Reverend David W. Havens: An Agent of Change (Part 5)

In 1966, Rev. Havens, the former minister of Hollister's First Christian Church, joined Cesar Chavez on a historic march to Sacramento. Disillusioned with the union's direction, Rev. Havens left for a future full of personal and professional changes.

Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series by San Benito High School History Teacher and San Juan Bautista native Frank Perez, who writes about a former Hollister minister who became an agent of change in his work with the National Farm Workers' Association.

Another march, a farewell, and a new beginning: 1966-1982

Rev. Havens’ arrest in the October of 1965 preceded a winter chill that numbed the commitment for some within the National Farm Workers Association. Before the September vote to join the Grape Strike against Delano’s growers, the NFWA membership had been warned by Cesar Chavez that the strike could last years. A prophetic Chavez explained that strikers would endure hardships and face, what many considered, insurmountable obstacles. Under no circumstances, stated Chavez, should strikers lose hope. By the end of 1965, frustrated strikers began lashing out against Chavez, hunger pangs fueling their contempt for the patience demanded by their cause.

As tempers simmered throughout the winter of 1965-1966, Chavez searched for a way of channeling the negative energies into a positive force for change.

In the spring of 1966, Chavez began making plans for a march from the NFWA headquarters in Delano to California’s state capitol in Sacramento. The idea came to him while reading about Mao Zedong’s Long March during the Chinese Civil War. (1) Cornered by the Chinese Nationalist Army, Mao’s communist Red Army troops were forced to retreat, trudging nearly 4,000 miles in a year. 

Unlike the Chinese communists, Chavez envisioned his march as an offensive—an opportunity to raise public attention to la causa—the farmworkers’ cause. More importantly, the march to Sacramento would be a religious pilgrimage, a penance for the sins committed by Chavez and his followers, as well as a demonstration of their commitment to their mission.

Having participated in the Freedom March in Selma, Rev. Havens advised Chavez and other planners of the march. The route of the proposed trek included dozens of agricultural communities along the Highway 99 corridor. Covering a distance of over 300 miles in “twenty five days," the goal was to arrive at the state capitol on Easter Sunday. (2)

On March 17, 1966, the march began with Chavez and about 25 others, including Rev. Havens and his two young daughters, who were pulled in a wagon behind their father during the first leg of the journey. Before the procession began, a religious mass was held—something that was repeated every morning during the march. Marchers walked about 15 miles a day, established camp, watched Luis Valdez’s El Teatro Campesino perform its famed one-act plays from the back of a pick-up truck, and slept a few hours before repeating the previous day’s events. 

Initially the contingent encountered cities and towns that were openly hostile; but as it made its way north supporters welcomed the group, opening their hearts and homes. Some even joined the ranks.

Of all the memories etched along the way, the one that Rev. Havens remembers clearly is a celebration that followed the NFWA’s first ever labor contract signed by the Schenley Corporation, a producer of wine and other alcohol spirits. The strike and an ensuing boycott against Schenley had cost the company millions, while negatively affecting its image. 

When the contract was signed on April 4, an announcement was made to marchers huddled around a vehicle reporting the momentous news. A celebration erupted, followed by an impromptu communion delivered by a priest standing on a tree stump before he passed the bottle of blessed wine around the assembled celebrants. Rev. Havens was truly moved by this spontaneous act of solidarity.  

As Rev. Havens recalled in a phone interview, this was “one of the finest moments of the true meaning of communion…truly a moment of…thanksgiving.” (3)

Rev. Havens would not be around long enough to celebrate the NFWA’s greatest achievement: the signing of its table grape contracts in 1970. 

By the spring of 1967 Rev. Havens felt it was time to move on. In his opinion, the farmworkers’ cause had morphed from a grassroots organization into a movement characterized by white, middle-class individuals who competed for Chavez’s attention and who sought to move their own agendas forward at the expense of the farmworkers. When explaining his departure from the union, Havens stated, “I thought it was time for us gringos [whites] to move on. I felt…the infighting of a new organization… of everyone trying to get close to Cesar and all…was getting a bit much…I really didn’t want to be a part of that. I did not trust some of the folks that were involved…And didn’t really see that there was a place I could serve”. (4)

As chronicled in both Frank Bardacke’s book, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, and in Pawel’s, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography, Rev. Havens’ feelings were not unusual. In fact, both books provide vivid detail about the ways in which Chavez relied heavily on those outside his organization and how the union’s board failed to include a seat for farmworkers even though its charter called for one.

Rev. Havens left the NFWA and Chavez on amicable terms. Rev. Havens moved with his family to Florida, where he had recently been hired by a Miami church to build an inner-city, black organization, an assignment that lasted until the presidential primary, election season of 1968.

The growing anti-Vietnam War campaign was spreading throughout the United States, and the feet of political war hawks were being held to the fire, including then President Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX). Sensing the quagmire of his foreign policy decisions, President Johnson decided to forego his chances at reelection in 1968. One of those who decided to dip his foot into the churning sea of presidential politics was Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN), who campaigned on the anti-war platform that became the cri de bataille of other would-be Democratic contenders. Meanwhile, Rev. Havens had been hired by the anti-war movement’s national staff to assist McCarthy’s run in Florida. 

McCarthy’s strong performance in the Sunshine State had him poised to face Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-NY) in California. Rev. Havens tried convincing McCarthy to skip the primary, explaining that Kennedy’s popularity in the Golden State was at all-time high and McCarthy’s defeat was inevitable. McCarthy ignored Rev. Havens’ entreaties and headed west. Soundly defeated, McCarthy dropped out of the presidential race.

