After a Fire, Legendary Activist Gets By With Help From Friends

.Mary Reinholz

A well-known East Village pacifist, who burned his draft card in the 1960s, was out running errands last month when a fire erupted in his apartment of more than 50 years and turned it into something resembling a war zone.

David McReynolds, the retired longtime field secretary of the War Resisters League and the first openly gay man to run for president, said he spotted fire trucks outside his block on Feb. 24, and then was stunned to discover a small army of firefighters and police officers in his flooded studio. There was broken glass on his floor and water damage on the walls; his books were charred and his DVDs were ruined. Even his cellphone was destroyed.

Fortunately, however, negatives from photographs that have “historic value” survived, including snapshots that Mr. McReynolds took a half century ago of social-justice luminaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, Norman Thomas, and A.J. Muste. He also learned that a ground floor apartment in his building on East Fourth Street was empty and ready to rent.

“God looks after atheists,” said Mr. McReynolds, 83.

.Mary Reinholz The fire-damaged apartment.

When he first encountered his devastated apartment, Mr. McReynolds was fearful that his beloved cats, Peggy and Shaman, had perished in the blaze. But a second-floor neighbor found Peggy; a policewoman located Shaman cowering near the ruins of the TV set.

That night, Mr. McReynolds and the cats slept in his new apartment. Bruce Cronin, 54, a professor of political science at City College of New York who arrived to help the next day, described Mr. McReynolds as “probably the foremost pacifist leader in the country today.” Mr. Cronin said the fire had caused his friend’s ceiling and a wall to collapse, and had destroyed his stereo system.

“The great thing is that soon after people heard about the fire, they were sending money and wanting to replace things,” said Mr. Cronin.

Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, which manages the low-income cooperative where Mr. McReynolds lives, sent staff over on the day of the blaze to clear water from the studio and told him of the vacant apartment. Carmen Trotta and Matt Deloisa, associate editors at the Catholic Worker newspaper, brought a bed over from the Catholic Workers’ Maryhouse residence. Poet and actor Chris Brandt, who also builds theatrical sets, put up new shelving using lumber purchased at a Lower East Side store.

.Mary Reinholz

Now that he’s nearly settled in his freshly painted and refurbished first-floor studio, Mr. McReynolds says he still doesn’t know what caused the fire that turned his former home into soot-covered rubble. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, the fire department said.

As luck would have it, some cherished personal mementos escaped the fire unscathed, including three prints he purchased in Hanoi, a city he first visited during the Vietnam War; an image from a “temple rubbing” in Cambodia where he stopped in 1981 when the Khmer Rouge guerrillas were still active in a country they had turned into a killing field; and 19th century Japanese prints he bought in Kyoto in 1966. His friends brought them down the stairs from his gutted apartment and hung them up, he said.

“I’m here alone and at an age when both of my parents were dead, and I don’t know what I would have done without my friends,” said Mr. McReynolds. “I would have burned out for lack of energy.”