When Michael Meadows hears the name Karen Silkwood, he doesn’t remember an anti-nuclear activist.
“She is always Mom, then martyr — always Mom first,” Meadows said.
Silkwood’s name personifies activist, but to younger generations she is largely unknown.
“I do believe that people would be surprised to know she wasn’t an anti-nuke activist,” Meadows said.
She became involved in a labor union due to health and safety violations she believed were affecting her fellow workers, Meadows said.
This week will mark the 40th anniversary of Silkwood’s death.
She died Nov. 13, 1974, in a car accident, leaving her children, Kristi, Michael and Dawn, then ages 8, 5 and 4, without a mother. She was on her way to Oklahoma City to meet with a New York Times reporter and her union representative and was thought to be carrying documentation about health and safety violations at a Kerr-McGee plant, according to published reports.
Today, Michael Meadows is married with three children and lives in the St. Louis area. Dawn Lipsey is married with three children and lives in Highland Village, Texas. Kristi Riddles declined to be interviewed.
Silkwood worked as a laboratory technician for Kerr-McGee Corp. at a nuclear power plant in Crescent. She investigated health and safety issues at the plant, including testifying before the Atomic Energy Commission regarding violations of health and safety regulations and she accused Kerr-McGee of falsifying inspection records, according to court documents.
In the eight days prior to her death, Silkwood had been exposed to large quantities of plutonium even though she had not handled any dangerous materials, according to published reports.
Newspaper accounts at that time said Silkwood was discovered in her car, which had gone off the road and struck a culvert. An investigation showed Quaaludes were found both in Silkwood’s car and in her bloodstream. An Oklahoma Highway Patrol report indicated she had fallen asleep at the wheel, according to published reports.
Dents and paint scrapes were found on her car’s rear bumper, leading to the theory that Silkwood was forced off the road by a second automobile, according to published reports.
The documents she was thought to be carrying were never found.
After her death, a federal investigation found many of Silkwood’s allegations true, prompting Kerr-McGee to close the Cimarron plant in 1975.
“I would like to know what happened to my mother that night, but I am not sure if I could handle it all over again,” Lipsey said. “I will see her again one day and then I will know.”
In the past 40 years, the siblings have seldom spoken publicly about their mother.
Meadows says he really didn’t know his mother.
She had left the three siblings with their father after learning he was having an affair, Lipsey said.
“All my life I have been angry at my mother,” Lipsey said. “I never felt, no matter what or who told me, that she loved me.”
After Lipsey started her own family, she let go of those angry feelings.
“I now know that you do whatever it takes to make sure your children are safe and secure,” Lipsey said. “I believe that if she could have kept us, she would have.”
The siblings have leaned on each other in the years since their mother’s death.
“My sister and brother have always been by my side,” Lipsey said. “Even when they did not feel the same way as I did. I love them dearly.”
“Growing up, my relationship with Kristi and Dawn was very close,” Meadows said. “They were definitely my closest friends and confidants. We were always there for each other anytime there was a struggle or a celebration, mom-related or not.”
Meadows said the opportunity to pick up a telephone and have a conversation with his mother would be priceless.
“I wish she were alive almost every day of my life,” Meadows said. “I am very jealous of my friends’ relationships with their mothers even to this day.”