Allen Graubard seemed destined for a life of academia, but he stepped off course in the 60s, going south to register black voters as part of “Freedom Summer,” then helping start the free-school movement
Allen Graubard seemed destined for a life of academia, but he stepped off course in the 60s, going south to register black voters as part of “Freedom Summer,” then helping start the free-school movement

By Judith Coburn 

Allen Graubard, free-school activist, teacher to anyone who would listen, and aficionado of the Cheese Board slice, died October 9 in Belmont, Massachusetts. He was 74.

Friends and family gathered recently in Berkeley to eat Cheese Board pizza (tomato/ mozzarella/ basil) and tell stories about him. The gathering had the spirit of evenings at Allen’s many Berkeley apartments over the years.

He liked people to drop in unannounced. There you might find friends like Françoise Sorgan-Goldschmidt from UC Berkeley’s French Department, UCSF epidemiologist Andrew Moss, writer Leonard Michaels (toting his copy of Schopenhauer), painter Frances Lerner and others. Allen’s son Moses “Mo” Graubard (now an emergency room doc at Kaiser Oakland) might be banging on the piano, there would be a beer or a toke or a nectarine to share. Allen would be be reading: John Rawls, Thomas Nagel, Epectitus or one of his calculus texbooks. He might be wearing his favorite t-shirt  inscribed “So many books, so little time.”

Born in 1938 in Chicago, Allen was the son of Polish and Hungarian immigrants, whose father ran the Yiddish school for the Workmen’s Circle.

Allen got a BA and a PhD in Philosophy/Political Science at Harvard, studied at Oxford and seemed destined to dwell in the rarified realms of The Academy. But he stepped off course in the 60s, going south to register black voters as part of  “Freedom Summer,” then helping start the free-school movement.

He committed his life to teaching poor kids in alternative and public schools like Oakland Tech and Berkeley High. Alameda County Superintendant of Schools Sheila Jordan, Allen’s long-time friend and ally, spoke eloquently at his memorial about his contribution to the free-school movement, whose advocates oppose standardized education and believe in cooperative learning, participatory democracy and nurturing  kids’ love of learning.

Allen was the author of a founding text of the free-school movement, Free the Children: Radical Reform and the Free School Movement (Pantheon, 1972) and, later, with Sara Bershtel, Saving Remnants: Feeling Jewish in America (Free Press, 1992). He was a contributor to the journals Dissent, New Politics and The Harvard Review, among others.

Allen also held a Masters in Public Health and Epidemiology from UC Berkeley and a Master of Library and Information Science from Cal State Hayward.

Graubard committed his life to teaching poor kids in schools like Oakland Tech and Berkeley High

An optimistic skeptic and activist, Allen wrote in his 25th Harvard Reunion review: “I do try to keep perspective. So certain recent political events give me some hope for the long run; I mean, for example, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the rise of working class consciousness in Europe and America, the abolition of slavery.”

For Allen, teaching and learning were as natural and necessary as breathing. He loved raising Mo with Mo’s mother and his ex-partner Nancy Bardacke, a midwife and a founder of the radical feminist movement in Berkeley. He also helped raise environmentalist Ted Bardacke, Nancy’s son with free speech activist F.J. Bardacke. He married twice:  Berkeley’s Johanna Boudreaux and then Harvard Psychiatrist Judith Herman.

His son Mo remembers Allen whispering the subtitles of foreign films to him at the UC Theater when he was too young to read, sometimes to the annoyance of neighboring filmgoers. (Barbara Stanwyck was his heartthrob and The Lady Eve was his favorite movie). Françoise Sorgen-Goldschmidt remembers that when she was going through chemo, Allen would come over after her treatment with his TV, video player and a copy of Eve. “I was so sick I always fell asleep so it didn’t matter he always brought the same movie,” she says.

At a similar gathering of his Cambridge friends, one Harvard professor remembered a wild dancing party when Allen cornered her to explain existentialism. After he retired as Berkeley High’s librarian he ran into one of his former students and asked how the new librarian was doing. “I don’t like that new librarian, Mr. Graubard,” the student said, “If you ask her a question, she has to go look up the answer in a book.”

One night years ago, after hanging out at Allen’s for a few hours, I walked to my car, Allen trailing along. It was a rare, warm Berkeley night, clear and fine and the stars seemed close enough to touch. Thoughts turned to the cosmos. I realized I was standing next to a man conversant with Einstein.

“Allen,” I said, “I’ve never understood the theory of relativity. Can you explain it to me?”

And he did.

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