Jay Wenk, perennial activist, town board member, fighter for peace, died at around 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 29 at home at the age of 91.
His death was announced in a Facebook posting by his grandson Conor Wenk, who said “While his activism and impact will surely outlive him, we should all aspire to be as engaged and invested in our towns, our country and our world as he was.”
Wenk served on the Woodstock Town Board for four years in the early 1990s and was elected again in 2007 and has been on the council since.
“I spoke with Jay on Friday,” said Woodstock supervisor Bill McKenna. “It’s very sad, but Jay would want us to celebrate his life, not mourn. He led a wonderful active, colorful life…He was an institution in the town. I didn’t always agree with him, but I admired his dedication and tenacity to the causes.”
Wenk was a World War II veteran who fought on the front lines in General Patton’s Third Army Division. His division marched through Belgium, Germany and Prague, and was in Europe when the war ended.
“Jay was one of the last Woodstockers to take up arms against the Nazis,” said Woodstock Town Historian Richard Heppner, who has known Wenk since the 1970s. “He wrote a book about it. I remember debating HL Mencken and Groucho Marx with him. He never changed in that he always went after hypocrisy. He was pretty consistent.”
Wenk’s war experiences, and further study, put him squarely in the Veterans for Peace movement, and led to numerous civil disobedience arrests, one of which, in 2007, was a tangle with the Kings Mall in Kingston, where, along with others, he was arrested for protesting the presence of a military recruiting station while Middle Eastern wars raged.
“This business of the mall and problems I’ve been having there made me understand for the first time clearly that the Constitution is not what it seems to be,” Wenk said at the time. “Freedom of speech is not what it seems to be. Freedom of assembly is not what it seems to be. You and I walk through the walls of a corporation whether it’s a mall or something else, we lose our first amendment rights…I’m not talking about people going in and looking to harm people or shout fire, for instance, in a crowded theater. But you walk through the doors of a corporation and you lose your first amendment rights.”
While on the Woodstock Town Board, Wenk fought for years, and ultimately successfully, to help homeowners in the Bearsville flats remove old, potentially leaky underground oil tanks that may have endangered the town’s water system aquifer.
According to McKenna, the Town Board will seek a replacement for the rest of the year, and there will be an election in November to fill the seat.
Those who have worked with Councilman Wenk often had a strained relationship, but had nothing but respect for his commitment to do what he thought was right. “Anyone who knows Jay knows it was a love hate relationship. You always had to admire his tenacity, determination and spirit.” McKenna said he was considering having the Village Green flag lowered to half staff in Wenk’s honor, but thought maybe that would anger him.
“We had what would be called a relationship that improved like a good bottle of wine over the years,” Town Clerk Jackie Earley said, noting Wenk was very opinionated, but had mellowed over the years. In fact, the two became good friends and realized they shared the same October birthday and were exactly 30 years apart. When Earley turned 60 and Wenk turned 90, they celebrated together and vowed to make it a tradition.
“It was an honor and privilege to serve on the board with Jay,” said Councilwoman Laura Ricci, who collaborated with Wenk on an aquifer protection district. “He was passionate about his conviction. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind,” Ricci said. “he was one of a kind and will certainly be missed.”
In his post, Conor Wenk wrote, “the reverence, and love I had for him can’t be put into words. There’s never enough time to spend with your family, or your heroes. I can only hope someday to be as wise, driven, and compassionate as he was…I only hope he knew how much he meant to me, because he was everything to me, and the world is lesser for his passing.”
As Memorial Day approached, Wenk submitted the following poem:
Decoration Day (originated in 1868)
Velvety Roses, white and yellow,
perky pink Begonias,
unabashedly gawky Sunflowers
surrounded by gentle aromas, decorate
grey stones raised in rows
among the seeded grasses.
When birds trill and warmth inspires,
baskets woven with rush and cane are
unburdened of plates and spoons,
napkins and knives, hard boiled eggs
wrapped in wax paper,
juicy sliced ham, roast chicken,
celery stuffed with cream cheese.
Tilted jugs brimful with grape juice and cider
drip onto chins and sweaters.
Sugar bowls, salt and pepper grinders are
propped carefully on nearby headstones after
blankets are shaken, two hands for each side,
billowing down to receptive grass.
This field, these stones, have called
families and friends through the generations;
“return this day,
eat and talk, drink and talk,
remember the boy who fell at
Chancellorsville, Trenton, the Marne,
Guadalcanal, Tripoli, Diem Ben Phu,
Little Big Horn, the Bulge, Ar Ramadi.”
Dribbling sweet juice, orange-munching young ones squirt seeds in all directions.
Shoeless, they wander among the stones, sounding out
graven names, years, places.
Warmth has faded, rain falls.
Picnickers scramble, catching up foods and
blankets, precariously perched salt shakers, and children.
Scrambling, laughing, they
dodge standing stones toward their
horses, buggies, bicycles and cars parked
way over there.
Those boys under the stones,
their laughter and hopes,
their lust to reproduce,
their memories, their pains, are
uncountable as these falling raindrops.
Those dead, killed and mutilated
by outrageous indifference
know the agony buried with them.
They speak through eons of bloody mud:
“This Day will never be enough.”
Connor Wenk said that a remembrance for his grandfather Jay Wenk looks like it will be on Saturday, June 16 at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center.
No time has been nailed down, but the exact time and place will be in next week’s edition.
“It’s supposed to be a celebration,” said Conor. “Only fun, it’s not to be a sad occasion, he said. He said he’ll haunt me if I don’t do it.”