Obituary: Merle Elwin Hansen
Merle Elwin Hansen, 89, of Newman Grove died Friday, March 27, 2009 at the Mid Nebraska Lutheran Home in Newman Grove.
He was born November 26, 1919 on his family's farmstead 11 miles northwest of Newman Grove, Nebraska. He was a nationally known advocate for family farm agriculture, conservation and environmental issues, civil rights, and world peace.
Funeral services will be held Saturday, April 4th at 2:00 P.M. at the United Methodist Church, 190 North 4th Street, in Newman Grove. Rev. Kenneth Purscell of Newman Grove and Rev. David McCreary of Lincoln will officiate. A lunch will be served at the Church immediately following the funeral services. Visitation will be from 4:00 to 8:00 Friday evening, April 3rd at the Newman Grove Memorial Funeral Home, 206 N. 3rd Street.
Hansen was preceded in death by: his parents Ruth (Petersen) and Carl Hansen, Newman Grove; wife Lucinda; sisters Viola Beeson, Berkley, CA, Irma Shade, Laguna Hills, CA, Phyllis Goodman, Fullerton, CA; brothers-in-law Carl Shade, Laguna Hills, CA, Leonard Burgart, Alta Vista, IA, John Brummond and Harold Clark, Ionia, IA.
Survivors include: seven children John (Karen) Hansen, Lincoln, Mary (David Marsh) Hansen, Denton, Jean Hansen, Norfolk, Lee (Kim) Hansen, Norfolk, William (Joan) Hansen, Norfolk, Chris (Marilyn) Hansen, Tilden, and Juli Hansen (Scott DePriest), Newman Grove; eight sisters-and brothers-in-law Florine Clark and Norma Brummond, Ionia, IA, Lucille Burgart, Alta Vista, IA, Patricia and Harold Balk, Charles City, IA, John and Judy Kramer, Sugar Grove, IL, and Jack Goodman, Fullerton, CA; twelve grandchildren Laura (Jeff) Marks, Hugh (Katy) Hansen, Hal (Tara Firenzi) Hansen, Kyle (Sheryle) Hansen, Michelle, Mark, Edward, Lacey, Brandon, and Taylor Hansen, and Keenan and Corina Marsh; three great-grandchildren Henry and Willa Marks and Stella Hansen; and numerous cousins, nephews, and nieces.
After graduating from Newman Grove High School in 1938, Merle attended a business college in Chillicothe, MO until he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a petty officer on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked. During World War II, he served on transport carriers including the U.S.S. Fuller in the Pacific and North African theaters. He was awarded six battle stars, attained the rank of Chief Yeoman, and was honorably discharged in 1945. Following the war, he worked as a multi-state field organizer for the American Veterans Committee headquartered in Omaha.
In the late 1940s, Hansen worked as a field organizer for the National Farmers Union in South Dakota and Iowa. While organizing a farmer and labor picnic in northeast Iowa, he met his future wife, Lucinda Kramer, who was the labor Union Secretary for the Oliver tractor manufacturing plant in Charles City, Iowa. On February 18, 1950, they were married at the St. Boniface rectory in Ionia, Iowa. They moved back to the farm 11 miles northwest of Newman Grove where they raised their seven children.
Hansen served as a Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor, earned county and regional soil conservation awards, and made many presentations to elementary schools on the importance of soil and water conservation. He was the first in his area to use minimum tillage.
Always the innovator, Hansen formed Hansen Charolais in 1960, a nationally recognized purebred cattle business that sold breeding stock to commercial cattlemen and purebred breeders across the country for 24 years. He was a passionate promoter of the Charolais breed, serving as the first state Vice-President and second President of the Nebraska Charolais Association. Hansen built and owned a fertilizer business with his family, raised and sold a wide range of certified seeds including grasses, legumes, and oats along with their mostly irrigated corn, soybeans, oats, and alfalfa farming operation.
Hansen's tireless fight for economic justice for family farmers led him to be active in many farm organizations, always building broad based political and organizational coalitions while educating farmers about the importance of understanding farm policy history and the need to work together. As were his parents and grandparents, Merle was active in Nebraska Farmers Union. He loved to discuss all facets of farm policy and bring new members into the organization, oftentimes winning top state membership recruiter recognition.
