can converse with," she said.

Garton graduated in 1950 and married Chic the same year. She entered the work force training salespeople on how to better deliver a sales pitch. It was the perfect first job for Garton because it deepened her belief in the power of words. She taught her salespeople to use word pictures when selling their products.

"If they were selling a chair, I might tell them to talk about it as [the type of] chair a sea captain would use because it was so sturdy and could withstand the waves," Garton said. "It was a great experience."

The Garton family expanded throughout the '50s and '60s. First, they had a daughter, Dale, and then a son, Dean. Next came another girl, Dru.

The family moved around a bit, starting out in New Jersey, then moving to Connecticut and Texas.

W hile living in Texas in 1963, they were among a crowd in Dallas anxiously awaiting the arrival of President John F. Kennedy.

"We were waiting on President Kennedy, but his car never came," Garton said. "After that, Chic, who by then was doing well as a business executive, started questioning a lot of things."

In the wake of Kennedy's assassination, Chic decided to go to seminary, and the family followed.

But in 1969, Garton got pregnant again unexpectedly, and this time she didn't want another addition to the family. She looked into having an abortion, though at the time the procedure was still illegal.

She joined an activist group seeking to promote abortion on demand. During that time she attended a lecture at which a coroner and the head of obstetrics from a local hospital were speaking.

"They were talking about a woman's right to choose," Garton said. "I was saying, 'Yeah, that's right.' But the last speaker was a woman named Mary who kept asking, 'What about the baby?' I thought, 'Doesn't this woman keep up with science? Doesn't she know it's just a blob?'"

Int r ig ued, G a r ton contacted the woman after that night and asked her for documentation on her claims that a fetus should be regarded as a human life. Thus began six months of intensive research for Garton.

"I studied history, sociology, fetology, all as they related to abortion," the devout Lutheran said. "Finally I went to scripture."

She described that experience in an excerpt from an article she recently wrote for Lutheran Woman's Quarterly: "I spent six months studying the abortion issue from numerous perspectives in an attempt to find confirmation that abortion, as its advocates claimed, helps women, doesn't take a human life and is a choice God allows us to make. I came out the end of that exhaustive research with a changed heart and mind and with a commitment to be a voice in defense of the unseen, unheard, unborn child."

About that time she was asked to teach a women's class at her church, and she decided to use her research as the topic of the class.

The class became popular, and soon Garton was asked to speak at other churches and organizations. Her reputation as a speaker on the issue of abortion extended all the way to Washington, D.C., and when Congress weighed whether to amend the Constitution to protect the rights of the unborn in light of the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, they called on Garton to testify. She remembers sitting before the U.S. Senate waiting to testify, and renowned women's advocate Bella Abzug was scheduled to testify first.

"Bella Abzug gets up in support of abortion and says, 'I speak for the women of America.' I said, 'You don't speak for me, Bella.' I couldn't wait to get up to that microphone," Garton said.

While Garton's words did not sway Congress (she also testified before the House of Representatives), she was complimented on her eloquence and on how well she had crafted her argument.

While her cause had lost a battle, Garton's war of words had just begun.

An episode with her youngest son, Donn, led to the penning of Garton's book, Who Broke The Baby? What The Abortion Slogans Really Mean. She described the episode in an article she wrote for First Things in 1995:

"Late one night, as I viewed an abortion slide, my youngest child, then a sleepy 3-yearold, unexpectedly entered the room. I heard his sharp intake of breath as he saw the body of a 3-month-old, dismembered by a D & C (dilatation and curettage, also known as uterine scraping) abortion. With great sadness in his voice he asked, "Who broke the baby?" Here was a child too young to have his sight clouded by semantic subterfuge, and, with a wisdom that often escapes the learned, he could mentally assemble the body parts and call what he saw a broken baby."

That encounter inspired the title of Garton's book, which gave something of an insider's look at what Garton views as a deceptive public relations campaign by pro-choice advocates in the '70s.

