Remembering Martha Aasen

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.

Memorial Day 2018 grand marshal Larry Aasen and his wife Martha. (Photo/Ted Horowitz)

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.

Fannie Lou Hamer faces the Democratic credentials committee.

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.

When they posed for this photo in 2016, President Obama said to Larry Aasen, “let’s put the rose (Martha Aasen) between 2 thorns.”

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.

Larry and Martha Aasen, and then-1st Selectwoman Diane Farrell Goss greeted then- President Clinton. His helicopter landed at Sherwood Island State Park.

22 responses to “Remembering Martha Aasen

  1. Gerry Manning

    Martha took me under her wing when I was a member of the DTC years ago. I was just getting my feet wet with local politics at that time. Martha and Dora Stuttman, what a power team of dedicated women, citizen activists, and all around welcoming teachers in the real art of the deal. Rest in Peace, Martha.

  2. Martha was not only a powerhouse in the Democratic Party, she was also an influential member of the League of Women Voters, serving as the national League’s representative to the United Nations before moving over to work directly for that organization.

    She was also a terrific mentor. I will miss her greatly.

  3. Arline Gertzoff

    An honor to know and work with Martha.I am a proud recipient of The Yellow Dog Democrat Award named in her honorShe will be sadly missed by all

  4. Martha was a wonderful neighbor and friend. We will miss her

  5. I’m stunned, Dan. Thank you for sharing this terribly sad news. There simply aren’t enough words to convey Martha’s extraordinary strength of character and indomitable spirit . I can’t get over the thought that she won’t be with us on November .

    • Martha Aasen had the amazing capacity to take so many people under her wings. She took me under her wings in 1993 when my husband and I first moved to Westport. She united and empowered people. She celebrated public and community service and practiced both in the most extraordinary way. She was strong and kind. She was always curious and informed and persuasive. She loved talking about her children and their accomplishments and lives. Her loss and absence will be felt at the library event tonight and especially on election night. My condolences to Larry and her family. May Martha RIP. My memories of her and her influential example will stay with me for my lifetime.

  6. November 3, that is…

  7. Peter R Powell

    May she rest in peace and may light perpetual shine upon her.

  8. Martha was a wonderful human being and an incredible organizer for all human and civil rights issues! She was a mentor to me and and inspiration for so many women and democrats. She will be missed. My condolences to Larry and their family.

  9. When Suzanne and I first moved to Westport, we were looking to befriend political allies, knowing that Westport was a stronghold of progressive Democrats. When I met Martha, me a Texan and she from Mississippi, we sort of bonded in this New England town far away from our southern roots. She was a true leader of people. She could get almost anybody to do anything. She had her adversaries, too. But she always had the respect of everyone and anyone who ever met her. I thought I was a diehard Democrat but Martha was Number One Democrat for the Ages. I loved her. She will be missed and Larry, Suzanne and I send you our deepest condolences.

  10. Christine Romann

    I am very sorry to hear this and my deepest sympathies to Larry, David and Susan. Martha was truly a remarkable woman, a wonderful mother and such an inspiring leader.

  11. Susan Barrett

    Martha was a special lady. Always willing to share and to guide us as we participated in Democratic events. She would light up a room with her smile. I loved the sound of her voice. May those who loved and cherish her have many memories to celebrate a life well lived. May she be at peace.

  12. Donald Bergmann

    Martha and Larry, an engaging and engaged couple. It was a delight to know Martha.
    Don Bergmann

  13. Martha was one of the first people I met when I moved to Westport in 1983. She informed me then that she was a “Yellow Dog Democrat.” Through the years, she was always an inspiration, whether politically or personally. I’m really sorry that she won’t be here on November 3rd to see Trump go down in flames.

    My deepest condolences to Larry, David and Susan.

  14. Kristan Hamlin

    It’s impossible to believe that Martha is gone. She was an indomitable spirit.

    I first met her in 2007 when we were working together for what we thought would be the first woman president. Since then, she and Larry came to my home for many fundraisers and we worked together on many issues. I saw her only a few weeks ago at Whole Foods grocery store.

    I wish there was no CV19 so I could put my arms around Larry and console him, because this is going to be very, very hard for him to have lost his lifelong partner, wife and best friend — and they were truly lifelong partners in all things. They shared a passion for local activism (such as the library) and for political engagement as citizens.
    RIP, Martha.
    My deepest condolences, Larry. Sending hugs.

  15. Wendy Goldwyn Batteau

    Shocking and so sad. Her life was a blessing, may her memory be for a blessing.

  16. Tom feeley Sr

    Great couple. 👍🏼All the best Larry🙏Airborne ‼️

  17. Martha was such a class act and she and Larry made a fantastic dynamic duo. They both lived life to the fullest and gave back every step of the way. I had the pleasure of serving as secretary of the DTC under Martha while she was chair. What an honor. I learned so much from her and so enjoyed her and Larry’s company. Martha will be missed by so many. My heart goes out to Larry and their kids for their loss. I will always remember Martha- what a grand lady!

  18. Hedi Lieberman

    Martha was my library friend. May her memory be a blessing to those who knew and loved her.

  19. George and I met Martha and Larry once here in Rockland, Maine through their daughter Susan. Loved them immediately and sensed their solidity and warmth. Loving condolences to Martha’s family and friends. Connie Hayes and George Terrien

  20. Martha will be missed and remembered for a long, long time. Her spirit, her determination and her her political instincts served Westport well. Kudos for a life well lived.
    My best to Larry and the entire Assen family.

  21. Martha was a remarkable woman. I had the privilege of working with her throughout the years and most recently during the senior center enhancement project. I loved listening to her stories, especially about presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. Her legacy will live on in Westport and beyond.