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An escape from Cuba: Olga comes 'home' to Toledo

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    Dolores Rodriguez (left) has become one of Olga Goodwin's best friends, and one of the few people who knew of Olga's background. Olga's husband, Jim, said he is still learning things about her past but supports her mission to bring her former husband's body home.

    <Morrison / Blade photo

  • An-escape-from-Cuba-Olga-comes-home-to-Toledo
  • An-escape-from-Cuba-Olga-comes-home-to-Toledo-2

    Olga Goodwin, 65, arrived in America during the Mariel boat lift of 1980 and came to Toledo - her former husband's home. She is now on a mission to bring his body to Toledo to be reburied.

    <Morrison / Blade photo

Last of 3 parts

As helicopters hovered over the 30-foot boat, Olga Morgan looked up from the sinking vessel and waved her arms.

After taking on water for a day, the boat was finally spotted by the U.S. Coast Guard. Like angels, she says, the helicopters "dropped from the skies."

When the vessel left Cuba in 1980 in a procession of boats fleeing Castro's communist regime, a Cuban navy cutter raced to its starboard side, firing into the hull. For 27 hours, water gushed into the boat while it was tossed in rough seas. By the time it reached Key West - 90 miles away - it was close to capsizing.

After it was towed to shore, Olga stepped off the boat, kneeled, and kissed the ground. "I waited so long for that," she says.

A political prisoner in Cuba for 12 years, she realized a dream - to come to America. But she was not like the thousands of others who made the journey in the infamous Mariel boat lift.

An-escape-from-Cuba-Olga-comes-home-to-Toledo-2

Olga Goodwin, 65, arrived in America during the Mariel boat lift of 1980 and came to Toledo - her former husband's home. She is now on a mission to bring his body to Toledo to be reburied.

Morrison / Blade photo Enlarge

She was the widow of William Morgan, the former Toledoan who ventured to her country in 1957 to help overthrow the government of Fulgencio Batista.

Now, she was going to spend the rest of her life in his hometown - his dying wish for her before he was led to a firing squad in 1961.

With only a few articles of clothing and spare change, she arrived in 1980 - a widow who could barely speak English.

"I wanted to be here because of him," says the 65-year-old woman who now lives in West Toledo.

At first, she refused to talk about her past, not even telling her current husband, James, when they wed in 1985. "I didn't think he would marry me," she says.

In the last 20 years, she has blended into the Toledo tapestry: going to church on Sundays, shopping at the Franklin Park Mall, and chaperoning teenagers at summer camps.

An-escape-from-Cuba-Olga-comes-home-to-Toledo-3

Dolores Rodriguez (left) has become one of Olga Goodwin's best friends, and one of the few people who knew of Olga's background. Olga's husband, Jim, said he is still learning things about her past but supports her mission to bring her former husband's body home.

Morrison / Blade photo Enlarge

Until recently, few people were aware the 5-foot, 2-inch tall woman was one of Castro's most famous female prisoners.

"She has a remarkable past," says her pastor, Rev. Donald Brewer of Augsburg Lutheran Church. "Most people have no idea what Olga has gone through. They wouldn't believe it."

She has now embarked on a new mission - one that may be more difficult than her journey here: to bring William Morgan's body to Toledo.

She has petitioned the Cuban Interests Section in Washington for permission to retrieve his remains from the Colon Cemetery in Havana but has yet to get a response. She says she'll keep trying.

The second oldest of six children, Olga was born on April 22, 1936, in the foothills of the Escambray Mountains with a simple dream: to be a teacher.

But by the time she turned 20, her career was over.

She had boldly questioned the leadership of President Batista, who was accused of canceling elections, shunning the poor, and staying in power by torturing and killing his opponents.

Olga was on his list.

As a member of the political group "Directorio" she organized protests and even helped make a bomb to ignite during riots in April, 1958.

"Batista never cared about the farmers and poor people," says Olga, who was senior class president of Santa Clara teacher's college.

It was the beginning of her life of protest.

She would meet Morgan in a rebel training camp in the Escambray Mountains - a Yankee rebel who shared her beliefs - and they would marry in a hideaway before the won was won.

"We wanted to have children and raise them free," she says.

