Mr. First Amendment

You can still pick up the phone and call the local American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) hotline, but something is amiss. The woman’s voice on the recording sounds helpful and sincere, but it’s not quite the same. The passion is missing; the fervor is gone. Let’s face it—she’s not Hank Alberts.

Hank was the executive director of the ACLU of San Luis Obispo County until his death from cancer in 2002. When Hank died, the local chapter struggled to continue, but the torch was never passed to a new generation and the group seems to exist in name only these days.

Which is especially sad in this time of the Patriot Act and Alberto Gonzales and government snooping in private lives because we probably need folks like Hank Alberts more than ever. This retired San Luis Obispo High School teacher was determined and dogged in his approach, willing to confront any individual or organization he thought was threatening the Constitution. He was Mr. First Amendment.

Scour newspaper headlines from a decade ago and there’s Hank, championing a variety of causes. He defended the right of atheists to use the community meeting room at Mid-State Bank. Hank challenged the cities of San Luis Obispo and Atascadero when they decided to give rent-free leases to the Boy Scouts, despite the organization’s controversial membership policies.

In 1999, Hank went before the county Board of Supervisors, demanding they retract a $2500 grant the board had given to Mission Prep, arguing the grant violated the separation of church and state. The board backed down under threat of a lawsuit.

One battle he didn’t win was his on-going attempt to establish civilian review of local law enforcement. Hank spent a lot of time and energy courting Pat Hedges after Hedges was first elected sheriff in 1998, but the dialogue went nowhere. Nothing materialized.

Not surprisingly, Hank always seemed to be the center of the storm, generating hate letters in the paper and angry phone calls on talk radio. When asked, he insisted that he was neither a Republican nor Democrat, conservative nor liberal. “My loyalty is to the U.S. Constitution,” Hank would say. He usually carried a copy with him.

I knew little of him personally. Hank was a native New Yorker, a teacher by profession. Divorced, he lived in a tiny apartment on Pacific Street. Every weekday afternoon, Hank would walk out to the Madonna Road post office to pick up the ACLU mail and he was a familiar figure downtown in his black knit shirt and sports coat. His voice was deep and booming. He loved to argue.

I first met Hank in December 1991. Betsey Nash was getting ready to leave KVEC and I was being groomed as her replacement. She invited me to drop by one morning and sit in on one of her shows. Hank was the guest for the second segment. Within ten minutes, the studio phone lines were lit up with incensed callers. Even mentioning the ACLU in some parts of this county is like waving fresh meat in front of a hungry bear.

But Hank never flinched, calmly, but forcibly, sticking to his guns. I was impressed and Hank became one of the first regular guests I recruited for my show. Over the years, he proved to be one of my favorites. It’s not that I agreed with him on everything, but I had to admire his passion.

I thought about Hank a lot in the months immediately after 9-11, but I knew his health was declining and I chose to respect his privacy. But during these last five years, as we engage in emotional debates about civil liberties and witness a dramatic paradigm shift about individual privacy, Hank comes to mind often. I wonder what Hank would say about all this. I know how concerned he would be.

It is an appropriate testament to his work with the local ACLU that no one individual has tried to replace Hank Alberts. The group, with largely an older membership, has faded from the spotlight, making way for newer groups like the anti-war Code Pink to dominate the headlines.

Which is unfortunate, because the Constitution still matters and the ACLU remains the best guardian for even the most unpopular of causes. I’ve often thought that either John Ashbaugh or Larry Houlgate could step in, but that’s for others to decide.

I miss Hank. He gave a damn about something, which seems to be all too rare these days.

SLO City News (November 2007)

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Published by Dave Congalton

Writer. Radio Host. Screenwriter. Enjoying the Good Life on California's Central Coast.

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