Polly Mann, WAMM co-founder and leader in state's antiwar movement, dies at 103

Working as a clerk on an Army base, Polly Mann watched families tearfully bid goodbye to the troop trains taking their sons to fight in World War II.

"And the more I watched those trains, the more I thought, 'There's got to be some better way than this,' " Mann recalled in a later documentary on her life.

She made good on that impulse, becoming Minnesota's leading antiwar activist and co-founding Women Against Military Madness (WAMM), a group she remained active with well into her 90s.

Mann died Thursday at age 103 after suffering a stroke in San Francisco, where she had recently moved to be closer to her daughters after living for years in Minneapolis.

"She had big ideas and she carried through with them," said Sarah Martin of Minneapolis, who was active in WAMM in its early days. "She was really kind and strong and persuasive and engaging. People bought into the ideas."

Pam Costain, another WAMM founder, said Mann's vision went beyond what was common in 1980s Minnesota.

"It was something we hadn't had in this community before," Costain said. "It was led by women and it was very bold in what it stood for."

WAMM at its peak counted thousands of supporters and hundreds of demonstrators who protested at rallies, roadsides and corporate headquarters. Many of its members were arrested more than once.

Those protests were in large part due to Mann, who grew up in Hot Springs, Ark., and brought her keen mind, sharp wit and Southern style to the cold north.

Her grandfather, a doctor, kept separate waiting rooms for whites and African-Americans, but Mann fought for all people in what she saw as a battle against the insatiable appetite of the military-industrial complex and its political enablers.

"Of the 137 lobbyists hired by the top [defense] contractors, 57 are former members of Congress, 39 are former congressional staff," Mann wrote in a WAMM newsletter when she was 96.

Mann got involved in politics during the 1950s and '60s, the heyday of Minnesota DFLers who played on the national stage: Hubert Humphrey, Orville Freeman, Walter Mondale and Eugene McCarthy.

She worked on McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign and attended the Democratic National Convention that year in Chicago, where she was tear-gassed during the many clashes between police and protesters.

Even after American involvement in the Vietnam War ended in 1973, Mann recognized that the military continued to grow. So Mann and 10 other women met in 1982 at Loretta's Tea Room in south Minneapolis and founded WAMM. Those present, and many who would come later, were inspired by Mann's energy and wide-ranging mind.

"She was a lot of fun. She was very alive; she was very present," Costain said. "She just had a wicked mind for absorbing information and being able to look across all kinds of issues."

Mann's husband, Walter Mann, was a state district court judge during the years his wife was being arrested at protests. But he never tried to dissuade her, she told TV host Phil Donahue during a 1980s appearance on Donahue's program.

"I think I have embarrassed him many times, and I feel bad about that," she said. "But I have to speak out."

When not carrying banners and bullhorns, Mann enjoyed playing Scrabble. She read voraciously and treasured time with family and friends, said her son, Mike, of Kansas City, Kan. She loved clothes and dressing well, but she always focused on what mattered to her most.

"Her conversations were never far away from her passions of justice and antiwar [action]," Mike Mann said, adding that she quietly maintained a fund at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis that helped people in need.

Though leadership came to her naturally, Mann never sought to hoard power, said Nikki LaSorella of St. Paul, who was co-director of WAMM with Mann for several years.

"One of her skills was to pass on leadership to others," LaSorella said. "She was a mentor to many. I used to feel like I could talk to her about things and challenge her. She was always willing to listen and be open to the conversation. I feel like she raised me."

Mann survived her daughter, Melinda, and her husband Walter, who died in 2004. Besides her son, Mann is survived by daughters Barbara Franck and Connie John, both of San Francisco, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. The family plans to hold a memorial service in the spring.