In the 1950s and 1960s Hansen was a key National Farmers Organization organizer, nominating Oren Lee Staley to head the organization at their national convention in Des Moines, IA in 1956. In addition to organizing Madison County, Hansen organized several area counties of the NFO, and believed in the value and need for farmers to use collective bargaining to market their products at more fair prices.
For many years, Hansen served as Vice-President of the U.S. Farm Association. In the mid 1970s Hansen became a state leader in the American Agricultural Movement that organized the "Tractorcade" to Washington, D.C.
In April of 1983 Hansen was elected President of the North American Farm Alliance, a loose coalition of more than two-dozen state and national groups supporting national farm policy reform. The new organization worked with financially strapped farmers struggling with farm credit and foreclosures.
In 1986, he helped found the National Family Farm Coalition, and would serve for years on its Board of Directors and Executive Committee. In 1997, the American Corn Growers Association presented Hansen with their "Carl L. King" award for distinguished service. The award read: "For representing what is really the best in agriculture and never forgetting the importance of maintaining a strong voice for the needs of farmers."
While working for Iowa Farmers Union in the late 1940s, Hansen became a close friend of African-American civil rights activist Edna Griffin and her husband, Dr. Stanley Griffin of Des Moines, Iowa. Hansen volunteered his support to Edna's campaign to integrate the lunch counter at Katz Drug Store, one of the first successful actions of the civil rights movement. Hansen's friendship with the Griffin family led to his acquaintance and friendship with other civil rights leaders.
In 1984, Hansen became Jesse Jackson's agricultural advisor and heavily influenced his farm and rural policies for his 1984 and 1988 Presidential campaigns. He often traveled with Jackson, including a trip to Africa and Europe. Hansen gave one of Jackson's nomination seconding speeches at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Hansen won one of two inaugural Dixon Terry/Tom Saunders Rainbow Rural Leadership Awards from the National Rainbow Coalition in 1990 for his leadership on economic and social justice issues.
Hansen attended the first Farm Aid concert in 1985, worked with Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp, and was heavily involved in many Farm Aid Concerts, including its third concert held in Lincoln at Memorial Stadium September 19, 1987. He was influential in helping Farm Aid develop its message and supported their efforts to fund organizations that serve rural Americans.
Hansen was active in the Democratic Party at the county, state, and national levels. He served on the Nebraska Democratic Party Central Committee from Madison County for many years and received the state party Franklin Delano Roosevelt Award in 1990. Hansen ran unsuccessfully for University of Nebraska Regent in 1976 and Nebraska Legislature in 1978, and volunteered on many dozens of local, state, and national campaigns.
Hansen was one of the founding members of Rural Nebraskans for Peace in May of 1967, which later was integrated into Nebraskans for Peace. Hansen served as President of both peace groups and was an outspoken opponent of American involvement in Vietnam.
Studs Terkel featured Hansen in a section of his book "Coming of Age: Our Century As Told By Those Who Lived It." Hansen was featured in many national publications articles including USA Today, The New York Times, and Ms. Magazine as well as many documentary films on rural issues. He served as a source of information for many of the articles and books written on the Farmers Holiday movement including "Cornbelt Rebellion: the Farmers' Holiday Association" by John L. Shover. Hansen wrote two chapters for Jim Schwab's book "Raising Less Corn And More Hell," which describes the struggles of midwestern farmers during the farm crisis of the 1980's.
Across the country and around the world, Hansen made hundreds of speeches. He wrote dozens of articles for a wide range of publications. He was a mentor to countless younger leaders and activists. Often with a combination of humor and preaching, he linked together the themes of peace, human rights, environmental conservation, economic justice, and the plight of the family farm.
Hansen's files and records were donated to Iowa State University. The manuscript collection available at ISU in Ames includes his speeches and writings, the organizational archives of the many organizations he was involved with, and exchanges of letters with dozens of correspondents. Some of his records were also sent to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, including most of his records relating to Nebraskans for Peace and the American Veterans Committee.
To his many friends and family, Merle was known for his keen sense of humor, good stories, historical and political insight, personal warmth, disarming smile, unyielding sense of justice and fairness, progressive politics, and his skills as a marksman. While leaving behind an enormous legacy of accomplishments, he will be greatly missed.
The family asks that memorials be sent to the Nebraska Farmers Union Foundation, 1305 Plum Street, Lincoln, NE 68502, Nebraska Peace Foundation, 941 "O" Street, Suite 1026, Lincoln, NE 68508, or your local food bank.