Garton's career as a speaker took off after the publication of her book, and it was a speaking engagement that first brought her to Arkansas. While speaking at a pastor's convention in the mid-1980s, the Gartons made an impression on the Rev. Andy Toops, who was then pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in the Avilla community.

Toops heard that Chic was looking to retire from his pastoral duties in Pittsburgh, where the Gartons were living at the time, and offered him a part-time pastoral role at Zion. Chic accepted, and theGartons have lived in Benton ever since.

These days Garton st ill travels a lot for speaking engagements. To date, she has traveled abroad 58 times to speak about "the life issues," and her travels have put her in some unique circumstances, like when she spoke against abortion at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock on the day of the presidential election in 1992. Immanuel was the home church of then-soon-tobe President Bill Clinton, who was outspoken on his pro - choice stance.

"That was an interesting experience, to say the least," Garton said.

"The life issues" have expanded in recent years, and Garton sees her responsibility not just to educate people about her perspective on abortion, but ultimately to convey the importance of family.

Using a play on a popular pro-choice slogan, she wrote in Who Broke The Baby?, "Every child should be a wanted child, but that places the burden on us to be better wanters."

While words have always been her ally, she said speaking on issues like abortion and stem-cell research, which raise questions of ethics, morality and the greater good, often leave her wondering how her audience is processing the information she's giving them.

"The difficulty with these life issues and speaking is you never know if you've helped someone," she said. "When you speak on the life issues, there's no cheering, there's no clapping, there's no response on a face because it's such a human issue that touches all of us."

While some of her criticsmay have written her off as a right-wing extremist, Garton is quick to point out that her weapons always have been and always will be words.

"Shouting at women as they go into abortion clinics or bombing abortion clinics - I don't know how you can say that's pro-life," she said.

She's faced her fair share of hostility, too. On a number of occasions while speaking on college campuses, she said, her car has been vandalized, and she has received a lot of hate mail. But as the daughter of two Brooklyn cops, she's been tough enough to deal with negative feedback.

Garton said it's been wonderful living in Arkansas because "the family is still appreciated, and churches are still strong." With all her speaking engagements, though, she halfjoked that "no one here knows me because I'm never here."

Locally she volunteers for Safe Haven women's shelter and serves on a committee at Zion Lutheran that deals with theological and ethical issues.

She said she's got at least one more book left to write, the topic of which will be dealing with the violent death of a child. Like everything Garton writes or speaks about - she once gave a speech at a college about the Loch Ness Monster simply because she was interested in it - the subject is near and dear to her heart.

In 1979, her eldest son, Dean, was murdered in Dallas. She said the experience was sobering not only because she had to mourn one son, but also because she had to face the thought that she had wanted to abort her other son.

God has granted healingthrough time and the love of family, she said, and she wants to write about the experience to help other families in similar situations.

"You either get very bitter and vengeful or you appreciate life all the more and appreciate children all the more," she said. "And you take time to realize how short life is."

Garton hopes her legacy of words has been passed to her three living children, six grandchildren and two greatgrandchildren, all of whom are very proud of her work, she said. Her grandson Jonathan has begun collecting information about her life and work with the intent of some day writing a book about his G.G. (Grandma Garton).

"As I look back now, I never could have envisioned where this issue would have led me ...," Garton said. "I have found that if you let God open doors and don't knock them down toget in them, there are all sorts of surprises on the other side, and you get to have things you never thought you'd have ... you get to do things you never thought possible."matter of fact Name: Jean Staker Garton Age: 79 Family: Husband, Chic; children, Dale, Dru and Donn; grandchildren Joshua, Jonathan, Jeremy, Caitlin, Carissa and Claire; greatgrandchildren Skyler and Johanna Occupation: Traveling speaker My favorite Broadway show growing up was: Any of the music shows. I preferred the shows by Harry James and the Dorsey brothers and Spike Jones.

Some of the most interesting people I've met are: President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Dolly Parton, Dale Evans, the prince of Monaco, Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani My favorite place to visit is: Germany

None Jeff LeMaster can be reached at 501-918-4527 or jlemaster@arkansasonline.com.