Life with a purpose: tribute to Estelle Katz

The following is based on a tribute to veteran CPUSA leader and peace activist Estelle Katz, who died Nov. 23, 2012, at age 96. A memorial to celebrate Katz’s life was held Jan. 20, where CPUSA chair Sam Webb delivered this eulogy. Katz was also a long time supporter of People’s World. For a full obituary, read “Life of Estelle Katz long on good causes, great friends.”

It is a great honor to be a part of a celebration commemorating the remarkable life of my dear friend and comrade, Estelle Katz.

Let me begin by expressing my sympathy and solidarity to Vivian Ann, Sara, Nicola, and the entire family. You feel the loss most deeply, but rest assured that all of us gathered here and many more around the country are profoundly saddened by Estelle’s passing as well as inspired by her spirit and legacy.

Her love for her family was deep and always apparent, especially to those of us who heard her recount stories of trips to Cape Cod and San Antonio to spend time with her daughters – not to mention her unconcealed pride in her grandchildren.

Estelle was unique; she was the genuine article. She had a kind heart and generous spirit.

Estelle lived longer and saw more in her lifetime than most people, but she was anything but world-weary. Her spirit was buoyant and contagious; her smile ever-present; her energy and enthusiasm seemingly inexhaustible; and her heart open to all.

Estelle loved life and she loved New York. The fast paced rhythms of the city matched her own rhythms and sensibilities; she was an activist with few peers; indeed she ran circles around many of us who were much younger.

Estelle was also an independent-minded woman long before second wave feminism reshaped the cultural landscape in the 1960s. At an early age, she felt women should be in the public square and their voices equal to those of men.

Estelle was no summer soldier; she was truly a long marcher. She heard the bell of freedom and the hammer of justice — and socialism — early in her life.

Indeed, still a teenager and in the midst of the Great Depression, she joined the Young Communist League and then Communist Party to which she devoted much of her time and energy for the rest of her life. We will all greatly miss comrade Estelle, especially when we find ourselves on a picket line or marching in Washington.

Not everyone is lucky enough to live such a long and purposeful life as Estelle. Her genetic pool and good living may explain the longevity, but as for living life with a purpose — that was her doing. She was the author and agent of a life that touched so many people and made this world a better place.  

Of course, the arc of her political life was not always smooth, but she didn’t wobble or run when events took a negative turn. Nothing could dim her confidence that better days were ahead, that justice cannot be forever denied.

This tenacity was not the product of some flight of fancy or wishful thinking. It was grounded in an understanding of history and a belief that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. 

Which is exactly what Estelle and her comrades did.

They left their unmistakable imprint on the Great Depression, out of which came many of the social benefits and programs that we still enjoy, despite the best efforts of the Republicans to eliminate them.

They didn’t flinch or run scared in the face of McCarthyism.

They joined the civil rights and anti-war protesters in the 1960s.

They battled the rise of the right wing in the last decades of the 20th century.

And they, by now dwindling number, joined the vast movement to elect and re-elect our first African American president.

Last fall, I called Estelle shortly after she had left the hospital. She was obviously in a weakened physical state, having just been released from the hospital. And yet her spirit was unflagging.

Not a word of gloom and doom from her. No waxing on about the good old days, like some of us are prone to do. Her mind was on the future.

The main thing that she wanted to convey to me was that she was not only going to cast her ballot for President Obama in a month, but be back in the office in the spring when she regained her full health.

Upon hearing her, I thought to myself, “She’s amazing; she never gives up.”

If one’s life is measured not by fame and wealth amassed, but by good deeds done then Estelle ranks at the top of the class.

The greatest U.S. people’s leader of the 20th century, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose life we honor this weekend said in a speech not long before his death:

“[E]very now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral … And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense.

“I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others.

“I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.

“I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.

“I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked.  

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter … I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

King measured up to this standard and more. But Estelle, on a more modest stage, did too. She loved her family, her friends, and her comrades. She was a drum major for justice and for peace and for a righteous world. The shallow things didn’t matter to her. She leaves a committed life behind.

And we are all the better for it. We will miss you, Estelle, more than you can imagine, but your life will inspire us for years to come. Thank you Estelle for gracing our lives with your presence.

Photo: Estelle Katz, sitting on far left, petitions for health care with other senior activists in the heart of her Manhattan neighborhood, Chelsea (via Gray Panthers).


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.