In Memory: Tributes to past civil liberties leaders

Delivered at the service for Mort Epstein – November 24, 2013

Good Morning Friends,

I knew Mort a relatively short period of time – maybe 35 years or so.  Mort seemed to me, one of the most successful human beings I have ever had the pleasure to know.

He seemed to find and to hold close the three things needed in life: good work, people to love and a vision for our collective human future,**  that could be better than our past.  When Gene, his daughter, asked me to say something today, I asked folks at work what they thought was the theme of Mort’s life and one said to me, Mort made the world beautiful.  And I thought that was perfect.

Mort did a lot to make the world beautiful, whether it was through commercial art or architecture, design or wood working, or his love for family and friends, or his passion to create a better future.  Mort brought beauty to our world.

Through the 70s and 80s I’d see Mort on the occasional picket line or perhaps at a party, or at the offices of Epstein and Szalgi where I would be looking for free work for some cause or another.

But it was by working for the ACLU that I got to know Mort much better.

Long before I came on the scene there, Mort had been an active volunteer and leader, not only through ACLU, but with many social justice organizations.  It was a vibrant time in Cleveland, where we had great hope for a better and more just future.

Mort valued human rights with a vision that extended way past the ACLU.  His experience as an art student during the depression developed for him, like others of his generation, a sense of deep compassion and a desire to be part of changing the world, making it better for all.

Mort served on the Cleveland ACLU board through the 60s and devoted a lot of his professional skills to working on public education campaigns.

He was a great communicator.  And the work he did pro bono was as good or better than anything he did for his firm clients.

Mort volunteered these same talents to promote fair housing, racial equality, and artistic and literary freedom.

At a recent birthday party hosted by his friend, Ellen Rothchild at her home, I listened to Mort and Bob Madison talk about their early days as friends together in Cleveland.  Bob faced a great deal of struggle breaking into his chosen field.  A simple office lunch or dinner downtown with Bob could become a tense experience when ignorance produced insults or rudeness.

Mort was often there to stand with Bob, supporting him and being proud to be with him.

Mort lived his ideals in big and in small ways.

He loved opportunities to collaborate with Jesse or Gene and seemed to relish every minute he worked with them.

He and Gene were happy room mates (or appeared so) in a joint studio, and their creative partnerships spanned decades.

Mort with his son Jesse, produced and directed a film for the ACLU, entitled Fourth Right, about the Fourth Amendment.  The film was used throughout Ohio and shared nationally.  They were partners in films and design and in carpentry projects.

When Mort’s beloved wife Marion passed away, he donated a number of her works to decorate our newly acquired building on Chester Avenue.

His 90th birthday was celebrated in the Max Wohl Center with an art show and sale that benefited the ACLU.

Celebrating that birthday in 2007, Mort found great joy in the company of his friends and family.  He delighted in them and found them endlessly interesting and funny and he was very proud of his children and grandchildren.

The studio Mort shares with Gene is a few blocks away from us, and after the art show, Mort took to stopping in at the ACLU office from time to time, just to chat.  Mort would drop by and talk about the family, or about his latest woodworking projects or about the political shenanigans of the day. With every visit, he had something different and interesting to share.

In fact, I admired Mort’s extensive social life.  Living in Cleveland Heights and working down town, I’d see Mort coming back and forth on Carnegie or Chester to his studio.  And  I would run into Mort at Siam Café, or the Diner at 55th or The Tavern on Lee or Loganberry’s where he’d be listening to Gene and friends play.

And at each encounter he’d tell me about an art show or a dinner or a lecture or something I ought to do. 

Mort really made me feel like I needed to do something about my social life.

Mort filled life with work and with joy and love, with compassion and hope.  And he made this a beautiful world.

Although he had a very long life and seemed to make every minute matter, for those of us who loved him he didn’t live nearly long enough.

Christine Link
Executive Director
ACLU of Ohio

** Paraphrasing Immanuel Kant.  “Real happiness is something to do, someone to love and something to hope for.”

Back to Mort Epstein memorial page