A mentor and neighbor and friend has died, and I feel his passing keenly because we go back so far. Russell Pond was one of the first people I met when I moved to New Hampshire many years ago. He was a fearless pro-life ambassador, and he would walk up to anyone to start a conversation about respecting the right to life.
I was lucky enough to be one of the people he approached. The circumstances were downright odd, in my opinion – but not in Russ’s. To him, there were no odd circumstances, only new opportunities to share his message.
Thirty-four years ago, I was newly arrived in New Hampshire from Florida. My brand-new University of Florida degree was in political science, and my husband’s was in electrical engineering. Guess which one of us got the job offers. The one my husband accepted was in the Granite State, so we packed up our baby and our bags and headed up I-95.
A few weeks after our arrival, I heard about a right-to-life prayer rally at a local church. Baby in tow, I found my way to the event, held outdoors on a sunny day. On my wrist, I wore a stainless steel cuff bracelet with a pro-life motif, modeled on the POW bracelets of the 1970s.
As the rally ended, a tall imposing figure strode purposefully toward me. I recognized him as one of the speakers from the rally. “Russell Pond,” he introduced himself, extending his hand. “I saw the sun reflecting off your bracelet and knew right away what it was.”
Let that soak in. A hundred people on the scene bearing any number of shiny objects, and somehow the sunlight glinted off my cheap little pro-life bracelet. Let the record show that shortly after this encounter, I lost the bracelet. I had it for exactly as long as I was meant to have it.
Russell asked me what I was doing for pro-life work. I was to learn that he was never one for idleness, in himself or others. When I explained that I was new in town, he promptly invited me to join the New Hampshire Pro-life Council, a group he had founded. He and his wife hosted meetings at their home. And where was that, I asked?
Two blocks away from where I was living, that’s where. This was becoming an unnervingly fortuitous encounter.
A couple of weeks later, I attended the first of many Pro-life Council meetings, hosted with warmth and hospitality by Russ and his wife Mary Jo. I was struck from the first by their faith in God; they were Melkite Catholics, steeped in faith and the beauty of the Eastern rite. They had two daughters, the younger of whom was near my son’s age, so I never had to hesitate to bring my baby to meetings. Russ and Mary Jo welcomed me, introduced me to other Council members, and put me to work on the simple things: Life Chains, tables at fairs, distributing literature.
Russell was a tireless promoter of peaceful pro-life witness. For years, he organized pro-life sign waves at Library Hill, one of Nashua’s busiest intersections. He was a big fan of Life Chains, bringing people together in prayerful good cheer to display signs saying “Pray to end abortion” and “Jesus forgives and heals.” He was never, ever shy about asking people to join his efforts.
All the while, he was one of the kindest people I knew. He and Mary Jo were well-matched in that. When I was new in town, a neophyte pro-lifer with nothing but good intentions, they offered me not only the gift of welcome but also the gift of friendship. I look back in amazement at the providence that brought the Ponds and me together at that particular time.
After I got my bearings in New Hampshire, I began offering testimony to legislative committees as a volunteer on the Pro-life Council’s behalf. That was an awesome privilege for me and a big risk for Russ, since I had never spoken to legislators despite my political science degree, but I’ve already noted that Russell Pond was fearless.
Russ also put me to work on the Council newsletter. With my trusty college-era Smith Corona portable with the missing “p”, I typed the newsletter & took it to the print shop for photocopying, after which I folded and addressed and mailed all the copies. Russ’s humor, never far beneath the surface, bubbled up with glee every time he saw one of my sheets with the hand-inked “p”s. I think he was sorry when I moved up to an IBM Selectric typewriter – used, but at least all its letters were intact.
I eventually went to work for other pro-life groups, and my contact with Russ became less frequent. He kept a monthly email update going, and I could always count on seeing him at the annual March for Life in Concord.
More than a year ago, I saw one of his beautiful daughters. I asked where her dad was, and the news she gave me stopped me short: Russell was suffering from dementia and failing health, unable to come to the March or to engage in any more public ministry.
As she told me the news, I thought of the evening meetings in the Ponds’ living room when our little kids had played together. One of those kids had become the woman telling me about Russell’s illness. I suddenly felt much older.
Dementia is a savage thing. I hope it didn’t keep Russell from understanding the devotion that Mary Jo and his daughters lavished on him as his strength failed. Updates from his daughter gave me glimpses into what was happening.
His daughter did me the great kindness of contacting me privately to let me know that Russell had passed. Kindness: a legacy from both her parents. As prepared as I was to hear the news, it still hit hard.
One of my first New Hampshire friends. A pro-life mentor. Fearless, tireless, funny, kind. And – lucky for me – the kind of guy to spot a pro-life bracelet from twenty yards away.
He leaves behind a family worthy of him.