The International Peace Academy: Truth is Stranger than Fiction

There is an old farm place south of Lake Lida on Cross Point Road, a brooding two story house, scattered sagging outbuildings, and a beautiful, shimmering pond. Years ago, when Cross Point Road was no more than a dusty track winding through the lush green hills, there were brick columns at the head of the drive, a iron gate bearing the words Pacem Terra—Peace on Earth.

Jenny Gillaspey, now grown and college bound, remembers hearing stories as a school kid. Her friends swore the house was haunted. They would drive out nights and park on the road, gaze across the eerie moonlit landscape. The pond seemed to glow with an unearthly fire, occasionally someone would claim to see flashes of light from upstairs windows. After a local contractor was retained to level a pasture hilltop, the stories got even wilder. That flat spot was intended for the arrival of a UFO.

But Truth, as always, proved itself stranger than fiction. There were indeed strange goings on at that house on Cross Point Road, but doings with decidedly earthly origins, doings born of intrigue and international politics.

That house was owned by one William Peterfi, a Hungarian refugee who had fled to the United States after the ill–fated Hungarian revolution of the 1950’s was crushed by Soviet tanks. Peterfi had been a professor of political science in Budapest and had been arrested for distributing a religious newspaper deemed subversive. In 1959, after a six year stint in a Soviet prision, where he subsisted on rotten potatoes, Peterfi was released and allowed to emigrate to the United States, where Soviet authorities believed he would cause them no further trouble. Though such seemed to be the case, Peterfi was to eventually prove extremely worrisome to the government of his new country.

Peterfi’s credentials soon landed him a teaching position with the University of Minnesota, Morris. In 1976, he bought the place on Cross Point Road to use as a weekend and summer home, a retreat from bone dry corn and bean fields around Morris. When the United States began working its way deeper and deeper into a war in Southeast Asia, Peterfi joined the growing ranks of anti–war protestors. He began inviting students to his new place on weekends for seminars and informal discussion. He built a brick chapel in the yard, memorials to the Japanese cities destroyed by atom bombs, even wrote the mayor of Hiroshima, asking for a momento of nuclear destruction. The mayor, moved and baffled by such an odd request, sent a single scorched brick. Peterfi enshrined it in a place of honor in a flower garden.

Since Peterfi could not spend all his days at his new retreat, he allowed friends to live there in his absence. There was a young man, another Hungarian refugee, rumored to hiding out from the KGB, the dreaded Soviet secret police. But the most famous—or infamous—guests, were one John Laforge and his companion Barbara Katt. Laforge and Katt made it their life missions to protest the terror of nuclear weaponry. Concentrating on the misiles based in North Dakota, Laforge and Katt participated in a number of nonviolent protests at nuclear sites, many of which got them arrested, some of which landed them behind bars. All told, Laforge and Katt were to earn nearly three years in jail each for their activities.

Finally, in the spring of 1984, Laforge and Katt did something utterly radical. Eschewing their typical denim and flannel, the pair put on business suits, bought attache cases, lined up with the dayshift at a Twin Cities Sperry–Univac plant. Once inside, the pair opened their cases, brought out hammers and symbolically smashed a computer destined to guide a Trident submarine launched nuclear missile into the heart of the Soviet Union.

Laforge and Katt were immediately arrested by plant security guards, hustled off to jail. Since they had successfully breached security at a defense plant, had gazed upon, then destroyed top secret equipment, they were charged with violating a number of Federal statutes. They planned no defense. Indeed, there was none. They had conspired to break the law, they had broken the law, there were dozens of witnesses. Period. They would plead their conscience, hope for the best. The worst was ten years in jail.

But then something totally unexpected happened. The pair drew US District Court Judge Miles Lord, a man with an unpredictable and creative interpretation of the law. Citing a previous case in which Sperry was convicted of fleecing the government by overcharging millions for defense work, Lord directed a verdict of Not Guilty. The prosecution raised a howl of protest, but to no avail. Laforge and Katt walked. Later, an official complaint—alleging incompetence and senility— lodged by the disappointed prosecutors eventually led to Judge Lord’s retirement.

Meanwhile, the Southeast Asian war sputtered to an unfortunate conclusion, communism collapsed, plans to incinerate fifty million Soviets were put on hold, and William Peterfi—after writing to relatives to test political waters—went home to Hungary. And the International Peace Academy grew weeds.

Lida Township widened and paved Cross Point Road, bulldozed the massive brick columns, hauled the gates bearing Pacem Terra off behind an outbuilding. The place was sold in 1991, then offered for sale again. In October of 1994, Dave Gillaspey, Pelican Rapids landlord and entrepreneur, had a friend looking for a place in the country. When the friend couldn’t swing the finances, Gillaspey decided to buy it himself. "I loaded the family in the car," he remembers, "and drove them out to look at our new home." Jenny gazed across the fields in horror. "I ain’t sleeping there," she declared. But she did.

And so ends the tangled story of the International Peace Academy, a tale that weaves a tapestry of war, nuclear destruction, revolution, the collapse of governments, protest, imprisonment, and the demise of a Federal judge.

Or almost. Dave Gillaspey, burdened with keeping up with minor repair on his many rental units, hired a handy man, a Mexican–American, one Isabel Cantu. This Isabel Cantu claims to know the ways of the earth, to be able to read signs of changing weather, coming seasons. On Cantu’s first visit to Gillaspey’s, he gazed up at the house, asked, "Who’s home?" "Why nobody," Gillaspey replied. "Huh," Cantu replied skeptically, and rolled his eyes. "Something’s there," he said.

~Roger Pinckney
Pelican Rapids Press September 17, 1997