Lezlie Sterling / Bee file, 2005

Leon Lefson, a longtime political activist who was an influential figure in the progressive community, died in his sleep April 5, 2013, at 98. Read his story here.

Obituary: Leon Lefson helped write Early Childhood Education Act

Published: Friday, Apr. 12, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4B
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013 - 4:20 pm

Leon Lefson, a longtime political activist who was an influential figure in the progressive community, died in his sleep April 5, his family said. He was 98.

Mr. Lefson was revered among peace and social justice activists for his intellect, his unwavering commitment and his longevity. More than two decades after even the former Soviet Union abandoned communism, he stood on the far left of the political spectrum as a Marxist and self-described radical.

He was beloved for his affable personality, enthusiasm for good conversation and genuine compassion for oppressed people.

A classical pianist, he entertained visitors on a Steinway grand and played at fundraisers for many groups.

Mr. Lefson spent 25 years as an administrator at the California departments of social work and education. Working with liberal politicians Phillip and John Burton and state education Superintendent Wilson Riles, he was instrumental in creating an aid program for permanently and totally disabled people and helped write the Early Childhood Education Act.

"The Depression really had a great impact on him," said his son Bernard. "His whole philosophy was that the poor and oppressed had no champion, and he wanted to do what he could to ameliorate their circumstances."

Mr. Lefson was active until recently in many progressive groups, including Physicians for Social Responsibility, Grandmothers for Peace, United Nations Sacramento Chapter, Because People Matter and Jewish Voice for Peace. He was a founding member of the Teach Peace Foundation and the Marxist School of Sacramento.

After retiring in the mid-1970s, he organized grass-roots fact-finding trips to Russia and countries in Europe and Africa. He led tours to meet and learn from local people how their governments' policies affect daily life.

Born in 1914 in New York, Mr. Lefson was one of 10 children born to Russian Jews who fled religious persecution. He earned bachelor's degrees in literature and social work from City College of New York and a master's degree in social welfare from Columbia University. During the Depression, he worked as an assistant to Philip Foner, a noted historian who wrote a massive chronicle on the U.S. labor movement.

He married his wife, Emmy, in 1946 and went to Germany after World War II to work for a United Nations relief organization.

The couple adopted an 8-year-old boy, Bernard, who lost his parents in the Holocaust. They returned to the United States after three years and settled in California.

Mr. Lefson's wife died in 1994. Although his step slowed with age, he remained active, attending lectures, sending out emails with links to opinion pieces and writing letters to the editor. Until last year, he was a regular at a Tuesday political discussion group with friends.

"What I have done reflects a lifelong commitment," he told The Bee in 2005, "that will not end until I am no longer."

Leon Lefson

Born: Nov. 25, 1914

Died: April 5, 2013

Survived by: Son, Bernard of Santa Rosa; two grandchildren

Services: 2:30 p.m. June 1 at Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento, 2425 Sierra Blvd., Sacramento

Remembrances: In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to any Sacramento peace organization.

Call The Bee's Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @bob_davila.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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