We remember with great fondness and respect artist and civil libertarian Mort Epstein, who passed away November 20.
Mort was the patriarch of a multi-generational ACLU family that included children Jesse and Gene and granddaughter Brenna, who interned with the ACLU. Mort fought censorship, he fought against war as a veteran himself, and he fought racism. He was a brilliant artist, designer and woodworker.
Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, Mort spent his youth and early adulthood in the New York City area. He met his future wife Marion Miller while attending Cooper Union in New York. They married after graduation, and during World War II Mort served in the U.S. army as a designer and model maker.
Mort and Marion moved to the Cleveland area after the war, where they launched careers in art and design. In the late 1940s his son Jesse and daughter Gene were born.
Mort’s interest in social justice issues was wide ranging, and included advocacy on behalf of fair housing, racial equality, and anti-Semitism. His activism grew out of personal experiences with discrimination and bias. He used his artistic talents to support these causes, creating brochures, signs, films and other materials to promote the organizations working on these issues.
Mort joined the Cleveland Chapter of the ACLU in the 1950’s when it focused on defending civil liberties of citizens accused of political subversion. In the 1970’s, he and son Jesse produced a film entitled “Fourth Right” about the Fourth Amendment, which focused on the right to privacy. Funded by a private donor, the film was distributed by the ACLU of Ohio. In 2007, Mort donated 97 works, both by his wife Marion Epstein and works of his own, for sale to benefit the ACLU of Ohio Foundation.
In addition, Mort was a founder, with Carl and Lou Stokes, of Fair Housing, Inc., and he worked for low-income housing through Habitat for Humanity.
The spark that was his activism and creativity will continue to light the way for us.
Read Mort Epstein's obituary from The Plain Dealer.
Read a profile of Mort Epstein that appeared in the Cleveland Jewish News in 2007 as Mort celebrated his 90th birthday.
In 2009, Mort received the Cleveland Arts Prize’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Design.
If you would like to make a gift to the ACLU of Ohio Foundation in memory of Mort, visit our Donate page.
The following remarks are from Mort's November 24, 2013 memorial service from Christine Link, Executive Director of the ACLU of Ohio.
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.
ACLU of Ohio
** Paraphrasing Immanuel Kant. “Real happiness is something to do, someone to love and something to hope for.”