By Darla Shelden and Patrick B. McGuigan
October 4, 2017
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – Born Lydia Pfrimmer in Arkansas, Lydia Polley came to Crescent, Oklahoma, with her parents at the age of four. She proclaimed to be, “an Okie ever since.”
Lydia was a lifelong advocate of “peace and justice for all.” An unwavering anti-death penalty activist, she served as the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s (OK-CADP) Chair, Co-Chair, and Secretary.
She participated in numerous OK-CADP press conferences, vigils and demonstrations, including a protest of the execution of Oklahoma death row inmate Wanda Jean Allen in 2001. The night before Allen’s execution, Lydia, along with national civil rights leader and founder of the Rainbow Coalition, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and 27 others, including her minister, Robin Meyers, was arrested during a civil disobedience action when they trespassed across a line established in front of the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in Oklahoma City.
“I knew Lydia as a tireless resister of the death penalty,” said Rev. Robin R. Meyers Ph.D., Senior Minister, Mayflower Congregational UCC Church, Oklahoma City. “I knew that she frequently visited and befriended death row inmates, and worked for their clemency, believing that all of us are more than the worst thing we have ever done.
“My best memory of Lydia was watching her get arrested protesting the execution of the first woman in the state of Oklahoma, Wanda Jean Allen. That image was captured in an HBO documentary and every time I watch it, there is Lydia, being Lydia. We will miss her.”
OK-CADP board member Margaret Cox recalls,” I met Lydia as we strode down Martin Luther King Boulevard with Jesse Jackson and a few hundred others, protesting the impending execution of Wanda Jean Allen. Lydia’s brilliant spirit and joy in doing what she was doing – the right thing – was so strong that I had to introduce myself, and we became friends.
“We spent that night in the Oklahoma City jail, the first of many times we were arrested together. She may have been a saint, but not a puritanical one: she took a drink, she played cards, she loved her jazz and loved to dance.”
In 2013, Lydia was key in developing the OK-CADP Bob Lemon Capitol Defense Attorney Scholarship Fund, which fosters ongoing professional development to promote more effective defending and appealing of death sentences.
“Of all of the Coalition’s services, I believe the Bob Lemon Scholarship Fund is one of their most beneficial programs,” said Randy Bauman, Assistant Federal Public Defender, of Oklahoma City. “Oklahoma’s chronically underfunded defense system cannot afford national training for its defense lawyers. With this fund, the Coalition is able to help send defenders to attend these crucial training opportunities. They have returned with rave reviews and are then able to share what they have learned.”
Lydia was active with the Amnesty International local chapter helping to facilitate a ‘letter writing campaign” each year that sent Christmas cards to each Oklahoma death row inmate.
Polley once said, “I believe that our job is to bring the issue of the death penalty out of the shadows and into the light of facts and reality. I believe we can overcome the sense of vengeance with love and correct misconceptions with facts.”
Lydia had a lifelong love of music, playing and teaching piano from a young age. Her formal education in music included attendance at the University of Oklahoma. She earned a degree in adult education from Oklahoma City University.
Among her other interests, Lydia was an avid Oklahoma University football fan and adored spending summers at her lake house on Lake Tenkiller with friends and family.
Co-worker and friend for over 20 years Rana Belshe, owner of Conservation Connection Consulting said, “In her work as President of Constructive Consulting, Inc., Lydia was the quintessential motivational speaker. People were routinely inspired, whether the topic was communication, education, influencing behavior, leadership, marketing, planning, problem-solving, program evaluation, team building, or time management. She celebrated being a life-long-learner and called that forth from others.”
As a workshop facilitator Lydia attracted “repeat participants” who proclaimed her sessions as “the most rewarding you’ve ever been a part of because she creatively involved all participants in a way that rewarded them with new insights, enhanced skills and renewed enthusiasm.”
During a long career as an educator, Belshe noted that Lydia worked for 84 organizations in 37 states, the District of Columbia and Costa Rica. She facilitated over 363 sessions and workshops, “influencing thousands of participants who carried that forward to many, many more.”
Her ground-breaking work in the field of energy conservation and efficiency started with a video series for Oklahoma Low Income Weatherization in the seventies, Belshe said. “She set educational standards that are used around the country to this day.”
Her professional work also included serving as director for the Agency for Christian Cooperative Ministry, as an associate director at the YWCA and time in programs sponsored by federal energy funds. She also founded the Oklahoma chapter of the Crisis Call Center.
A dedicated Democrat, in the 1970s Lydia ran for Oklahoma City Council and over the years managed or volunteered for several progressive political campaigns.
In 2003, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) introduced a bill to establish a U.S. Department of Peace. To further that effort Polley became the Oklahoma State Coordinator for the Department of Peace campaign..
Lydia drew great joy from involving young people in the democratic process. A supporter of CAIR-Oklahoma, she often joined others during the group’s annual Muslim Day at the Capitol to participate in their legislative awareness event.
After attending a Bernie Sanders for President rally held in downtown Oklahoma City, Lydia told The City Sentinel she was thrilled to see thousands of young people among those in attendance: “It excites me so much. I decided to count the people walking right by me and I counted hundreds who were young, and eight older couples. That gives me hope for the future.”
Lydia stated that in retirement she never grew tired of “standing on street corners, holding signs for peace and good causes.”
In addition to her many professional and volunteer affiliations, Lydia was the mother of four grown children. She had nine grandchildren and numerous great grandchildren.
Ryan Kiesel, Executive Director of ACLU-Oklahoma, said regarding Polley’s upcoming memorial, “We’ll have a strong ACLU contingent there to pay our respects to one of the most powerful voices among us.”
In 2013, former OK-CADP vice chair and attorney Rex Friend bestowed the coalition’s Lifetime Abolitionist Award to Polley, calling her the “heart and soul” of the organization.
Representing Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City, Becky VanPool served closely on the OK-CADP board with Lydia for ten years. “Lydia was such an inspiration to work with,” VanPool said. “Her wisdom and fortitude helped many of us learn how to promote the dignity of life for those on death row, their families, and the murder victims’ families.”
Rev. Adam Leathers, former OK-CADP chair said of Polley, “The world will be a little less bright without her.”
Jim Rowan, Oklahoma County Public Defender for Capital Trials and longtime OK-CADP board member said, “Lydia Polley inspired us through the difficult times. It’s a shame that she led us this far and will not be here when the death penalty is finally abolished for all time.”
Another colleague John Augustino said, “We meet thousands of wonderful people in our lifetimes but there are few souls we come across who touch our hearts and our lives as Lydia did, in such a way that change us and make us better people.”
A Celebration of of Lydia’s Life will be held at Mayflower Congregational Church, 3901 NW 63rd Street in Oklahoma City at 9 a.m. on Saturday, October 14th. Football attire is welcomed.