By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – Born Lydia Pfrimmer in Arkansas on July 18, 1931, Lydia Gill Polley, a lifelong peace and justice advocate, transitioned from this world on September 24, 2017. A well attended celebration of her life was held at Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City.
The event was officiated by associate minister, Rev. Lori Walke, who said of Polley’s relentless spirit, “We imagine she is already organizing.”
Attorney Rex Friend spoke of Polley’s countless activist experiences saying, “Dissent is patriotic. She wants the baton to be taken and carried forward. Her legacy is the practice of living a full life until we die.”
One of Lydia’s many joys on earth was her house on Lake Tenkiller where she adored spending time with her friends and family. 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.
Like Lydia, many members of her family were avid Sooner fans, even attending the memorial in red attire for the OU / Texas game that day – which OU won.
Lining up to speak lovingly of Lydia, the grandchildren recalled, many through tears, what a wonderful example she set for them.
Sasha, who Lydia called the “precious princess” said, that “from now on, I’m going to love myself as she loved me.” Another grandchild, Ryan stated, “The number one rule during “grandkids lake week” was to help everyone have a good time – with an emphasis on everyone.”
Mary Reynolds and Louise Goldberg performed four musical selections for the event including “The Secret O’ Life” by James Taylor and “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock. They also performed during the reception which was held immediately following the memorial.
At the age of four, Polley moved to Crescent, OK, with her parents and proclaimed to be “an Okie ever since.” 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 anti-death penalty demonstrations, including a protest of the execution of Oklahoma death row inmate Wanda Jean Allen in 2001. The night before Allen’s execution, Lydia was arrested along with national civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, her minister Robin Meyers, and 27 others.
OK-CADP board member Margaret Cox recalls meeting Lydia at that event. “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.”
Meyers, Senior Minister at Mayflower Church said, “I knew Lydia as a tireless resister of the death penalty. 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.”
In 2013, Lydia was key in developing the OK-CADP Bob Lemon Capitol Defense Attorney Scholarship Fund, which fosters the ongoing professional development for attorneys 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.”
In 2013, Friend, a former OK-CADP vice chair and current board member, bestowed the coalition’s Lifetime Abolitionist Award to Polley, calling her the “heart and soul” of the organization.
Active with the Amnesty International local chapter, Lydia facilitated a letter writing campaign each year that sent Christmas cards to Oklahoma death row inmates.
“I believe that our job is to bring the the death penalty issue out of the shadows and into the light of reality,” Polley said. “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. She attended the University of Oklahoma and earned a degree in adult education from Oklahoma City University.
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.” Lydia served as director for the Agency for Christian Cooperative Ministries, a YWCA associate director, and chair of the Oklahoma City Planning Commission. She developed the CONTACT Crisis Call Center and was a founding member of Metro Alliance for Safer Cities.
A dedicated Democrat, in the 1970’s Lydia ran for Oklahoma City Council and over the years managed or volunteered for many progressive political campaigns. She became the Oklahoma State Coordinator for Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s effort to establish a U.S. Department of Peace.
Lydia drew joy from involving young people in the democratic process. After attending a Bernie Sanders rally in Oklahoma City, Lydia told The City Sentinel she was thrilled to see thousands of young people in attendance: “It excites me so much….it gives me hope for the future.”
Lydia added that in retirement she never grew tired of “standing on street corners, holding signs for peace and other good causes.”
Ryan Kiesel, Executive Director of ACLU-Oklahoma, fondly remembers Polley as “one of the most powerful voices among us.”
OK County Public Defender Jim Rowan 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.”
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.”
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.”