Pat Wolk (left) and Ellie Bluestein. Photo courtesy of Pat Wolk

An Empowering Friendship

By Pat Wolk

(Editor’s note: Eleanore “Ellie” Bluestein passed on April 7 in Fresno. She was 91 years old. Ellie was born in New York, where she met her husband, Gene. They moved to Minnesota for Gene’s Ph.D. studies, and their four children (Joel, Evo, Jemmy and Frayda) were born there. In 1963, Gene accepted a position in the English Department at then Fresno State College. She was a longtime peace activist and influential in the peace movement of the Fresno area. She was the founder of the local chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.)

I first met Ellie in 1974 shortly after their family’s return to Fresno from six months in Paris. And soon after the Wolk family arrived in Fresno from Houston. Evo with his fiddle was our first introduction to the Bluestein family and then Jemmy and his mandolin. Ellie heard I had become friends with her sons. Who is this woman befriending her sons? Ellie, in her direct way, phoned me, asked me about myself, and said she wanted to meet me. We met over tea and became instant friends.

We had a political connection in addition to musical connections. I was a fan of Malvina Reynolds (“Little Boxes,” “It Isn’t Nice,” “Bury Me In My Overalls,” “The Bankers and the Diplomats”); Ellie was a friend of Malvina. I was a fan of Pete Seeger, his music and his politics; the Bluesteins knew Pete Seeger.

In San Francisco, during the Vietnam War, as a member of “Mothers for Peace,” I had marched for peace and justice; Ellie organized a group for peace and justice: Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). 

Politically, Ellie and I were simpatico. I was raised in a political family. My dad was a 1930s “leftie,” politically savvy, a world traveler as a merchant seaman. As a union organizer, he was blacklisted in the McCarthy period. Growing up in a radical household, I knew how to write petitions and work for political change—slow though it might be. 

When I approached Ellie for our Radical Women of Fresno project, she understood my values and knew that together—with her interviewing and writing skills and my photography—we could make a lasting contribution to the history of progressive women in our Fresno community. Our only disagreement was Ellie’s insistence she not be included in the 20 women. 

Ellie made things happen. I love the story of how she started the Fresno chapter of WILPF. In 1964, the Bluestein family had just moved to Fresno from Minnesota, where Ellie had been a member of that chapter.

Husband Gene was new to the Fresno State English Department faculty. Ellie reached out by letter to other faculty wives, inviting them to initiate a Fresno chapter of WILPF. A small camaraderie was formed and the group has continued to grow and effectively challenge injustice in Fresno and around the world.

Joan Poss and Frannie Levine could tell you those early stories. (The WILPF cookbook, edited in 1972 by Frannie and Joan, with illustrations by Jean Ray Laury, remains my favorite source of recipes. I re-create Ellie’s persimmon pudding cake every winter with persimmons from Frannie’s abundant persimmon tree.)

I spoke with Joan for some input about the early WILPF community. She spoke of Ellie’s sense of loyalty, balancing family and the WILPF community of activist women friends. Friendships formed in the 1960s remained strong and meaningful through the years.

Most of the early members are gone, but younger members continue the work and their friendships are cemented through working together. And we older folks are enriched by the intergenerational community of active women. They keep us young and healthy and politically involved.  

Her legacy lives on as we think: “What would Ellie do?”                                

For a life well lived and a job well done, we all owe Ellie a loud and cheerful “mazel tov.” 

*****

Patricia “Pat” Allen Wolk is a peace activist and a member of the Fresno Folklore Society (FFS).

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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