At 82, Valley Stream activist still has work to do

Nancy Dwyer, 82, beat her drum at an International Women's Day protest in Carle Place on March 8.
Nancy Dwyer, 82, beat her drum at an International Women's Day protest in Carle Place on March 8.
Brian Stieglitz/Herald

Nancy Dwyer has attended more protests than she can remember.

She slid her fingernail over the head of a wooden drum in her Gordon Road home last week, trying to make sense of information she scribbled on it in orange marker. She has been to hundreds of protests on Long Island and in Washington, D.C. — all of which are documented on a wooden drum she takes to every rally.

After a minute, she shrugged. The entry that stumped her read, “Star Wars Cong McCarthy, June 11, 2001.”

Dwyer, now 82, has a long history of civic engagement and volunteer work — which included campaigning for U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy in the late ‘90s. She surmised it had something to do with that.

The earliest rally recorded on the drum took place in 1999 at a car wash across the street from Belmont Park, and was organized by the Workplace Project — a Long Island nonprofit that organizes immigrant workers and their families to fight for better working and living conditions.

She appointed herself makeshift conductor, and bought the drum to keep the group’s chants in rhythm.

She demonstrated the emphasis: “Not pay-ing o-ver-time is ill-EE-gal!”

Dwyer earned a journalism degree from Pennsylvania State University. She was the editor of the Valley Stream Maileader (now the Herald) for a brief time after she graduated in 1956, and then worked at the Long Island Catholic Newspaper for 25 years. She retired from local journalism in 1991, and decided to devote herself to activism. She’s volunteered for organizations like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Pax Christi and the Long Island Progressive Coalition, and she was involved with the Valley Stream Democratic Club.

“There was no more fun writing about people doin’ stuff,” she said. “I wanted to do stuff.”

In addition to keeping chanters in unison, her signature drum serves other purposes. If protesters get unruly: “Brrrrrrrr-um!” she yelled, mimicking the sound of the drum. “I’ll give ’em a drumroll.” Sometimes she’ll beat a signaling rhythm for marchers in the back to help them navigate the twists and turns of the route, like some sort of tribal, echolocater. Other times, if the rally is on a street corner, she likes to be a quarter of a block ahead to alert drivers to pay attention. She noted, though, that using the drum indoors is frowned upon.

She said going to a protest is more fun than writing to elected officials — which she also does, focusing on causes she feels passionate about. “I’m retired,” she said. “I can look out and say, ‘Well, the weather’s OK. I’m goin’.’”

The corner of Glen Cove and Old Country roads is a site of repeated demonstrations, she said. She remembered that while protesting the Iraq War, the response from passersby changed over time.

“[In the beginning,] people were yelling obscenities at us and giving us the finger,” she said. “Then, as time went by, people realized, ‘Oh yeah, this is really a dumb war.’ So then the finger we got would be a thumbs up.”

Dwyer is aware that many don’t share her views — including some members of her family — but she said her behavior isn’t guided by people’s opinions. Her faith is what directs her.

“Make joyful noise unto the Lord,” she said. She repeatedly refers to demonstrations as “making a bit of noise,” and noted that Pope Francis has encouraged speaking out against injustice in the world, so long as it is done with the values of beauty, goodness and truth.

Dwyer mainly reads print news to keep up with current events. She doesn’t watch TV, because, as she explained matter-of-factly, “You have to sit there and watch it.” There are copies of The Week, The Atlantic and The New Republic on her coffee table, alongside the National Catholic Reporter — a national, left-leaning Catholic newspaper.

On issues like abortion, she explained that her stance falls somewhere between the middle of two extremes — she doesn’t identify as pro-choice or pro-life. According to Dwyer, the reasons women turn to abortion in the first place should be addressed. “Why does a woman opt for abortion?” she said. “What’s causing this?” She added that improving the quality of life for women by establishing a living wage, making housing and health care affordable, and improving the quality of education, could help “quantify the reasons [for abortion]” and be responsive to them.

“I go to church — I’m sure a lot of people sitting in the pew don’t agree with me,” she said of her protests. “But at the kiss of peace, we wish each other peace of Christ.”

Over the years, she has rallied for climate change, immigration and women’s rights. But with the polarizing victory of President Donald Trump, she said demonstrations are “coming up every week.”

“It’s too bad because I think [Trump] really has psyched into, you know, their deepest concerns and fears and he’s manipulated ’em,” she said of his supporters. “Our side has not always responded intelligently … We have to be intelligent about it and realize and care about the people who differ from us. We can’t just shrug them off and say, ‘Eh, what’re you gonna do about that?’”

Despite the political tumult, Dwyer said this is the happiest time of her life.

“It’s not about necessarily winning, but it’s about persisting, and doing whatever you can,” she said. “This, I can do right now. Someday I may not be able to do that, but I’ll do somethin’, I’ll find somethin’.”

She lives with her husband, Jack, 86, and is in contact with her five children and their families often.

She admits she calls attention to herself with the drum, but she adds that it enables her to make friends and socialize with like-minded people. She often reconnects with people who met her years ago at Long Island protests, who are surprised to see that she’s still at it. When she isn’t out banging her drum, she likes to make pop art with political cartoons — enlarging them and re-coloring them with markers.

The thought of spending her free time more conventionally — by going to movies or playing pinochle at the Community Center — makes her grimace.

“Yeah,” she said with a shrug, “that wouldn’t do it for me.”