Lise Blumenfeld, 1931-2009

By Neal Blumenfeld
Wednesday March 25, 2009 - 06:28:00 PM

A Southern lady arrived in Berkeley via Memphis in 1961, with three children, and her first husband, Dr. Marvin Wolff. She still wore hats, donned gloves, and left calling cards when making social visits. She spent several months complaining about Berkeley before she realized that coming here was her own freedom ride. 

She was born in New Orleans on March 11, 1931, the third of four children of Hermina (Big Mimi) Ochs and Dr. Dan Silverman. Some of the family heritage came from Polish Jews, reputed to have been bounty hunters (mercenaries), recruited from Europe during the Civil War. After landing near Washington, D.C., they were said to have gone to the theater, just in time to catch the assassination of Lincoln. They never reported for “duty,” as they never stopped moving until they reached the Bayou County of southwest Louisiana. 

Big Mimi’s heritage was from Alsace: the immigration goal of these French-speakers was Louisiana. Lise’s mother was a housewife, but her husband, Dan, said Mimi’s raison d’être was interest in other people’s stories, a trait Lise believed she inherited from her 19th-century mother (born in 1899). 

Her father, Dan, practiced as a gastro-enterologist in that semi-tropical paradise for parasites, New Orleans. But his greatest life experience was as a doctor in the U.S. Expeditionary Force to France in World War II. He cared for villagers as well as troops and served as translator—which made Lise laugh, as Dan’s Cajun French was barely intelligible, even in Louisiana. 

Lise went to Newman School in New Orleans, graduating in 1948. She was a fair student, far more involved in her social life. Years later, at reunions, old swains would still look goggle-eyed at her. She want on to Hollins College in Virginia, but left before obtaining her degree, in order to marry Marvin. She did get her B.A. in history at UC Berkeley in 1965. She intended to get a doctorate in history, but was infuriated at being told that women with children were accepted only for masters’ degrees. 

Thus, her illustrious career in social work began. She graduate UC Berkeley School of Social Work in 1967, then had a succession of clinical jobs, several of which she was fired from for complaining about unfairnesses. While working at the city of Berkeley clinic, she met psychiatrist Neal Blumenfeld, and her historical arc took another jump. Lise and Marvin had divorced, and she and Neal married in 1976, a “trip” that just ended. 

She was a founding member, in 1973, of a therapy collective, East Bay Clinic for Psychotherapy. She was the “bones” of the group, just as she later was eulogized as the “bones” of the Institute for Clinical Social Work. Her leadership style was “Lise”—she didn’t want to tell anyone what to do, but she wanted them to do the right things anyhow. She had some difficulty bringing spouse Dr. Neal into line. When the clinic folded in 1985 she was ready to go. 

In the meantime she pursued her interest in public mental health, enrolling in the UC Berkeley MPH program, where she received her degree in 1982. She moved right along, next enrolling in the Institute for Clinical Social Work—now the Sanville Institute—where she received her doctorate in 1984, for a study of her Hollins College classmates, seen 20 years down the line. Interviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 9, 1986, Lise explained that her research idea occurred to her sitting on a Baja beach before her trip to the class reunion. 

She continued working with the institute in varying roles until her recent death. She did everything from throwing great convocation parties to chairing the board of directors to serving as founding editor of the institute newsletter. 

She presented the 2007 Lukton Lecture at the Sanville Institute, based on her research on California social workers aged 70 years and older. These findings were presented for Lise by Dr. Samoan Barish, at the Psychoanalysis in Social Work Conference in New York City in February 2009. 

On the side, Lise became an activist in the neighborhood preservation movement. When her and Neal’s 1880s office building was under attack from predatory developers, they community-organized, door to door—and finally succeeded in establishing the Sisterna Historic District—for which, who else, Lise wrote the establishing document, of 50-plus pages, now in the Berkeley Public Library. 

Her oncologist, in a recent highly technical report, began: “this delightful lady.” He didn’t know her well enough to add: “with a razor sharp, yet gentle, wit and mind.”