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A Tribute to Ira Sandperl on his Birthday

(Thanks to Lee Swenson for this tribute he wrote for Ira Sandperl's memorial service in 2013. Ira would be 95 this March. Ira was a mentor on nonviolence to many, including Joan Baez, David Harris and other draft resisters. Ira and Joan co-founded the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence and marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Scenes in our film include Ira.)

Ira Sandperl with Joan Baez and Martin Luther King

Kepler’s Books already felt old in 1959 even though it had only been there for five years. Standing behind the bookstore counter, Ira looked as if he had been there forever, too, even though he was just 36 years old. The wooden counter, stacked with books and an old cash register, was just the right height to lean on and listen and talk with Ira as he rang up book sales. If the books handed to him didn’t carry the weight Ira felt they should, he would graciously point out a paperback copy of Tolstoy’s short stories and say, “Here, read The Death of Ivan Illych - old Tolstoy is better than any self-help book in the store."

I was a 19-year-old kid, hungry for stories, and Ira was a magnificent storyteller, the best I had ever heard. I would try to get to Kepler’s by 8 pm and have the next two hours before closing time to lean on the counter and talk with Ira. He was as good a reader as he was a storyteller. Not a good sleeper, he would read and reread his favorites: Gandhi, Tolstoy, Lao Tzu, Huxley. Aldous Huxley’s great book The Perennial Philosophy, framed what I was thinking: that the means are the ends, the "is" is the "was" of what shall be.

Ira read deeply, with a curious and probing mind. He read the Catholic Worker as well as the Daily Worker newspapers. He read Liberation magazine to follow the writings of A. J. Muste, Barbara Deming, and Bayard Rustin, as well as the small but catalytic newsletter, Manas, which carried the early writings of E. F. Schumacher, Wendell Berry, and Ivan Illich.

It was Ira's big mind that was so interesting to me. Having a much narrower band of reading in my classes at Stanford (I was a philosophy major who also roamed around in literature and history), Ira brought in a much wider and deeper vision of the world. Hardly anyone at Stanford was studying or hoping to live a life of Gandhian nonviolence. And yet there it was, unfolding right in front of us in the civil rights movement in the South as well as occasionally in the north and west around ending racial segregation, nuclear testing and fallout shelters, organizing war tax resistance, and speaking out against the militarization of our culture.

One could talk to Ira about so many things: the Holocaust, Russian literature, the French Resistance in World War II, the Arab-Israeli conflicts in the Middle East, as well as the latest gossip. Behind the counter at Kepler’s, Ira heard stories, news, and gossip coming in and he would share them back out. It was his great reach of ideas as well as Gandhian ways to live our daily lives that Ira offered. He was what a friend called a "de- institutionalized intellectual,” a very rare bird in those late '50s. He followed the writing and thinking of other “nonviolent activists” throughout the world as well as mining what have become classics. He would talk about Proust or Spinoza as if they were friends, the two of them in dialogue together.

Ira knew the books at Kepler's and would recommend them to anyone who would read them. There were books by World War II war resisters, like Lowell Naeve’s A Field of Broken Stones and Jim Peck’s We Who Would Not Kill, along with the poetry and writings from William Stafford and others from the Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps. Where else could you get this kind of education?

I think another of Ira’s great and lasting gifts is the way he spoke about nonviolent resistance and social change. He helped make it, directly and clearly, both a way to live and a way to organize. I remember going with him to San Francisco for the demonstrations supporting the Everyman I, II, and III, sailboats that were sailing out to protest the Pacific nuclear tests. Each boat would get out past the Golden Gate Bridge and then get dragged back. But a new one would get built and would set sail again.

Or, one could join Ira in demonstrating, picketing really, in front of the Quaker Meeting, urging them to refuse to pay their war taxes. A friend confronting the Friends, and Ira could do it with a smile. It seemed there were endless possibilities to get engaged in a nonviolent demonstration and spend a day, or perhaps a few nights, picketing the Federal Building in San Francisco or joining in the San Francisco to Moscow Peace March. And anyone could join in these exercises and learn new ways of "speaking truth to power."

Ira was open to talking with anyone and everyone, welcoming the best in each person. He also tolerated, or rather saved space for, silence - for someone to not to have to say anything in a group. That was true when the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence was in Carmel Valley. Ira would let anyone sit in the group and not have to say anything. I think he assumed that, over time, the nonviolent teaching would take its own form of action. Later, in Palo Alto, we would go around the circle expecting everyone to say something. But I think both Ira and Roy Kepler held to the old style of politeness and not being imposing. They could see that our youthful formality of informality had its own limits and benefited from some structure. One could learn on so many different levels from a elder like Ira.

Ira had a great sense of humor and a wonderful laugh. He wasn't always easy to be around - he could be grumpy or slyly competitive. But by waving his hand and throwing his head back with a big grin, he would lighten the load that he just laid on you. What a lucky thing to be in the time and place where Ira was at his fullest. Such a gift to treasure, particularly now that he's gone from us. Thank you, Ira.

Ira with Lee Swenson and David McReynolds at a War Resisters League Conference

Ira with Rev. James Lawson at an SCLC Conference.



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