But by the time their first child was born on Aug. 28, 1959, the new Cuba was refusing to host elections and other reforms.

By September, 1960, Castro's soldiers began rounding up dissidents - including former guerillas who served under Morgan - and executing them at the La Cabana prison fortress.

That's when Olga and Morgan began trucking arms into the mountains, where many of the people shared their beliefs. To this day, she says they were only storing guns to protect themselves.

"Our friends were being arrested, attacked, hurt, because they were against communism," she says.

But the couple were arrested on Oct. 17, 1960, with Olga placed under house arrest and her husband sent to La Cabana. The charges: delivering guns to anti-Castro guerillas "at the direction of foreign interests."

Olga insists there was never a plot to overthrow Castro, nor were they storing guns at the behest of the United States.

She last saw her husband on Dec. 31, 1960, after she was given permission - under guard - to visit the prison. "He tried to tell me everything would be OK," says Olga. "But I was scared. I was scared for him, scared for our children. He told me that if I ever escape to America, go to Toledo. His mother would take care of us."

After returning home, she escaped after mixing crushed sleeping pills with melted chocolate and then serving the candy to the three guards, she says.

As the guards slept, she and her children slipped into the night, hailed a taxi, and stayed with friends for three days. On Jan. 4, 1961, she walked into the Brazilian Embassy, asking for asylum.

She stayed there three months before leaving and hiding in a house in Santa Clara, Cuba, with her children safely with her parents. But she was discovered and arrested by Castro's police.

By the time she went to prison in March, 1961, her arrest was publicized in newspapers across the island: the widow of the Yanqui Comandante was now a prisoner.

Olga was the leader of 45 female inmates known as Las Plantadas, the "planted ones" who refused to go along with the new government.

Eleven times, they waged hunger strikes at the women's prison in Guanajay and were confined to the troubled D section, Olga says.

In 1965, she was beaten in the facility by the director of the prison system, Manolo Martinez, because she refused to follow directives. As a result of the blows to her head, she still suffers migraines.

"Collapsed veins, that's what the doctor told me," she says.

She was placed in solitary confinement for three months, she says. Her mother, sisters, and children were allowed to visit, but not regularly.

"I learned," she says, "to cry inside. I never let [the guards] see me."

Though she was supposed to serve 30 years, Olga was the direct beneficiary of a United Nations delegation visit to Cuba in 1972. Castro agreed to free 10 political prisoners: nine men and a woman.

Olga was released.

But the life she once knew in Cuba was different than the one she found after her release.

She couldn't find a job, and her two daughters, already teenagers, were taught in the schools that Olga and Morgan were traitors.

When Olga found out, she angrily confronted the female principal of their school. "I knew her. She was with us in the movement, and I yelled at her," she says. "I asked her, 'Who was the traitor?'''

Eloy Menoyo, 68, a founder of the counterrevolutionary group, Alpha 66, who was later imprisoned 22 years in Cuba, said Olga suffered even after her release. "She was still a prisoner," he says.

Twelve years after her husband was executed, Olga was handed the letter that Morgan wrote to her in his final hours before walking to the firing squad. Because she was hiding at the time, she did not read the note then.

"Dear, you are so young and pretty, do not let your life become lifeless and sad," he wrote.

She read the letter over and over.

"You have been my love, my happiness, my companion in life and in my thoughts in my hour of death."

In the years after her release from prison, she was still followed by Castro's police, she says. To keep them away from her family in Santa Clara, Olga moved to a convent hospital in Havana where she cleaned and kept medical records. She also knitted items, and sold them on the streets.

She was determined to come to America, but every time she requested a visa to leave Cuba, she was denied, she says. "They told me I was a special case."

In 1979, she finally received good news: She and her parents, her daughters, and other relatives were approved to go to Miami. But as they boarded a plane in Havana, she was stopped.

They left; she was forced to stay.

"They were trying to make me crazy," she says. "I was so sad."

The following year, after repeated requests, she was permitted to depart with thousands of others from Mariel harbor.

Castro allowed boats to come into the harbor to pick up passengers, and then emptied his jails and ordered the boat owners to take the prisoners, too. In all, 125,000 left for south Florida.

