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Berrigan still at peace

Saturday, November 13, 1999

By Dennis Roddy

Straight off the plane, a tired leather overnight bag in his hand, Philip Berrigan, former cleric, future legend and present artifact, gave Vincent Eirene a big hug. They walked to Eirene's 20-year-old truck for the trip to town.

Famous on the antiwar circuit back when there was a conspicuous war to oppose, Berrigan came to Pittsburgh this Veterans Day to inveigh against nuclear weapons. Eirene booked him for Carnegie Mellon University, home of the Software Engineering Institute, where Eirene, a longtime Berrigan collaborator, has been a protesting fixture.

"I told these kids you were coming to speak," Eirene said. "They asked 'Is his sister the ice skater?' I said, 'No, it's Ber-rigan, not Kerrigan.'"

"Who's Kerrigan?" Berrigan asked.

It's been a long time.

Thirty years ago, the Rev. Philip Berrigan, with his priest-brother Dan, raided draft offices, poured blood on records and made the radical priest an antiwar archetype.

That was then.

When the draft went away, Berrigan turned his attention to nuclear weapons. When the war being protested is hypothetical, civil disobedience loses much of its allure.

Crowds thinned.

He led raids on defense plants and banged a hammer on a missile nose cone and captained a crew that took a common hammer to the instrument panel of a new warship. Once, with Eirene, he dug a grave on the lawn of Donald Rumsfeld, Gerald Ford's secretary of defense.

"The headline read 'Berrigan Arrested at Rumsfeld's Grave,'" Eirene said. They still laugh about it.

Years of indignant outlawry have left Berrigan a craggy monument of a man. He has spent nine of his 76 years in various prisons. The hair is white, the step a bit leaden, the voice fights to be heard.

With his wife, Elizabeth McAlister, Berrigan lives in Baltimore. Removed from the priesthood in 1973, just two years after making the cover of Time, Berrigan found himself, at 50, searching for a trade.

"We do house painting and roofing work and rough carpentry," he said.

Do young people recognize him?

"Some of them do," he shrugged. "It's not important."

Before his speech, Eirene took Berrigan on a quick errand. Like his mentor, Eirene makes a living doing odd jobs. A neighbor wanted some dirt and brush moved from the back yard.

As Eirene dug, Berrigan fell into conversation with Millard W. Landis, a burly, snow-capped hill of a man who fought his way through Vietnam, then came home to protest his own war. Berrigan listened to his story: out of school, into the Airborne, close-quarters killing, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, back home, faith broken.

Berrigan was an infantry officer in World War II. He doesn't advertise it, but this was his Veterans Day, too.

"Anything Philip's ever done was positive," said Landis.

Berrigan mentioned a few of the peace groups still active.

"I don't know that we agree entirely on things," Landis told him. "I just figure if you're going to go to war, let's kick some ass and get it done."

Eirene finished digging. They climbed into the antique pickup. Berrigan, whose hands and soul both have known a hard day's work, can only retire when his body finally wears out. Old, no longer a public favorite, he lives without regret.

"It's the best way I've found to invest my life," he said.

The old truck clattered toward town.

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