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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 9.10.2009

Farewell to a Duchess

Leslie Brockelbank remembered

News of longtime peace and social activist Leslie Brockelbank’s death sent a shock wave through the progressive community in Lane County last week. She had been out and about up until nearly the end. She died of cancer Aug. 31 at age 85, and a community celebration of life is being planned for 4 pm Saturday, Sept. 19, at the First Christian Church, 1166 Oak St., in Eugene. A potluck will follow the service. This Saturday and Sunday the family will hold an open house at 1527 W. 25th Ave. beginning at 10 am.

Leslie Brockelbank in 2008. Photo by Carole Zoom
Leslie (second from left) on the Phil Donahue Show. Photo courtesy McKenzie River Gathering Foundation.
Photo courtesy McKenzie River Gathering Foundation
With Kitty & David Piercy. Photo courtesy McKenzie River Gathering Foundation.
The WAND booth at the Eugene Celebration. Photo by Ted Taylor.

Word of her passing went out at the Maude Kerns Art Center, and those who knew her were asked to describe her in just a few words. The words that came in included “benefactress, great-niece of Maude I. Kerns, special patron, art center member, Duchess Committee member extraordinaire, board member, world traveler, visionary, guiding spirit, volunteer, UO alumna, activist, mentor, wife, mother, aunt, grandmother, energetic leader, worker for social justice and peace, advisor, tenacious advocate, generous friend, appreciator and collector of Maude Kerns’ work.” The compiled list will appear in the center’s next newsletter, titled “Farewell to a Duchess.”

Other organizations are finding similar words to describe Brockelbank’s life and contributions. She dedicated her time, energy, and money to numerous organizations and causes, most notably the McKenzie River Gathering Foundation. The MRG was founded in 1976 by Brockelbank and her first husband, the late Charles Gray (see EW cover story July 13, 2006). 

The seed money she provided inspired others and has grown over the years. The MRG has given out more than $10 million and annually supports 50 to 60 groups working for positive social and environmental change. (Mary O’Brien’s “Natural Resistance” column in EW was funded during its first year by a grant through MRG.)

Brockelbank has been quoted saying, “It’s more important to leave my children a better society than to leave them a trust fund.”

Longtime human rights activist Marion Malcolm says, “Leslie was active in the creation and sustenance of the Oregon chapter of Women’s Action for New Directions. She was a dynamic and tireless activist for peace and nuclear disarmament. It is hard to imagine Oregon WAND without her.” The WAND booth at the Eugene Celebration this year featured a large display of photos, a tapestry and a wooden chair that was one of Brockelbank’s favorites.

“She lived a purpose-driven life,” says WAND member Kathy Kirsh, who made the tapestry. “She kept the focus that we as individuals can really make a difference.”

Many stories and memories of Brocklebank are being shared these days. Below are just a few of them. More photos can be found on our website version of this story.  — Ted Taylor



A spirit of optimism

Leslie Brockelbank had a way of being totally authentic and continually interested in life. Each of us who worked alongside her found it to be a great experience. While in the Legislature I joined WILL, a legislative sister of WAND, an organization that supports women in office, the just allocation of our country’s resources, and peace and justice. Leslie was one of the key organizers of WAND in Lane County and helped put the Lane chapter on the national radar. We had some very good times together.

 I have admired MRG, back as far as when it was in Growers Market, and can think of no more vivid expression of Leslie’s creative and pragmatic dedication to peace, environmental and economic justice than this “seeding” of vital organizations in our community and across the state. I am grateful for her vision in creating MRG. 

She also well understood the importance of the arts and artists in the expression of humanity, beauty, and universal understanding. She supported the Maude Kerns Gallery, named after her great aunt. and there is a room that honors her contributions there. 

I saw many of her friends at the Eugene Celebration this weekend where they chose to celebrate this special woman’s life — a legacy that will remain here in those she knew and the organizations she grew. She was a spirit of optimism and fully understood that each of us can make a real difference if we never give up. 

Thank you, Leslie Brockelbank. We will miss you. — Mayor Kitty Piercy



Life lessons

The last time I hung out with Leslie Brockelbank, just a few weeks ago, we had dinner at her place before heading to the annual Hiroshima commemoration at Alton Baker Park. Leslie organized that event many years ago and still enjoyed going. Dinner that night was hurried and healthy, composed of different salads. Anxious to get to the park on time, Leslie pushed the green salad around on her plate and finally set down her fork soundly. “That’s enough of that!” she declared. “Where are the cookies?” 

I had met Leslie through WAND and had sat at her dining room table many, many times over the years, sipping tea and eating cookies as Leslie shared with me her history of peace activism: giving soup to conscientious objectors during World War II; sending food boxes to Europe after the war; being active in integration in 1950s Denver; chairing the regional Peace Education Committee of the American Friends Service Committee; becoming involved in 1968 Vietnam protests; being part of Eugene’s Movement for a New Society in the 1970s; donating “a large pot of money,” she inherited in the late ’70s to found the MRG Foundation; helping to revive WAND in the early 1990s and raising funds for the Nonviolent Peaceforce more recently. 

During those history lessons, she also shared with me the life lessons she had learned in doing that work — the lessons a gift I never took for granted.

Once we arrived at Alton Baker Park, Leslie wanted to be close to the Kyoto music to hear it well and then asked to be wheeled to the duck pond where she could have a close-up look at the paper lanterns floating by, paper lunch bags with tea lights inside that commemorated those who lost their lives in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

“Look at the colors,” she said as the lanterns floated past. “What did they do differently this year? The colors are more beautiful then ever!”

