Almanac

News - April 17, 2013

Nonviolence champion dies at 90

by Dave Boyce

Ira Sandperl, who devoted his life to the cause of nonviolence in human affairs, lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Menlo Park for his last decade, a place within walking distance of Kepler's bookstore, friends said. But if he wanted a book, he didn't need to walk anywhere. He had bookshelves in every room, including the pantry and the kitchen, said David Christie, a friend who helped him move from Palo Alto in 2003. Mr. Sandperl shared his apartment with 4,000 books.

The word multi-faceted may express something of the spirit of Mr. Sandperl. He was a disciple of Gandhian nonviolent resistance, a mentor to folksinger Joan Baez, an associate of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, Kepler's first employee, a creative writing teacher at Peninsula School (and out-loud reader of Tolstoy, whose work he loved), a Cafe Borrone regular, and a profound influence on those who encountered him. He died Saturday, April 13, at home surrounded by friends and his books. He was 90.

"Visiting him was like hanging out in a private library," Mr. Christie said. Mr. Sandperl was self-deprecating, a great storyteller and spent a lot of time telling stories, many about the antiwar and civil rights movements, Mr. Christie said. "He was incredibly well acquainted with just everybody you've ever heard of and many people you've never heard of."

Mr. Sandperl, with Joan Baez and Roy Kepler, had been arrested and jailed in the 1960s at an Oakland sit-in to stop the draft, and used the experience to help people understand the value of being "a thorn in the side of the machine," including coping with jail, Mr. Christie said. In one account, Mr. Christie said a stranger once asked Mr. Sandperl about surviving jail, peppering him with questions and eventually driving him to the airport. He forgot about the encounter until seeing the stranger — Daniel Ellsberg — on the front page of the New York Times. Mr. Ellsberg had arranged the revelation of a U.S. Department of Defense classified history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers.

Mr. Sandperl told Mr. Christie that he had prodded Dr. King to take more radical positions, including opposing the Vietnam war, which Dr. King eventually did. "Here he is, a self-taught Gandhi scholar and bookstore employee telling Martin Luther King what sort of public ideology he should embrace," Mr. Christie said. "Now, given the stature of Dr. King, it's almost laughable."

"Ira was very much a provocateur" and embodied Gandhi's view that "there's nothing passive about nonviolent resistance," Mr. Christie said. He spoke his mind. His friendships could alternate between being on — and not on — speaking terms.

Mr. Christie recalled an exchange he once had. "Ira," he said, "you got sharp words for everybody on the planet except Gandhi and Martin Luther King." Mr. Sandperl replied: "I've got plenty of sharp words about Martin Luther King." But April 4, the anniversary of Dr. King's assassination, was always a hard day for him.

Under hospice care at home, having only Medicare and Medi-Cal to rely on, Mr. Sandperl took the edge off. "He made very, very strong bonds with two or three of the caregivers, and those people kept coming back," Mr. Christie said. "Those caregivers were a grace note in the last days of his life. He had the good fortune of dying at home surrounded by his books. ... He eked out personal independence and he preserved it to the end."

Married three times, he is survived by two former wives, Susan Robinson of Paso Robles and Molly Black of La Honda. Other survivors are two children from his first marriage to Merle Sandperl: Nicole Sandperl of Aptos and Mark Sandperl of Placerville.

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