Best Small Town Crusade

In tiny Emmett, Idaho, a band of citizens are speaking up. And insisting that the government listen.

from Reader's Digest Magazine | May 2005


Leading a Crusade

The cancer was in Garmon’s bones and liver now. Chemotherapy had left sores in her mouth, throat and feet. The doctor had given her at most another year to live.

“Something really should be done,” she told her parents one night by phone as she lay in her recliner. Garmon had learned that victims of 19 cancers in 21 counties of Nevada, Arizona and Utah, all downwind from the test site, had received payments of $50,000 apiece from the government. The Idaho counties had been left off the list, though they had been exposed to more iodine-131 than the others.

There was a pause on the other end. Millie and Don Garmon were white-haired and in their late 80s now. Don himself had liver cancer. Public service had always been a given in the Garmon household. Don suggested that Sheri write to an old high school classmate, Kathy Skippen, who was now a state legislator. “Yah, Sheri, you ought to do it,” he said.

Sheri knew it would take her three hours to even write a letter, given her exhaustion and difficulty focusing. Did she really want to spend the last few months of her life leading a crusade?

“I’ll send it tomorrow,” she said.

The next morning, Garmon dragged herself to her computer and began. “Dear Kathy,” she wrote. “I hope you remember me from high school …”

Janet Monti looked up from her desk at the Emmett Messenger Index. It was Monday afternoon — closing day for the little weekly newspaper. Monti, a veteran reporter whose doggedness made her a perennial burr in the side of local officials, was planning to finish the obituary page and take the rest of the day off. Now Kathy Skippen stood in the doorway.

“You need to do something about this,” Skippen said, waving a letter.

Monti read the letter from Garmon, describing her illness, the radioactive fallout in Gem County some 50 years earlier, and the widespread cancer that she believed was the result.

Bad stuff, thought Monti, settling into her office chair and pulling up a blank screen on her computer. It infuriated Monti that some of Idaho’s top officials, including the governor and a U.S. Senator, had known about the compensation program and done little to see that Idahoans were included. Within minutes, she had torn up the obit page and typed out a brief story. “Do you know,” she wrote, addressing Emmett residents, “how this may impact your life?”

Days later, the tables at the Rumor Mill, the bakery in the center of Emmett where locals gather for morning coffee, were abuzz. “You remember that white powder on the crops? Remember how it streaked the windows when it rained? How teachers told the school kids not to eat the snow because it was radioactive?”

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