After 38 years of marriage and an even dozen kids, all now grown, Jean and Joseph Gump of Morton Grove, Ill., were looking forward to retiring to their Michigan farm. They talked of visits to relatives in Europe and about cross-country tripping on their tandem bike. Now it is looking very much as if the Gumps, both 60, will be spending several of their remaining years apart—in separate federal prisons.

Many prisoners wind up behind bars when they fail to heed the call of their consciences. The Gumps are going to jail for listening perhaps too closely to theirs. Jean is currently serving a six-year sentence at the women's Federal Correctional Institution in Alderson, W.Va., for her symbolic attack last spring on a Minuteman II missile site in Missouri. "Disarmament is a must," she says, unrepentant. "I am willing to give up my life for the future of my children, grandchildren and all humankind."

This past August, in a calculated reprise of his wife's sacrificial act, Joe and a cohort were arrested and charged with conspiring to cause $12,000 in damage to another Missouri missile silo. A federal court jury in Kansas City, Mo., deliberated only 20 minutes last October before finding Joe and Gerald Ebner, 37, a Catholic lay worker, guilty. They face a maximum of 15 years in prison and $500,000 in fines and are due to be sentenced by New Year's. "We have done what we in conscience must do so we can live with our faith," says Joe, who, like his wife, will not appeal the verdict.

In nearly every respect, the Gumps are unlikely felons. Friends and family say they are a community-spirited couple whose sense of social obligation is rooted in their Catholicism and whose protests against nuclear weapons are grounded in Jean's staunch belief and Joe's devotion to her. "They have beautiful souls and ideals and a courage that few people have," says Belle Sanders, a longtime friend.

Native Chicagoans, they met as high school seniors on a blind date. Joe was a football star, Jean a self-assured coed who, says her older sister Pat Foley, "wasn't afraid to make waves." They married in 1949, while Joe was getting his chemical engineering degree at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and promptly moved to the suburbs. With 12 children in 14 years, life involved more diaper changes and school concerts than protests.

In the vernacular of the times, the Gumps had their consciousness raised during the '60s while participating in church outreach programs in Chicago's housing projects. "At 5 or 6, I remember marching with Mom for civil rights and being terrified by men on the sidelines with bricks, but feeling proud because what we were doing was right," says daughter Holly, 32, now a graduate student at Cornell University. Jean continued as an activist into the '70s, but Joe grew disillusioned with public protest and marching and, after earning an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, concentrated on moving up the corporate ladder at his engineering firm. "I felt my primary responsibility was earning an income for my family," he says.

The birth of their first grandchild, Miles, in 1982, set Jean on the path that led her to her narrow room at Alder-son. "As I stood looking at that baby, I realized there simply wouldn't be any future for that child or others unless we disarm," says Jean. She plunged into the nuclear freeze movement the next day by marching in a rally in Chicago. Eventually she joined a religious peace group that picketed government arsenals and conducted prayer vigils at the corporate headquarters of defense contractors. In the normal course of such events, she was arrested four times. Soon she began ridding herself of her possessions. In 1985 she insisted the family have a no-frills Christmas, despite arguments from a couple of her children. Then she sold her engagement ring and donated the money to feed the poor. "It suddenly seemed we were wasting our lives worrying about getting new curtains or fall clothing," she says. "What difference did all these possessions make if my children did not have a future?"

At dawn on March 28, 1986—Good Friday—Jean and two other Catholic peace activists, Ken Rippetoe, 23, and Larry Morlan, 26, cut through a chainlink fence and invaded a missile site operated by Missouri's Whiteman Air Force Base. Calling themselves the "Silo Plowshares" (from the biblical admonition to beat "swords into plowshares"), the three of them hammered on electronic sensors and on the track used for moving the 120-ton silo cover. They poured their own blood onto the cover and spray-painted the slogan "Disarm and Live." Thirty minutes later they were arrested by troops in full battle gear. Jean and her co-defendants served as their own counsel at their trial in June 1986 in Kansas City. They argued that they had acted out of necessity in the face of the overwhelming danger of nuclear weapons. Each defendant was sentenced to prison and ordered to pay $424.48 for damage done at the missile site. Jean has refused to pay.

His wife's arrest and imprisonment didn't shock Joe, but he had not anticipated she'd receive so long a sentence. After Jean went to jail, he withdrew into Bible study, prayers and meditation. "He said it was up to our generation to awaken people to the dangers of nuclear weapons," says Belle Sanders, "because we had already raised our children and gotten some of the good things of life." Joe put the family's five-bedroom home up for sale and last July quit his job. Then on August 5, to coincide with the 42nd anniversary of the bomb's dropping on Hiroshima, Joe and Ebner repeated Jean's protest rites. "It was an affirmation of Jean's action," says Joe, who also defended himself in court without a lawyer—with similar results. "In part for the deterrent value," the prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Robert Ulrich, pressed for a harsh sentence. "If we allowed every person to follow only the laws they determined would apply to them, anarchy would prevail."

Ten out of the 12 Gump children agree with their parents' views and came from around the country to stand by Joe at his trial, just as they had visited Jean in prison the Christmas before. The other two disagree but won't discuss the situation. "We don't expect all of them to understand what we're doing," says Joe. "We only want them to accept that we are doing it out of our love for them and our grandchildren." Indeed, like any proud grandmother, Jean has snapshots of her grandkids, now numbering four, pinned to the walls of her room. Sure, she misses watching them grow, she says, "but I have to follow my conscience, whether or not my being here makes any difference to the government."

Joe shares with his wife a calm acceptance of his fate. He claims to harbor no regrets and no rancor. He knows they won't be seeing each other for a long, long time. Jean stands to spend six years in jail, maybe more, and Joe expects his sentence will be at least as long. "When you do what you are at peace in doing, there is a joy that is not easily described," he says. "Jean and I had been blessed with 38 years together. Now, the fact is, we've never been closer in all our lives."

  • Contributors:
  • Civia Tamarkin.