Westport lost one of its most beloved residents yesterday. Martha Aasen — who with her husband Larry was a force in local and state Democratic politics for decades, but who also worked tirelessly for a variety of bipartisan civic causes — died yesterday in Norwalk Hospital of complications from a fall last weekend. She was 90 years old.
The Mississippi native and her North Dakota-born husband were a powerful pair. His politics came from the populism of the prairie; hers were sparked by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the injustices she saw growing up in the segregated South.
After graduating from the University of Mississippi, she worked for McGraw Hill. Her editor, Larry Aasen, became her husband. They married in 1953, and moved to Westport a decade later. They raised their children David and Susan on Ellery Lane.
Martha Aasen later worked in public relations for the United Nations, and for International Executive Service Corps in Stamford.
Her long service to the Westport Democratic Women earned her its coveted Silver Donkey Award. The Yellow Dog Democrat Award is named in her honor.She was proud of meeting a host of politicians, including Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, when they came to town.
The Westport Democratic Town Committee says:
Martha was ever-present, inspirational, and loved by all who had the honor to serve alongside her. She rarely missed an event, and always volunteered to help our candidates in any way she could.
We all learned so much from her sharing her experiences. She was a pleasure to talk to – always smiling, full of interesting stories, and offering words of wisdom and encouragement. She will be sorely missed by so many in Westport, but none more than those of us who had the opportunity to spend time with her on the DTC.
But politics was not all Martha did. She founded the Y’s Women in 1990. She held numerous positions various town boards, including president of the Westport Library Board of Trustees.
She was an active member of the Senior Center, and served on the board that was responsible its recent expansion.
The Sunrise Rotary Club presented Martha with its Paul Harris Award. for “service above self.”
Information on services has not yet been released.
In August 2012 — right before the Democratic National Convention — I posted this story about Martha and Larry Aasen.
In 1960, Martha Aasen was living in California. The Democratic National Convention was held in Los Angeles.
Martha came from a family of avid Democrats. Her father was a convention delegate from their native Mississippi. Her brother wangled a job as a driver for Stuart Symington, one of several men still jostling for the nomination.
Martha and her husband Larry got a room with the Mississippi delegation, in a rundown Spanish-style hotel on the outskirts of L.A. They had just checked in when another candidate appeared. It was John F. Kennedy, on his way to meet the Wyoming delegation at the same “crummy hotel.”
Martha walked up to the Massachusetts senator. He took her hand, and looked straight at her. Half a century later, she remembers his “unbelievable charisma.”
Kennedy’s visit paid off. On the night of the roll call, Wyoming’s 15 votes gave him the nomination over his closest rival, Texas senator Lyndon B. Johnson.
Though longtime Westporters Martha and Larry Aasen have been active in Democratic politics — and attending conventions — ever since, 1960 was not their first. Four years earlier, one of Larry’s North Dakota Republican friends got them into the Republican convention at San Francisco’s Cow Palace. They watched as President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon were renominated.
In 1964 the Aasens were in Atlantic City. Martha’s mother was a Mississippi delegate. That year, the biracial Freedom Democratic Party challenged the seating of the state’s all-white delegation. Fannie Lou Hamer gave a rousing speech. The governor urged his white delegation to walk out. Most did. Martha’s mother was one of the 3 or 4 who did not.
Forty years later, in 2004, Martha was a delegate at the Boston convention. Connecticut was seated next to Mississippi. Thousands of delegates — of all races — paid tribute to the work of Fannie Lou Hamer, and other brave people who fought for civil rights.
The Boston convention also featured an electrifying keynote speech by Illinois legislator Barack Obama. “Everyone there knew we were hearing someone special,” Martha recalls.
Martha was in Denver 4 years ago, when Obama was nominated for president.
She’d been back in Los Angeles in 2000, too. That was one of the few times Connecticut had good seats. They were seated right in front, next to Tennessee. The reason, of course: Al Gore’s running made was Joe Lieberman.
Martha missed the 1968 Chicago convention — perhaps the most famous of all — as well as the others before 2000. She was working for the United Nations, and could not be actively involved in domestic politics.
Now 82, she looks forward to the upcoming Charlotte convention. The event has changed since the JFK days — more security, less spontaneity, and the nominee is known in advance — but they’re still exciting.
“It’s more of a pep rally,” Martha says. “You hear speeches, and realize why you believe so strongly in what you do. You go home energized, eager to support your candidate.”
And who knows? Some day, once again, a candidate may come calling on Connecticut. Just as John F. Kennedy did with Wyoming back when he needed a few more votes, wherever they were.