NEW YORK – Roy Rydell, a member of the People’s Weekly World editorial board, died here Nov. 20. He would have been 83 on Feb. 15.
He was a charter member of the National Maritime Union (NMU) and a life-long member of the Communist Party. He is survived by his wife, Lillian, and stepdaughter, Judy Finn.
Roy’s love of the sea and the ships that ply the oceans began while watching and listening to waves of the Atlantic Ocean lap the rocky beaches of Far Rockaway in Queens, New York City.
In 1937 his dream of going to sea became a reality when he caught his first ship, launching his 47-year career as a “seafaring man.”
Little did he know that during those years his ship would be sunk by a German U-boat during World War II (and he would spend five days on a lifeboat before being rescued) – that he would suffer near-fatal injuries when swept the length of the ship by a wave during a North Atlantic storm or that he would have to fight a six-year battle to regain his seaman’s papers, taken from him by the Coast Guard during the McCarthy period. And, as he once told me, “I read a lot of books in those years.”
Peter “Pete” Goodman, president of the Marine Workers Historical Association, who, like Rydell, had been “screened” off the ships, said he was stunned when he learned of Rydell’s death.
“I’m still shocked,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in California. “I thought that crotchety old SOB was indestructible.”
When Rydell and a couple of dozen other “screenos” decided to take the Coast Guard to court, Goodman, a member of the Marine Firemen’s Union, became executive secretary of the Screened Seamen’s Defense Committee.
“It took five years but we finally won our case against the government. We thought that settled things, but we were wrong,” Goodman said.
“The court had ruled that we were entitled to maintain our ratings but both the union and the ship owners insisted that we had to start over as new members. So we sued them both. We won the case and Roy was at the union hiring hall the next day.”
Sam Webb, national chair of the Communist Party, described Rydell as the model of what a Communist should be.
“He was modest and hard-working, he was persevering and, more than anything else, he was dedicated to the cause of socialism – to building a socialist America.”
For Rydell, no task was too small or challenge too great. “He gave his all, no matter what,” Webb said. “Now our challenge is to fill the gap left by his departure.” Webb said a memorial is planned for February.
Joseph Stack and Julius Margolin, both of whom sailed with Rydell on the SS America and both of whom were screened, described him as a “sailor’s sailor” who knew his business. They said Rydell was respected by everyone, including the most rabid anti-communists in the union.
“He never shirked when there was work to be done,” Margolin said, adding that one of the jokes around the union hall was that if his ship was in port for a week, Rydell would paint it from stem to stern all by himself.
Ed Ott, special assistant to the president of the New York Central Labor Council, called Rydell the “salt of the earth – a journalist first class. He was the first to bring the case of the Charleston Five to our attention.”
Ott, too, pointed to Rydell’s willingness to lend a hand: “He worked as a volunteer on voter registration and was always carrying one of our petitions. I’ll miss him on both the personal and political level.”
Joe Crimi, vice president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1814, described Rydell as a “tough old bird, one of the best union guys I ever met.” Rydell’s coverage of the local’s struggle against Domino Sugar and his work to gather support for the striking workers was much appreciated.
“We’re thankful for what he did for us during that 21-month strike against Domino,” Crimi said. “He stood by us all that time and helped keep us in the public eye.”
Although Rydell was reluctant to talk about himself, I was able to glean information about his life during brief discussions over the course of a decade: his father was a salesman and his mother a homemaker; he was a better-than-average high school athlete and the neighborhood handball champion; as a member of the Young Communist League club in his high school, he helped lead a successful boycott of the school cafeteria when the price of a serving of mashed potatoes was increased from two to three cents.
He always took a suitcase full of Party literature when he signed on for a new trip. Despite the anti-communism and red-baiting within the union, he was often elected a delegate to NMU conventions. He last ran for union office in the late 1980s, nearly winning election as port agent in New York.
In 1987 Rydell decided he’d “been there, done that” and walked down a ship’s gangplank for the last time.
“They were going to lay the ship up so he decided to hang it up,” Lillian remembers.
But for Rydell “retirement” meant that he had more time to pursue the important things in life: going to demonstrations, distributing the People’s Weekly World at Central Labor Council meetings and honing his skills as a writer, with stories about the Domino strike, the Charleston Five and demonstrations large and small. It meant revitalizing the labor commission of the Party’s New York District, helping to organize May Day demonstrations, visiting picket lines and union offices. And yes, it meant being honored at the People’s Weekly World Annual Awards Banquet in 1998.
Carolyn Rummel, managing editor of the World, who worked with Roy in getting his stories – always hand-written on yellow legal-sized paper – ready for publication, described him as the epitome of a working-class writer.
“He wrote like he talked. He didn’t try to impress anyone – and he ended up impressing everyone,” she said. “It’s true that he was incredibly impatient but it was impatience with phonies and armchair quarterbacks. Roy was a constant doer and was always on the go – he walked everywhere – but most of all, he was a dear, sweet man.”
The family has asked that donations in Roy’s memory be made to the People’s Weekly World.