Bookseller and first recipient of an HFLA student loan dies

Morton Leonard Elkins, the first recipient of a student loan from San Francisco's Hebrew Free Loan Association, died Monday, July 21 at age 85.

He died of a heart attack at his home in Kensington, according to his wife Thelma.

An avid reader with a wide range of intellectual and cultural interests, Elkins' love of learning surfaced early. As a young boy in Philadelphia, he would take three trolley cars to get to Hebrew school several times a week.

"It was out of his own volition, his own inherent need to learn," says his son Matthew Elkins. "He chose to go. He went out of his way to go."

Later, Elkins graduated from Temple University with a bachelor's degree in history. After his discharge from the air force, where he served as a first lieutenant, he came to the Bay Area in 1946 and followed in the social activist footsteps of family and friends by studying at the California Labor School. He also received a master's degree from Stanford University.

In 1950, not long after his arrival in the Bay Area, his journey into politics began. During the height of the McCarthy era, he refused to sign the Loyalty Oath, which declared no connections, previous or current, to the Communist Party.

The action got him fired from his high school teaching job in San Francisco and eventually brought him before Sen. Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Affairs Committee.

"It took a lot of guts because there were a handful of people who refused to sign," his wife says. "The pressure was incredible."

To pay the bills after losing his teaching position, Elkins took a variety of jobs — as carpenter, longshoreman, warehouseman. His wife recalls this period of job-shifting as difficult, with young children to raise and a mortgage to pay. But her husband stood by his principles nonetheless, and firmly refused to sign the Loyalty Oath.

"He said, `I'm not doing this and that's all. It's morally wrong. It's politically wrong. It's everything wrong,'" she says.

Later, after holding elected positions in local unions, Elkins decided to return to school.

At age 55, upon receiving HFLA's first student loan, Elkins entered the School of Social Welfare at U.C. Berkeley. He earned a master's degree in social work with an emphasis on community organization and planning, and went on to work as acting director of human resources in the city of Berkeley's social planning department.

He also served the Contra Costa County Department of Social Services, where he started a successful senior nutrition project.

Following retirement at age 65, Elkins stayed on as a consultant to Contra Costa County and in 1979, he founded Easy Going Travel Shop & Bookstore in Berkeley with his wife and one of the couple's daughters. He enjoyed working with customers, his family says, and up until his death was a fixture at Easy Going's Walnut Creek store.

"He was ageless in people's minds," his wife says. "He could relate to people of all ages."

At various points in his life, Elkins belonged to Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland and Temple Beth El in Berkeley. He often attended services at Marin's Congregation of the San Geronimo Valley with his son's family.

He held Judaic principles dear, maintaining a strong and consistent set of ethics and a fierce devotion to his family, according to his son.

"He was always there during important events in my life," Matthew Elkins says. "He always knew how to protect those he loved. He was always first in line to support his kids."

Some 150 attended a funeral for Elkins at Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery July 24.

Elkins is survived by wife Thelma, children Rachel Elkins and her husband Dana Thibeau; Judy Gilford and her husband David; and Matthew Elkins and his wife Janet Lewis. He is survived by grandchildren Nathan and Sara Gilford and Lena and Madeleine Elkins. He is also survived by a brother, Seymour Elkins, and a sister, Evelyn Levitt.

The family asks that contributions in his honor be sent to Amnesty International, 500 Sansome St., Suite 615, San Francisco, 94111 or Hebrew Free Loan Association, 717 Market St., Suite 555, San Francisco, 94103.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.