He struggled to get out of his chair, and he needed a walker to steady himself for the few steps to the rostrum.
But once Norm Pledger reached that microphone, his 80 years of grit, wisdom and eloquence came pouring out.
"I hope I've got a few more years," Pledger said, smiling through his growling voice, "because I'd like to raise a little more hell."
Pledger, an influential local and state union leader as well as a Democratic Party organizer for, oh, about a half-century, was being honored in an unusual way. El Paso County Democrats, seeing their Barack Obama-inspired numbers grow but not wanting to forget their past, decided to initiate a lifetime achievement award — and put Pledger's name on it.
So about 100 Dems gathered Saturday for a luncheon to honor Pledger, one of the few people in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' meeting room who could recall the meager life of a family trying to rise out of the Depression. In his words, after enduring presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, "America was in hell — on its knees."
That began to change during Pledger's childhood in Alabama, as President Franklin Roosevelt pushed his New Deal, and the creation of Social Security and other programs. Pledger remembers missing meals as the nation slowly recovered from those hard times, but those experiences — "Democrats saved the nation in a lot of ways" — pointed him toward becoming a leader for other workers in his adult life. He moved to Colorado and eventually became this state's AFL-CIO president. He played a big role in getting the funding for what is now Pikes Peak Community College, and he did electrical work in helping build the Air Force Academy and NORAD.
These days, Pledger is revered as a legend by many Colorado union members, and is still paying close attention to what's happening in their lives.
"We're in economic hell again," Pledger said, referring to the after-effects of "Ronald Reagan and 12 years of Bushes. But we can't get it done with guns. We have to sit down and work together. And if we're gonna save our civilization, it has to be through education — not guns and war."
During a moving video produced by local activist/filmmaker Dave Gardner, Pledger shared some powerful thoughts: "I want to give more to this state, this city, this nation, than I received. ... There's too much hate and not enough love in the world today. There's too much greed, and less caring ... I love America, I love her people. We need to make this a better place for future generations."
Adding to the atmosphere at this event, local historian and writer Richard Marold delivered his rendition of Roosevelt with a detailed, irony-filled oration. He recalled how Republicans had fought against Social Security before its passage in 1935 (sound familiar?), and how the initial concept for Social Security included health care for all. But when that part couldn't get consensus support, it was put off "for a few years."
Marold's performance of FDR motivated Pledger for his own sermon, with a personal philosophy deeply influenced by the former president. Pledger has had a similar impact on the labor movement as well as local Democrats. So it was fitting that the first winners of the Norm Pledger Lifetime Achievement Award, announced Saturday, were Don and Phyllis Davidson of eastern El Paso County. Don was remembered for making four runs at the Colorado House seat in ultra-conservative District 19 between 1992 and 2000, and his wife also has been heavily involved with the party locally.
And in his own tribute to the Davidsons, Pledger talked about how the local Democrats have to continue embracing that same kind of determination, especially after recent elections when Dems' strength in El Paso County helped elect Bill Ritter as governor and also had an impact on Obama carrying Colorado.
"We've gotta keep bashing against that wall, because we've always known we'd break through it someday," Pledger said. "But last November, [part of] that wall came tumbling down."
It was enough to make you wish that Norm Pledger had been born 30 or 40 years later. But at least he's still around to enjoy what's happening now.
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