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They Want the World to ‘Question Authority’

Times Staff Writer

Clay Colt’s voice turned soft, filled with nostalgia, as he remembered the day inspiration struck.

It was Aug. 8, 1974, and Colt and Kate Donnelly happened to be on the Santa Cruz boardwalk when they heard that Richard Nixon was resigning as president.

They celebrated by printing their first bumper sticker: “Jail to the Ex-Chief.”

That day, the couple launched an enterprise that would carry them into a new century of social activism. Today, they’re running the nation’s oldest purveyor of peace paraphernalia.

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“We had no idea it would become what it has become,” said Colt, 52.

War turns out to be good for the peace business.

Orders began flooding Donnelly/Colt Progressive Resources and a handful of similar companies around the country as soon as President Bush announced plans to invade Iraq. Overnight, the company sold out of “No War on Iraq” lawn signs. This month, Colt fielded a call from a Los Angeles customer who wanted 25,000 antiwar bumper stickers. Another big seller of late has been a bumper sticker that reads: “How Many Iraqi Children Did We Kill Today?” (It was made 12 years ago, for the Persian Gulf War).

Determination, Donnelly said, not corporate acumen, has kept them marketing slogans that people wear on their backs, slap on their automobiles or magnetize on their refrigerators. Commerce, she contends, is inherently boring.

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“If I were not doing what we are doing, I would not be in business,” she said. “Business is not what I would choose.”

Colt and Donnelly met and fell in love at Windham College in Vermont -- a school whose pacifist inclinations helped put it out of business. The pair dropped out so they could protest the war in Vietnam full time.

Donnelly was the daughter of a Connecticut labor organizer. Colt (to his occasional embarrassment) was the son of Republicans from New Jersey.

These accidental entrepreneurs began almost 30 years ago when they bought a small hand-printing press after their Nixon sticker drew such attention. While Donnelly waited on tables and Colt cleaned film at a county library, they cranked out such bumper sticker classics as “Question Authority.” Their low-tech equipment forced them to make items one at a time.

By the time they moved to this farming village 18 years ago, they had branched into buttons, T-shirts and other merchandise that made statements about social change.

Sons Andrew, now 20, and Cal, 18 -- both attend Oberlin College in Ohio -- grew up helping out. Sifting through bins in the company’s basement headquarters, the boys took inventory on buttons ranging from A (“Against Abortion? Don’t Have One”) to an existentially mysterious square that reads simply “X.”

Colt still types invoices on manual typewriters he picks up at yard sales. But as the fiercely Luddite proprietors of Donnelly/Colt Progressive Resources gradually yielded to modern technology, Cal became the company’s Webmaster. When daughter Zoe Donnellycolt -- all three children use this combination of their parents’ surnames -- came along, she joined the organization too.

Recently, Zoe, 12, designed a T-shirt that takes off on a milk industry catch phrase. “Got peace?” it asks.

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But mostly it is Donnelly, Colt and one full-time employee who run an operation that grosses less than $1 million annually. They keep only enough records to satisfy the Internal Revenue Service, and they have no idea about sales volume or other basic business axioms. The firm’s Web site (www.donnellycolt.com) notes that most of the products are union-made, and it cautions buyers to be patient because the orders sometimes back up.

“We’ve never been the kind of business that does projections or keeps detailed records,” said Donnelly, 50. “If I get up in the morning and there are 100 orders on the Internet and there used to be 15, that’s what we see. We stock what we think will sell, and usually we’re right.”

The company’s slow-but-steady growth prompted Donnelly and Colt to build a two-story barn to house their business. Their commute: a one-minute walk through a field, often in the company of their beagle.

In a town of just over 1,700 residents, the family’s politics are no secret. Indeed, someone stole the family’s “No War on Iraq” lawn sign. Hampton is so small that it does not have a gas station, and its vacant general store has been for sale for years.

But along with producing “Boycott Homophobia” buttons and T-shirts that say “Peace” in English, Hebrew and Arabic, Donnelly and Colt have served on town committees, the school board and the parent-teacher association. No one in town has ever made an issue of their activism, Donnelly said.

“In a small community, people know you on a much bigger level than in a big city,” she said. “It makes our peace involvement harder for them to dismiss.”

Colt added, “They know us as people before they know us as demonstrators.”

The Donnelly/Colt family organized and attended protests on myriad issues. At the outbreak of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Zoe was just 6 months old when her parents helped start a weekly vigil that continues still in the nearby community of Willimantic.

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Recently, Zoe and her parents hurried to finish a banner that they had promised to bring to the vigil. When Colt ran out of several key letters, he was momentarily stymied. The family improvised by slicing up other letters and gluing them together.

Across the street from the antiwar protesters, another group demonstrated in support of U.S. military action in Iraq. Army veteran Ken Tutto cast an appraising eye as Donnelly and Colt unfurled their banner.

“They have the right to do this; that’s what we’re all fighting for. So I don’t hold it against them,” Tutto said. “I just wish that once the war had started, they had stopped.”

Tenacity has kept the family going, Colt said. Paraphrasing the Talmud, he said the family philosophy is: “I know I cannot change the world, but I know it is incumbent on me to do my part.”


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