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The Spirit of Ben Stahl:

Presentation at the December 5, 1998, Memorial Meeting

By Gerry Stahl

Don’t mourn, organize!

That was the unspoken message that my father communicated to me in his last days. And I believe that is the message that he left us all with the example of his very active and committed life. I would like to take a couple of minutes today to reflect on Ben Stahl’s life with you.

In 1916 – when America experienced its first major epidemic of polio – Ben was just one year old. He contracted polio, but he did not let it keep him down. Although he suffered the immobilizing effects of that awful disease, he never let it stop him from going where he wanted to go or doing what he had to do – even when the later effects of polio confined him to the wheelchair.

That was just his first of many life-long battles. As a teenager during the Great Depression he faced another barrier that would determine his fight against discrimination. In those days it was hard for a Jewish student to go to college. Ben faced anti-Semitism at a level that we can scarcely imagine anymore. But Ben went to Temple University. As the youngest child of a large family, he was the first to get a college education. As proud as he always was of going to Temple, he was equally proud of having been expelled by the University President. For, he did not let the tenuousness of his student status stop him from organizing on campus. In a time when America was fanning the hysteria for World War II, Ben was organizing for peace. He eventually did get his degree in history – and then immediately set off to organize for a better version of history.

He organized for socialism in America. He organized for equality and justice. He organized against every form of racial discrimination and injustice.

When industry-wide unions seemed the clearest solution to poverty and exploitation, Ben launched his lifelong career as a union organizer of the CIO (and later for the AFL-CIO). He not only helped thousands of workers up and down the East Coast to organize unions to represent themselves, but he always stressed the need to educate union members about the real meaning and potential of labor unions. His first official job was as a workers’ education teacher, and he remained active in this field through his retirement.

Throughout his life – and particularly in his retirement years – Ben was active in a great many progressive organizations. We all know that he lived to go to meetings. Why were meetings so important to him? Because meetings are where people organize themselves, together, to work for their goals and ideals, or to fight oppression, misfortune and discrimination. When people stop mourning as isolated individuals and start organizing as united groups, they meet in meetings. And when their organizing results in organizations, those organizations are run by means of meetings.

So is this Ben’s last meeting? Perhaps in one sense. But I think that as long as organizations like PFT, PUP, PEC or ADA have meetings, and people recall the ideals of Ben Stahl there, his spirit will still be at those meetings. That is the spirit that insists, without ever falling into cliché, "Don’t mourn, organize!’

Certainly, Ben’s spirit will live on with his family members. We have all learned many lessons from him directly, and indirectly from the example of his life. We will each carry on something of that life – each in our own way.

Although we are obviously deeply saddened that Ben is not longer with us physically and we will miss him dearly, we can be comforted by the knowledge that he lived a very full life and pursued his ideals to the fullest. Even in his last year, he remained involved in many of his favorite organizations and kept up-to-date on developments in our quickly changing world.

This past summer Ben participated in important events for both his grandsons. At Zake’s wedding, Ben took the opportunity to publicly thank Zake for helping him use the latest computer technology. As hard as computer literacy is for most people of his generation, Ben refused to fall behind the times. At Rusty’s college graduation, Ben discussed Rusty’s activities with national ADA and with the AFL-CIO, as well as the community and student organizing that earned Rusty the Martin Luther King Award for Social Activism at George Washington University. I am sure that Ben knew in this last year that his spirit would be carried on by his family, friends, colleagues and organizations that he had left his mark on and had inspired with his example.

For myself, I know that my life and work have been strongly influenced by my father’s example. During the 60’s I was active in student and anti-war organizing. In the 70’s I was involved in union organizing at Ben’s alma mater, Temple University, with his guidance. In the 80’s I engaged in community organizing in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia. And in the 90’s I am conducting research in how to conduct effective meetings over the Internet – so that people can organize themselves even when they cannot physically get together in face-to-face meetings. In my own ways I hope to further Ben’s goal of promoting collaboration for a better world.

If you feel that your life has been touched by Ben’s spirit, I hope you, too, will take today’s meeting as an opportunity to share that with the rest of us.

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