Rev. Havens admitted that trying to keep McCarthy from going to California was more than just simple politics. It was personal. (5) 

Rev. Havens first met Kennedy in 1966, when as a member of the Subcommittee on Migratory Labor the senator visited Delano. Rev. Havens was one of two people responsible for meeting the senator’s plane and then chauffeuring the senator to meetings where Kennedy’s terse exchanges with the political establishment, Delano’s growers, and law enforcement became part of NFWA lore. During the luncheon period of one of the meetings, Kennedy handed the labor leader his personal phone number. Kennedy’s personal relationship with Chavez and his support for the farmworkers’ cause endeared him to Rev. Havens and the membership.

During the 1968 primary season, Chavez employed all the arsenals at his disposal to secure Kennedy’s California victory, including ordering scores of union members to walk door-to-door in Spanish-speaking, Los Angeles’ neighborhoods to encourage and assist residents in becoming registered voters. On election day, Chavez ordered members to canvass the same LA areas and offer voters rides to polling stations. The NFWA’s contributions paid off, and for a brief moment it appeared it would have a friend and ally in the White House. But following his victory speech in LA, Kennedy was assassinated.

Reflecting on the memory of Kennedy, Rev. Havens recalled receiving a personal thank you card from the senator in the weeks that followed the senator’s visit to Delano in 1966. Rev. Havens was truly moved by senator’s kinds words and support, and, like many others,  heartbroken over his death.

After McCarthy’s campaign, Rev. Havens’ wife Suzanne decided she wanted to pursue a law degree. A family friend convinced Suzanne that if she wanted to practice law the best institution to start her on that path was Harvard. The Havens’ clan moved to Nahant, Mass. While his wife attended law school, Rev. Havens became a stay at home dad, tending to his daughters Megan and Rebecca, while doing consulting work on the side. After Suzanne’s graduation, the family moved to Maine, where Rev. Havens worked for Gov. Bill Curtis and Ms. Havens practiced law. In 1976, the Havens’ moved to Wisconsin, the last place where they resided as a nuclear family.

Suzanne continued practicing law, while Rev. Havens again stayed at home. But not one to remain idle for long, he began tinkering around his wood shop, trying to decide on a project to put his woodworking skills to the ultimate test. 

While serving as minister of Hollister’s First Christian Church, Rev. Havens had learned the intricacies of woodworking, honing his skills in the wood shop of an congregant. Prior to arriving in Hollister, Rev. Havens was unaware of his aptitude to “build things.” (6) With his latent talent at last nurtured, he built home furniture and completed some home renovation projects after leaving Hollister.

He now “decided to build a house for” his wife. (7) With help from his girls, he designed and constructed one of the first eco-friendly homes in Sturgeon Bay, complete with solar heating.

For his next project, Rev. Havens organized his wife’s bid for Door County district attorney. The campaign was successful, but the post-election elation could not stave off feelings and doubts Rev. Havens was having about his marriage. 

These thoughts first surfaced during the building of the family’s Sturgeon Bay home, and perhaps, like others grappling with marital uncertainty, Rev. Havens believed that the home’s completion would somehow erase his second thoughts. But it didn’t. “I finally faced up this wasn’t the best relationship,” Rev. Havens recalled in an interview. (8) The couple separated in 1978 and were divorced in 1980. For Rev. Havens, the end of his first marriage marked the beginning of another chapter in his intrepid life.

Following his divorce, Rev. Havens decided to return to the cause that he had left in California—improving working the lives of farmworkers.

As a State of Wisconsin employee, he discovered that the Farmers Home Administration, a former federal agency, had funds available for migrant worker housing. Securing state funding involved a detailed plan of the type of project an individual or organization hoped to create, as well as developing a metric system to measure the project’s effectiveness.

Recognizing his limited experience with program development and evaluating program efficacy, Rev. Havens reached out to Leilani (Lani) Jeanne Van Ryzin, a faculty member in the research division at the University of Wisconsin. Lani agreed to help, and the two developed a program to help settle migrant workers throughout Wisconsin.

What had started as a professional endeavor was soon transformed into a romantic relationship. Like Rev. Havens, Lani was also divorced and had children. In 1982, the couple married, melding their families and their passion for community activism, economic development, and political engagement.

To read Part 1 in this series, click here.

To read Part 2 in this series, click here.

To read Part 3 in this series, click here.

To read Part 4 in this series, click here.

1. Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014), 150.
2. Ibid.
3. Reverend David W. Havens, phone interview by author, Hollister, CA, April 18, 2014.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Reverend David W. Havens, phone interview by author, Hollister, CA, May 11, 2014.
7. Reverend David W. Havens, phone interview by author, Hollister, CA, April 21, 2014.
8. Ibid. 

Frank Pérez

I’m a lifelong resident of San Benito County. I reside in Hollister with my wife, Brenda. For over two decades, I've been a faculty member at San Benito High School, where I teach world history, Mexican-American history, and Ethnic Studies. I've been reporting for BenitoLink since 2015. My passion is delving deeper into the nuances of the local, historical record, while including lesser-known stories of our past. My hope is that county residents will have a greater appreciation for the diversity and complexity of San Benito County, realizing that its uniqueness depends upon our responsibility as its stewards.