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Henry Elson


1926 - 2016 Obituary Condolences Gallery
Henry Elson Obituary
Henry Elson

1926 - 2016

Passed away at his home, surrounded by family, on March 18th, a few weeks after his 90th birthday.
Henry came to Berkeley as a graduate student in 1947 and never left. He was born in New York City and spent his early years in the Bronx. His parents, Nathan Elson and Rose Messinger, exemplified the immigrant experience: their families came from Poland and the Ukraine, and set down firm roots in their new country. Many relatives who stayed in Europe were less fortunate and perished in the Holocaust. Life was difficult for Henry's family during the Depression, but eventually, the family prospered and moved to the Grand Concourse, in the shadow of Yankee Stadium (of significance to a devoted baseball fan). Henry graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and took the subway to Manhattan to attend CCNY (now Baruch College). Immediately after his 18th birthday, Henry joined the Army and was quickly mobilized to the European theater, just in time for the conclusion of the Battle of the Bulge. Fighting in Patton's Third Army, he was wounded during the crossing of the Sauer River in western Germany and returned to the States as World War II was ending in Europe. He carried German shrapnel in his abdomen, a fact that he proudly shared with every X-ray technician he met.
Henry went back to college, this time to the University of Wisconsin, where he discovered left-wing politics and changed his major from journalism to political science. Upon completion of his undergraduate studies, he moved to Berkeley for graduate work. There he met and married Evelyn Gins, and recognized that a proper career was the appropriate next step. He graduated from UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law in 1952. After a few years as a solo practitioner, he joined Fred Howell in a thriving practice serving the Berkeley community. Henry and his partners set up small business corporations, represented individuals in personal injury cases, appealed death penalty decisions, wrote wills and trusts, and litigated divorces. Henry spent many pro bono hours representing student protesters during the Free Speech Movement.
In 1970-71 Henry, Evelyn, and their youngest child, Joe spent a sabbatical year in Corsica. While there, Henry formulated a plan to practice non-adversary family law, now known as divorce mediation. Today mediation is widely accepted, but at that time Henry was a trailblazer. He had become convinced that the adversarial nature of divorce created detrimental consequences for all parties involved. He believed that mediation had the potential to make a difficult process far less damaging. Henry sought to help both parties resolve disputes without having to win or prevail. His practice as a mediator led him to obtain a Marriage Family and Child Counseling credential after completion of studies at San Francisco State University, where he taught family law to prospective counselors. He spent many years doing mediation and counseling. Henry's involvement in Berkeley life was not limited to legal representation and mediation. He honed his comic skills as emcee at dinners for the Liberal Democrat magazine. He also did work with KPFA and the Pacifica Foundation for many years. As he cut back on legal work, he increased his volunteer activities. He spent many years as a volunteer in the Berkeley public elementary schools, helped out with the Prevent Blindness program, and traveled up and down Berkeley delivering Meals on Wheels.
Over his desk Henry had photos of his three heroes: Marx, Freud, and Darwin. Marx was the hero of his youth, Freud of his middle years, and Darwin of his later years. His search for knowledge and wisdom never ended. He read (and finished!) Proust on his treadmill, and after his vision failed he listened to audiotapes of Tolstoy and James. For many years he explored the broader implications of mediation in society. His studies led to a work in progress which he revised until the end of his life, as he sought to understand the eternal struggle between cooperation and competition, and to promote conflict resolution on a larger scale – what he ruefully acknowledged was his "save-the-world" complex.
Henry's interests were vast. Special enthusiasms included early Renaissance painting, the Razumovsky quartets, the Hayes Street Grill, very dry martinis, George Eliot, Lenny Bruce, Rachel Maddow, the San Francisco Giants, traveling the world, Barack Obama, John Keats (for the concept of negative capability), and Joe Montana. But most of all Henry treasured his family and many many friends. His sense of humor and wit delighted all who knew him. He was deeply loyal, kind and thoughtful. He loved life, he loved people – and people loved him.
Henry was married for 60 years to Evelyn, who passed away in 2010. They were the proud parents of three children: Margaret Addison (Ritch), Steve Elson (K), and Joseph Elson, and six grandchildren: Sarah Addison, Sam Addison, Lee Elson, Violet Elson, Gideon Elson, and Ruby Elson. He is also survived by his sister, Judy Wolf, her daughter Barrie, and his loving companion, Pat Winks.
Our thanks go the Kaiser Palliative Care group in San Francisco and the Kaiser Hospice Group in Oakland. Their loving support was deeply appreciated.
A memorial service will be held on May 8th at the UC Berkeley Alumni House at 2 PM. Donations in Henry's memory may be made to the Innocence Project or Berkeley Meals on Wheels.
Published in San Francisco Chronicle from Apr. 6 to Apr. 10, 2016
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