Life of the Party

Death in the mines. Hunger marches. An FBI spy on every block. Minnesota's daughters of the revolution can tell you about it all. But first, have some coffee cake.

In the Twin Cities, the blacklist hit Tom Foley, who had left Honeywell thinking he would easily get another job but soon realized he was persona non grata in local machine shops. So, says his son, he resorted to lying to prospective employers: "He'd say he'd been farming for 15 years and was now coming back--it didn't quite tally. The 1950s were a time of full employment, so he would get the job. But then the FBI agents would harass his bosses, ask him to inform on Mom."

His father's saving grace, says Foley, was his low-key charm. "People liked my dad. He was sweeter, nicer--they liked him in a way that they didn't like my mom, who was factual, not as social. If it had been my mom, the shop owner might not have been as conflicted about it. But no one was happy to fire my dad."

Politics even began to invade the Foleys' Spring Lake Park neighborhood. Alma Foley remembers a kid with whom she'd gotten into a spat threatening that "all he needed to do was go down to the FBI and tell them about me." Son Tom recalls rotten tomatoes thrown at the house at night and "a pile of dog shit" left on the doorstep, topped with a toothpick-sized red flag.

Then there was the mysterious black sedan that often sat outside the family's house. One day in 1953 the car pulled away from the curb as nine-year-old Tom headed for the school bus. "The car followed the bus," he remembers. "I got off and two of them, white guys in suits and hats, walked behind me. I went to my classroom, and then I was called to the principal's office and told that these guys wanted to talk to me. The principal left and I was alone in the room with them."

"Growing up in those times, I was fairly politically savvy," Foley continues. "So when they asked me, 'What books do your parents read you?' I said, 'They read me Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn.'" Foley is noticeably proud that, even as a third-grader, he knew enough not to give "the feebees," as Communists called the FBI, any useful information. But, he figures now, maybe that wasn't the point.

"Let me think for a moment how to say this--well, I just will. The infiltrators had spotted my dad as being mentally in trouble, very close to a nervous breakdown. So I think that they thought, 'Goddamn, this guy should have popped a month ago. Maybe we try this kid.'" People who "cracked" were considered useful to the FBI because they could be convinced to inform on their friends. Sure enough, Foley says, when he told his parents what had happened at school, "that came very close to cracking my dad."

Amid all the hysteria, Alma Foley says the family tried to act normally. People knew they were Communists, she says, so there was no point in trying to hide. Instead they tried to protect the few friends who still came to meetings. "We kept our circle small, didn't let too many people know who was there. If anyone started reporting, they wouldn't have too many names to name."

But the secrecy took its toll on an organization that had thrived on public debate. "The McCarthy period did us in," Toini Mackie says, shaking her head. "Party membership never rose again."

Longtime Chicago radio host and author Studs Terkel, who as a young TV actor saw his show dumped by NBC because he had signed what were considered Communist petitions, says McCarthyism "set us back half a century. A lot of innocent people were destroyed." What's more, he says, public debate suffered when it became clear that political opinions could cost people their livelihood: "That time has made people worry about talking about serious things," he speculates. "That's why we now have so much emphasis on the banal."

 

The newspaper is already sitting on the kitchen table, ready for the trip to Excelsior. It's the People's Weekly World now (not the Daily Worker), and it's no longer delivered door to door by party organizers, but dropped by the bundle on racks at a few select Twin Cities locations. The suburb where Toini Mackie lives now, in an apartment built into her daughter's house, isn't among those locations.

With slightly shaky hands, Savola slides the two copies of the World into a plastic bag; she's a little behind on her regular delivery to Mackie's, having recently totaled her car. The accident shattered her dentures and put a gash into her head. She still doesn't quite look herself as she stands outside her south Minneapolis building, a row of black stitches on a shaved part of her scalp fluttering gently in the autumn breeze. "They said I was pretty tough," she muses.

Savola and Mackie became close in the early 70s, after the Savolas--approaching what some people might consider retirement age--moved to the Twin Cities to become district organizers for the Communist Party of Minnesota and the Dakotas. They'd heard about the position through their old friend Gus Hall, by then head of the national party. When Matt died in 1977, Helvi Savola stayed on--for more than two decades. "I think they're finally letting me retire," she laughs. "I've been trying for years now."

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