I wrapped my arms around her, lying that it was to keep her from rolling into the pond, for at that moment I knew it was the last time Leslie would ever attend this event. As I watched those lanterns pass, I thought of the light that Leslie brought to the peace movement and to so many people who benefited from her good works and generosity. As the sun set over the pond, I took note of the many lessons she had taught me, including:

1. Keep doing peace work, no matter how bleak things become. For, as long as you’re doing something, things might not get any worse. 

2. Spend your money the right way.

3. Never fill up on green salad. Always save room for some cookies. — Aria Seligmann



An elegant truth

As Leslie Brockelbank’s niece, I have had the privilege of knowing her for 62 years. Howard, Mary Jane and I lived in a small, extended family when we were children. It was an extraordinary family environment, in which world problems were not only discussed on a daily basis but also acted upon by our five adult mentors: Aunt Leslie, Uncle Charles (Gray), Grandmother Mary Gray, and my parents, Jane and Glenn Gregory.

Leslie gave her life to the movement for justice with peace. during the past 23 years, when we have lived in close proximity, we have shared deeply our learning from our global teachers. We share an enormous hopefulness about the world situation. Of all the many legacies Leslie leaves us, perhaps the greatest is her global reality: All world citizens, rich and poor, are called to work on our common responsibility, to bring the world to justice with peace and a restored, sustainable global ecology. And further, to realize the elegant truth that our every daily action, no matter how mundane, affects the whole of humanity and the ecosystem and inextricably relates us to every other human and every other life-form on the planet. And, as part of this Whole, we each have enormous power to move the world and reason to celebrate every small step forward in this unfolding, tremendous human task. — Sylvia Gregory



An advocate for arts

I knew Leslie, and I am sorry she is gone, in part because she was one of few people who personally knew Maude Kerns, the important modern artist who taught at the UO and was her great aunt. 

Leslie herself was not only an advocate for the arts, a supporter of Maude Kerns Center and the owner of many special paintings by Kerns. She was also a selfless person who put her own privileged position into the background to support community efforts for social justice and the arts. She supported her many community interests financially and was much beloved for her interest in the welfare of ordinary citizens as well as artists. And she was a lovely, interesting woman. — Lois Wadsworth



Making change irresistible

I was Leslie’s friend for many years and always knew her to do what she considered to be right and fair. Thirty-three years ago that meant turning over a large portion of her inheritance to begin the MRG. Leslie and her partner, Charles Gray, believed that people with hands-on experience in peace, human rights and environmental issues should become the decision-makers, that they could use their insight to make grants to grassroots groups that other funders might find risky. They were right. Organizations large and small, in rural and urban areas, have had a significant impact in their communities and in our state because of Leslie’s and Charles’ vision.



 

Leslie was a mentor and an inspiration. She didn’t balk at change but made it irresistible because of her own enthusiasm for moving forward. While she was the same age as my mother, she was more like a sister — Leslie proved that age doesn’t have to define friendships or who you are. Leslie assisted MRG in becoming the statewide resource it is today by helping progressive people with wealth to find community, and by encouraging people of all income levels to know that they could effect change as donors.




I know everyone at the foundation today is thinking of her family, and I’ll be working with MRG to find a wonderful way to keep Leslie in our hearts and memory. — Linda Reymers, Co-Director/Grants Director, MRG Foundation



A largeness of spirit

I’ve known Leslie for more than 35 years. Early on, she and Charles Gray called together a group of activists including us who were involved in social justice, peace, deepening democracy and sustainable ways of life to meet on the McKenzie River to help design a foundation, using Leslie’s family funds to promote these ends. It was challenging, inspiring, exciting. The McKenzie River Gathering Foundation was born.

More recently, she and I worked together on MRG’s Peace Fund committee. This showed me how MRG had come, more than any Oregon organization in my experience, to reflect in its grantees and grantmakers the diversity of Oregon, and I saw how that diversity has enhanced MRG’s effectiveness and impact, and how that warmed Leslie’s heart. I watched her work as a committed participant, not as “the founder,” in the organization she’d basically made possible. Impressive. 

 I had the great pleasure of spending hours with her driving to MRG meetings, talking at length about the personal and the political. I came to appreciate deeply her judgment, clarity about her own values and how to live them, her warm, encouraging way of working with others, her largeness of spirit. I remember the realization — this is what personal maturity is.

In 1985, after Reagan’s reelection and intensification of the Central American wars, at a time I was trying to channel my horror and outrage into effective activism, Leslie gave me a copy of Robert Lifton’s In a Dark Time; Images for Survival. I think about that gift now. I am driven toward despair by the unprecedented challenges facing us. I am obsessed with thoughts of what my grandchildren and all children will have to confront in their lives because of our denial.

And I think how fortunate I am to have Leslie’s life as a source of steadiness and inspiration. — Dan Goldrich



A local hero

Leslie Brockelbank is a local hero and a global hero. Leslie never accepted the world as “good enough.” She was always striving to make things better: to bring more peace to the world, to empower communities to shape their future, to protect human rights, and to craft a sustainable future. When you look behind the scenes of many great organizations, causes, and events in Eugene, you find Leslie’s legacy. She provided quiet, strong support and invaluable wisdom.

Leslie came from a pioneering family — her family has been in this community for many generations. She has been a pioneer in advancing social justice in our community and around the world. She has led the way in making Eugene a better place to live and building a better planet. We all benefit from Leslie’s works.

She supported the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide when it was little more than an idea that people should work together across borders to protect our global environment. She provided financial support and moral support, and introduced friends to ELAW. She helped ELAW thrive and I thank her on behalf of the global ELAW network. Her positive, progressive impact is truly felt all over the world.

Leslie has helped make Eugene a great community and helped build a more peaceful, just, and green world. Thank you, Leslie. — Bern Johnson, executive director, ELAW