Four boats capsized, and in several cases, the Cuban navy took shots at the hulls of the vessels. The boat in which Olga was riding was shot several times, she says, but no one was struck.

When she arrived in Miami in August, she immediately called her late husband's friend whom she met in Cuba - Frank Emmick.

The Toledo businessman was jailed in Cuba from 1963 to 1977, accused of traitorous activities in a case unrelated to the Morgans. After his release, he returned to Toledo and lectured about his years as a Cuban prisoner.

He bought Olga a plane ticket to Toledo.

She stayed with Mr. Emmick and his wife, and shortly after she arrived, she stopped at the home of Morgan's mother, Loretta.

"We met each other for the first time," says Olga. "I loved her. She told me she understood why her son had loved me." Until her death in 1988, they were frequently together, says Olga.

Olga learned that Morgan's father, Alexander, had died in 1965, four years after his son. She also discovered that William's son from a previous marriage died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age of 6.

Morgan's daughter from the first marriage was raised by Loretta Morgan, but she had moved to Texas by the 1970s, says Olga.

Six months after Olga moved to Toledo, she moved into her own apartment near Ottawa Park, and began working at a downtown thrift shop.

By the next year, she became involved in the Hispanic community as a social worker at the former Guadalupe Family Health Clinic.

"She has a passion for helping people," says Dolores Rodriguez, a friend who helped get her the position. "She knows about the problems of the poor and elderly. She has been there."

In 1984, Olga met Jim Goodwin, and they were wed the following year. The 53-year-old welder says he is still learning about his wife's past.

"It's been interesting," he says, smiling. "I don't mind. This is her thing." But he adds, "I'm learning more about her."

She spends numerous days each year as a volunteer chaperone for the youth group at her church, Augsburg Lutheran.

The teenagers learned about Olga's background last summer in a lesson they still talk about, says Judy Encheff, outreach director.

As the teens were returning in a van from summer camp when they began needling the driver to stop.

They kept saying, 'We're hungry,'" says Mrs. Encheff.

As their voices rose, Olga snapped her fingers, and everyone stopped talking. She turned to them, saying: "You don't know what hunger is."

She then described growing up in the mountains where her family sometimes ate one meal a day, and later, her prison years. "The kids just listened quietly," says Mrs. Encheff. "No one said anything for a very long time."

Olga became more outspoken about her past when the issue over Elian Gonzalez dominated the headlines in May, 2000.

She was interviewed by a Toledo television station about Cuba, saying the young boy should stay with his Miami relatives rather than be forced to return to his father in Cuba. "These young children in Cuba grow up without being able to use their brains," she says. "Communism doesn't let people disagree, or have other ideas. Their young brains don't grow."

She has few regrets in her life, she says. "I love my country. But it is not free over there, and until it is free, I will always have a pain in my heart for Cuba."

Her two daughters, now living in the United States, had difficulties growing up with their mother in prison, and their father portrayed in their schools as a traitor.

Olga refuses to talk about them. "They've been through enough," says Olga, who is raising three grandchildren.

For now, she plans on pressing the Cuban government for the return of her former husband's body. She says she is going to begin a letter-writing campaign to restore his American citizenship, which was stripped by the U.S. State Department in a controversial decision in 1959.

"My husband died fighting communism," she said. "He was a freedom fighter, like others."

Six other Americans fought in the Cuban revolution, but only Morgan lost his citizenship.

She has received support from the anti-Castro group in Miami, Alpha 66. Nazario Sargen, a founder who fought with Morgan in the revolution, said he would support both efforts, especially to return Morgan's body.

"We can work through our own diplomatic channels," he said, adding that Olga "has suffered enough. This would be a humanitarian gesture."

Of all the letters, documents, and pictures of William Morgan, Olga says she will always treasure the last letter he wrote to her before his death.

To the end, he professed his innocence of the crimes for which he was accused. "Olga, I have never been a traitor or have done any damage to Cuba. I tell you this, because you know this to be the truth ... I have great peace in my spirit ... my ideals and beliefs you share with me, and I know that I can trust you to defend these ideals.... The words on paper can never describe the feelings that I have for you, or the love that we shared."

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