BY JESSICA NEWMAN
In 2008, three progressive groups created an award to honor the legacy of John A. “Jack” Penrod, who dedicated his life to the fight of the people for dignity, freedom and a peaceful society.
Gainesville Veterans for Peace, the Alachua County Labor Party and the United Faculty of Florida wanted to honor and encourage activists in the community for their consistent track record of movement work.
This year, the committee chose Joe Courter, co-founder of the Civic Media Center and editor/publisher of The Gainesville Iguana.
Joe’s commitment to peace and justice, in many ways, mirrors that of Jack Penrod.
In his day, Jack Penrod worked with the Congress of Industrial Organizations and helped organize the first faculty union at UF, United Faculty of Florida. He was a member of Veterans for Peace and a vocal opponent of the Iraq war; he helped found the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, worked closely with the National Organization for Women and Gainesville Women’s Liberation, and also dedicated time to the Alachua County Labor Party.
As members of the Penrod committee remark, “Jack Penrod was at it all the time” until his death in 2008 at the age of 94.
Like Jack, Joe Courter is “at it all the time” and has been since his first taste of activism as a young boy in the 1950s, when he wrote a politician about fish dying in the river behind his New Jersey home.
His first political victory came in as an undergrad at Hope College in Michigan, where he discovered there was a mandatory chapel every morning. After he circulated a petition and worked with the chaplain, the service was abolished.
As a college student during the Vietnam War, Joe saw firsthand with his peers the realities of the draft, although he was never called up. Following this experience, Joe fell in with the anti-war crowd and joined in the 1969 moratorium.
Years later, Joe moved to Gainesville and participated with numerous activist groups, including Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the Equal Rights Amendment campaign, the Catfish Alliance, Humanist Society of Gainesville, and the Committee in Support of the People of Latin America.
In 1985, working with other groups in Gainesville for Central American solidarity, Joe, Jenny Brown and others in the movement created a monthly newsletter and calendar. This newsletter was dubbed the Iguana, in a nod to a Central American reptile and an answer to the Independent Florida Alligator.
In 1993, after joining the Gainesville Alternative Publishing group, Joe worked with others to found an alternative library and reading room, the Civic Media Center.
But on top of all these movement contributions, many of us here in Gainesville appreciate Joe for other things, like the famous lake house parties he and Jenny host, or the arts and culture scoop, or his guidance and wisdom for young activists, or his connection, somehow, to almost everyone here. If you live in this town, you’ve almost certainly met Joe Courter.
“Joe is powered by the activists, musicians, radicals and artists that make everyday life in Gainesville, and he contributes to the environment that makes radical politics and the counterculture something new people can join in and thrive in,” Jenny Brown said. “The counterculture for him is people’s answer to the ‘crap culture’ that’s all around us every day. He says activism is ‘paying your rent on the planet.’ If you want to live here, you’ve gotta contribute – leave it better than you found it.”
You can support the Penrod Award and the hard-working activists in the community by mailing donations to Gainesville Veterans for Peace, P.O. Box 142562, Gainesville, FL 32614. For more information, call 352-375-2832.