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Cathy Wolff is a writer who has spent most of her career in media relations for educational and nonprofit organizations. I interviewed her in early 2006 for my New Hampshire Magazine article on the 30th anniversary of the Clamshell Alliance. 


I was born in New York City, grew up on Long Island. At age 14, we moved to Iowa. Got a Bachelor of Journalism degree at the University of Missouri. Headed off for job in Wilmington, Delaware, as a reporter. After about two years, quit and traveled for a while; ended up broke in Iowa. Moved to Chicago, got a job at AP. I was transferred to New Hampshire, arrived in December 1974 in a very beat-up VW Bug. Moved to Hopkinton, worked at the AP in Concord. 

In 1976, I quit the AP to write fiction or do something. I took a trip to Philadelphia for people's bicentennial. When I returned, I got a notice of a meeting on a nuclear plant: the construction permit [for Seabrook] had just been issued. I had been doing a little work with the Granite State Alliance. 

So I went to the meeting in Manchester. Jeff Brummer was in charge of GSA at the time; he had helped organize the People's Energy Project, which had taken a big interest in -- it's important to know the Clamshell Allliance didn't erupt full-blown; concern about this project had been evolving for some time. I volunteered to do some media stuff. I had never been involved before; I'd been a professional journalist. 

Why did the Seabrook issue galvanize you? 

I liked a lot of the people involved, but I'm not sure that was the main incentive. The arguments were very clear, that this was not a smart technology. That this had more downside than upside. The claims of the industry and the utility didn't hold up, when you looked at the evidence. 

And it was such a good issue: it was completely local and totally national. Environmental, and strongly economic, although the Clamshell never pursued that. Track 3 CWIP: Jeff Brummer helped start CA, he was one of the original 18 people arrested on august 1, 1976. He got interested in the issue of "construction work in progress" (CWIP). It allows a utility to charge ratepayers for construction even before electricity is being produced. 

[Usually, ratepayers cannot be charged for construction of a power plant until it actually goes online. The builders of Seabrook sought an exemption that would have allowed them to charge for Seabrook expenses before completion of the plant.]

He knew that this was not something that would go over with New Hampshire voters. He fed a lot of information to the [Hugh] Gallen campaign [Democrat running for Governor in 1976], and [then-Governor] Meldrim Thomson tumbled on the CWIP issue. It took him down, even though his blatant anti-home rule support of the nuke had not, this issue did, because that was pocketbook. It was CWIP that took the second nuke down. 

You were not one of the 18 arrested on August 1, 1976? 

I wasn't one of 180 on the 22nd either. Both times -- the 18 were people who had been pretty active in New Hampshire already. I did a lot of the news work. 

Also I wasn't sure I could passively be dragged and not slug somebody. I went through the training, and thought, "Uh uh, I can't do this yet." It took me until 1977 to know that I could hold to the principles of nonviolent civil disobedience. 

And that was a core principle of the Clamshell Alliance. 

We were fairly well organized, which was part of the downfall eventually. 

When consensus worked, as it did in 1976 and '77, it is so powerful, so strong, because people are vested. But it does require people having the same goals in mind. Which in this case wasn't a matter of being arrested, it was a matter of showing deep concern for a very important issue. Some were much more concerned that the people of Seabrook didn't want it, so it's a home rule issue.  Some were concerned about the marshlands, so it's an environmental issue. Others saw it attached to nuclear weapons, so it was a military issue.  But the focus of all those people was always to stop the construction of this plant. 

The tactics were to draw public attention to the issue. Incredibly strong PR tactics, in the way that we did it. 

The Clams turned around public opinion. 

I'm not sure it was a turn, but an awakening. When we started in 76, you could stop at a gas station and people would say, "What's a nuke?" because your bumper sticker said "No Nukes," and they did not know. 

What's scary to me now is the kids again don't know. They might know the word "nuke," and they might know that we get some of our electricity from nuclear power, but they have no idea whether that's good or bad. 

Every year, I guest lecture in a communications class at UNH on the communications of the Clamshell Alliance. I do this once a term. Each time I start the class by saying, "How many of you have ever heard about the Clamshell Alliance before you came into this class?" Increasingly few hands go up. And then I'll ask how many know about nukes, and some hands go up. I ask if they know that nuclear plants generate electricity, and less than two-thirds raise their hands. I ask if this is a good thing or a bad thing -- last time, no hands. It used to be, most thought it was a bad thing, and I would think the Clamshell Alliance had done what we intended to do. That's changing, so something's gotta happen. 

It was also the right issue at the right time, because you had people in their 20s and 30s who had come out of the antiwar and civil rights movements, who knew the authorities didn't have all the answers, and knew a little bit about organizing, and knew a little about dealing with authority and demonstrating. 

Lessons learned in protests of the 60s were applied to the Clamshell Alliance? 

I would think so. We tried to be more inclusive, it wasn't a youth movement per se. We always had people from SAPL [Seacoast Anti-Pollution League] speak at our rallies. We never had a civil disobedience action without also having a legal rally, so everyone had a place to express their opinions, whether they felt like they could be arrested or not. As in the best of the antiwar movement, we tried to educate people on the issues. 

Were you ever arrested yourself?

Yes, a couple of times. April '77 was the first time. 

That was when 1400 people were arrested, and refused to post bail. Did you?

I did. We had two weeks in jail, and we had a civil rights case that's still in the books as "C. Wolff versus Meldrim Thomson." 

My friends from the AP were calling me and saying "You're getting your issues confused." I was at Somersworth. 

I had worked very intensely in late '76 and early '77 on the issue. I had even moved into the office in Portsmouth, slept on the floor of the office for a while, 50 Congress Street. I didn't have a job. I was really broke when I got done with this, I was so broke! 

How long were you actively involved in the Clamshell Alliance?

I quit over and over. Like smoking. Burnout. It was an extremely strenuous endeavor. I went away in the summer of '78, came back, and didn't get involved again. I was on the fringes, but I knew I couldn't get involved, I had to make a living again. 

I got married, had a kid, got unmarried. I met my ex-husband [Ken Ormes] through the Clamshell Alliance. We fell in love at meetings, and got married eventually. The wedding party was at the Press Room; there must have been 200 people there, all Clams. I remember Bob Backus sitting in the Press Room, saying "Cathy, after this is over, do you want to talk about organizing around evacuation issues?" 

Has your time in the Alliance had a lasting effect on your life?

I'm sure it has. I worked with a man named Harvey Wasserman, who wrote Harvey Wasserman's History of the United States. He handled the alternative media, I handled the straight media. We were pretty good working together. I wouldn't have met the father of my son if not for the Clamshell Alliance. 

After sitting through Clamshell meetings, you can never find any meeting too arduous. We sometimes had 8-hour meetings. It taught me a tremendous respect for consensus decision-making, when done properly. I don't think I've seen it done properly since then, though. 

One other thing: How important a web of people is. When I had cancer seven years ago, Renny [Cushing] just appeared out of nowhere, I hadn't seen him for years, and every few weeks he drove me to Mass General for chemotherapy. 

The magic of being passionate about something, being deeply a part of something that's bigger than you -- I'm so blessed, I'm so lucky to have experienced that, even for a short period of time. 

It's also, and this always sounds arrogant, but we knew we were right. We still know we were right. There are very few causes in the world that you can feel that way about. 


Email me at john [at] johnswalters [dot] com