Memorial to Celebrate Life of Berkeley Activist

By EDWARD SCHOENBERGER Special to the Planet
Friday January 30, 2004

Friends and family of a well-known Berkeley activist will gather this Saturday to remember the remarkable life of Mildred Schoenberger, a 30-year resident of the city who died Dec. 15 at the Loving Care Nursing Home in El Cerrito after a long illness, three weeks shy of her ninety-eighth birthday. 

A resident at Strawberry Creek Lodge in Berkeley for nearly 20 years, she was a strong advocate for older citizens.  

Ms. Schoenberger moved to Berkeley from New York City in the early 1970s, dedicating her time and talent to many progressive causes and took an active role in the lives of her young grandchildren. 

In Berkeley, she was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement and in the 1970s she worked to save the Grove Street Campus of Merritt College to ensure access to higher education in low-income neighborhoods. In the following decade, she organized, demonstrated and risked arrest in the effort to discontinue the development of nuclear arms at Lawrence Livermore Lab. In the 1990s she was a leader of the drive to convert the Bel Air Motel on University Avenue to offer services for the homeless. 

A member of the National Organization for Women, she became increasingly active in women’s issues. A contributor to countless charitable and progressive organizations—local, state and national—she volunteered her time and skills to many organizations and institutions until her early ‘90s, including the Berkeley chapters of the Women for Peace, the Gray Panthers, the United States-China Peoples’ Friendship Association, the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, the Congress of California Seniors and the Niebyl-Proctor Library. Mayor Loni Hancock appointed her to the city’s Commission on Aging. 

She worked for the campaigns of Ron Dellums, Gus Newport, Mark Allen, Ying Lee Kelley, Loni Hancock and many other BCA candidates, and supported George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, Carol Mosely Braun and many other progressive leaders.  

She served as president of the Tenants Association at Strawberry Creek Lodge—her home for 20 years—and on its board and executive committee, pressing for increased tenant involvement in decision-making and operations. 

She participated in the literature and writing programs at the North Berkeley Senior Citizens Center, where she wrote poetry, some of it published through the Senior Center and the Edge of the World Press—a collective of senior writers, and one of her oil paintings was displayed in the official 1948 anniversary celebration of the founding of the City of New York. 

When she became a teacher in the New York City School system in 1931, she immediately joined the Teachers Union, taking an active role in its campaigns to improve teachers’ economic and job security and its efforts to obtain breakfasts and clothing for impoverished children, smaller class size and special educational programs for disadvantaged neighborhoods.  

Spain was her special focus during the 1930s. As she once explained, “Some of us met regularly, devotedly, and often for reading and discussion of new social and economic theories. We raised money and support for the Spanish Loyalists in their tragic war against Franco, and many tears were shed at the fall of Barcelona.”  

In the early 1950s, her union activities led to her to fight the New York City School Board’s dismissal of her teaching colleagues for their political beliefs and associations. Four decades later, she wrote in the publication by the Committees of Correspondence, Tribute of a Lifetime, about those teachers: 

“To those stout hearts goes the credit for establishing the right of teachers to be judged by their classroom performance and not by their politics. They made history. Their lawsuit … resulted in a decision in their favor. The NYC Board of Education had to make a public apology for the firings; had to grant them service credit for the years of service lost; and to offer them the choice of returning to the classroom.” 

Her experiences then formed the basis of her contribution to Ann Fagan Ginger’s The Cold War Against Labor. 

As she explained to a friend decades later, “During my teaching career, … in the Teachers Union, we carried out many progressive campaigns of an educational nature, for smaller class size, larger appropriations, improvement of conditions in the Harlem schools, of racist restrictions in the hiring of teachers and elimination of racist attitudes and stereotypes in the textbooks and teaching materials of that period.” 

Born in Manhattan on Jan. 5, 1906, she was the third of four sisters. A graduate of New York City public schools, she earned a math B.A. from Hunter College in January 1929, and two years later began a nearly 40-year teaching career at Washington Irving High School, where she had earned her own diploma. 

In 1935 she married attorney Joshua Bernard Schoenberger in Rockaway Beach in Queens, NY. They had one son, Edward Alexander, born in 1939. 

Her husband died, and the following year she received a masters in mathematics education at Hunter College—by then part of the City of New York University System—where, at age 57, she became a math instructor, teaching there until 1970. After retirement in 1970, she moved to Berkeley to be with her son and his family. 

The early 1990s found her demonstrating about and advocating for progressive educational issues in Sacramento, just as she had in her teaching days in New York.  

She had joined the Progressive Party when former Vice President Henry Wallace left the Democratic Party in 1948, and participated in party’s presidential nominating convention that year. In California, she joined the Peace and Freedom Party, and belonged to numerous other organizations committed to school integration, disarmament, health security and rent control. 

In the 1950s, she was active in the nuclear disarmament movement and in the next decade joined the anti-Vietnam War movement and attended the March on Washington in August of 1963 at which Martin Luther King delivered his now world famous “I have a dream” speech. In San Francisco, at age 82, she marched for civil rights, jobs and justice. 

A classical pianist, she enjoyed listening to a variety of music, and math, especially non-Euclidian geometry, was her intellectual love. Mondrian was a particular, and she often wore clothing that dramatically sported his colorful designs. 

She also completed the New York Times crossword puzzle daily. 

A world traveler, she appreciated the varieties of different cultures and embraced their contribution to her understanding of how people lived and worked, visiting more than 25 different countries on every continent. 

Mildred was the third of four daughters—the only one with bright red hair. Her parents, both enterprising Jewish immigrants in the late 1870s from Mishkulz in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her father, Alexander Wagner, spoke Hungarian, German, Yiddish and English and ran several small businesses including a family restaurant on the lower East Side and a dancing school. 

When her father died of tuberculosis when Mildred was still in school, she took a crash course in secretarial skills, working during the day and attending college at night. She continued to work, help with the household expenses until she received her B.A. Though her mother, Henrietta Bachner, had only completed the eighth grade, she opened the first employee cafeteria in a major New York department store and later took operations of a hotel on Long Island and later ran one in Miami Beach. 

In 2003, she celebrated her ninety-seventh birthday with members of her extended family. Said a friend, “Mildred was an exceptional person. She had very clear and defined views about politics. But she never lost her humanity. She always tried to do well everywhere she went. It did not matter if you agreed with her or not.” 

Members of her family were with her on the day of her passing. She is survived by her son and daughter in law, Edward and Jenifer Schoenberger, granddaughter Beth Amy Schoenberger and her husband, Harvey Levine and her great-granddaughter, Emma Levine, six, and grandson Peter Schoenberger and his wife, Allyson Hitt and great-grandson, Jasper Schoenberger, two, all of the Oakland-Berkeley area. She was also very close to members of her extended family. 

Her husband, her three sisters, Ethel, Julia and Sadie, and her long time companion and friend, Max Mandel of Berkeley, all preceded her in death. 

A celebration of her life will be held Saturday, Jan. 31, at 2 p.m. at Strawberry Creek Lodge, 1320 Addison St. Donations in her name may be made to Women for Peace, 2309 Ellsworth, Berkeley, 94704; the Gray Panthers of Berkeley, 1403 Addison St., Berkeley, 94702; The National Organization for Women, 1000 16th St, Washington, D.C., 20036.