The most compelling voice against book banning in Florida was perched on her walker as she addressed the 500 people at this week’s meeting of the Martin County School Board.
“I am Grace Linn,” she said. “I am a hundred years young. I’m here to protest our school’s district book banning policy. My husband, Robert Nicoll, was killed in action in World War II at a very young age. He was only 26, defending our democracy, constitution and freedoms.”
Her husband’s unit had been providing ammunition to the French resistance when it was bombed and strafed by Nazi planes on Decoration Day, 1944, eight days before the Normandy Invasion. She had been seven months pregnant when he was initially declared missing in action. A telegram reporting that he had been declared dead was delivered to her at the hospital three days after the birth of their daughter, Nicci. Linn later received a photo that her husband had brought with him to Europe, but his remains were never recovered.
“One of the freedoms that the Nazis crushed was the freedom to read the books they banned,” she told the school board gathering. “They stopped the free press and banned and burned books. The freedom to read, which is protected by the First Amendment, is our essential right and duty of our democracy. Even so, it is continually under attack by both the public and private groups who think they hold the truth.”
A man standing behind her held up a quilt bordered in school bus yellow, its squares filled with book titles ranging from Toni Morrison’s Beloved to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita to George Orwell’s 1984.
“In response to the book banning throughout our country and Martin County last year – during the time I was 99 – I have created this quilt,” she continued. “To remind all of us that these few of so many more books that are banned or targeted need to be proudly displayed and protected and read, if you choose to.”
She made clear that in her view what Florida has been attempting under Gov. Ron DeSantis is the dangerous stirring of an evil akin to what her husband set off to fight.
“Banning books and burning books are the same. Both are done for the same reason. Fear of knowledge. Fear is not freedom. Fear is not liberty. Fear is control. My husband died as a father of freedom. I am a mother of Liberty. Banned books need to be proudly displayed and protected from school boards like this. Thank you very much.”
She later told The Daily Beast that she had been nervous upon seeing the size of the crowd at the meeting on Tuesday night… and there had been three steps leading up to the dais.
“I said, ‘You carry up my walker and I can hold the banister,’” she recalled. “And I got up there just in time. They brought the microphone down to my level.”
Her speech done, she descended from the dias with her walker. A man approached her with tears in his eyes and held her hand.
“He said, ‘I have to thank you…My grandmother was 11 years old when she ran away, got out of Auschwitz. And all my other relatives did die, but without her getting out, I wouldn’t be here,” Linn recalled. “So I said, ‘I am so happy you are here.’”
Two of Linn’s brothers had been wounded fighting the Nazis and one had been left psychologically traumatized by what he witnessed when he participated in the liberation of Auschwitz.
After leaving the board of education meeting, Linn went to Mario’s Italian Restaurant in Stuart with Michael and Claire Panella, a couple who had helped her research the banned books. She then returned to the Jensen Beach home where she has lived alone since her third husband, Frederick Linn, suffered a fatal heart attack in November.
“It’s been a little difficult,” she allowed.
She has been thrice widowed. After Nicoll’s death, she had married a soldier named Thomas Householder, who survived combat in Africa and Italy. Little Nicci had been two.
“My daughter liked him, and she just said, ‘I’ll pretend he’s my daddy.’” Linn recalled. And about two or three months after we were married, she asked me if her hair was turning red, like her new daddy.”
Householder died in 1990 following open heart surgery. Her daughter by Nicoll died of pancreatic cancer in 2015. But Nicci’s long ago question about her hair still brought a laugh. And Linn has a surviving daughter, Gloria Geyer-Zora, by Householder.
“We have to take the joyful along with the sad,” Linn said.
That view of life is thought by scientists to be one reason for the notable longevity of people in Roseto, the town in Italy from which her parents emigrated.
“I had a grandmother live to be 108,” Linn said.
“I still drive, by the way,” she reported. “I take my walker out of the car and open it up. Or if I don’t have a long distance to go, I use a cane.”
She will keep up the fight against book banning, which she views as an extension of the fight by Nichols and her brothers and so many others against those who began by burning books.
“I always feel that it’s my duty,” she said. “When history is forgotten or not used and not allowed to be used, history will repeat itself and we had enough of that during the Naziism that occurred in Germany.”
She added: “Books are important. My goodness, I think I heard the other day in Arizona, they’re banning Shakespeare.”