Remembering Lloyd Elliott, larger-than-life teacher and family man devoted to love, peace, silliness

Elliott, a longtime resident of Berkeley’s Thousand Oaks neighborhood, was beloved for his humor, gentleness, and the avid way he approached both his long-held interests and passing fancies.

Lloyd Elliott. Credit: Elliott family

Growing up in Granada Hills, Lloyd Elliott’s Depression-era mother didn’t understand how much food a growing boy needed, and so he spent too many meals staring at all the white space on his dinner plate. So as an adult, Lloyd, a masterful and creative cook, made sure that his own kids could always fill their plates, and always have seconds.  And this is perhaps the best way to describe how Lloyd lived his life — full, generous, original, and overflowing with love.

Lloyd passed away on April 18 due to heart failure, at the age of 69 (or 70, because he liked to round his age up, for practice). 

A large man and a larger presence, Lloyd could have been imposing – except he was too kind, gentle, and silly for that. He approached people with open arms, exuberance, and infectious humor. He approached life with a sense of silliness, embracing the absurd, oftentimes obliquely imparting a message. If one of the kids was going outside to play, he would say: “OK. Don’t forget to wear your bike helmet in case of meteorites.” He would constantly joke with strangers, filled with gentle teasing and mild self-deprecation — demonstrating to his kids that everybody they meet should be valued and treated with respect. Perhaps in the greatest testament to his impact, his son Evan says, “It used to mortify me, but now I am 100% that person!”

Another hallmark of Lloyd was that he thought and felt deeply, and typically acted in positive ways, rather than lashing out or stewing or turning cynical.  Never one to follow conventional wisdom, Lloyd had a deep-seated sense of himself, which gave him the confidence that through minor actions, he could make a difference, even if it was just brightening a market cashier’s afternoon with a funny story. A throughline in his life was his dedication to helping others. Be it making 10 gallons of soup twice a month for a Berkeley nonprofit that feeds homeless people, taking countless trips to Nicaragua to work with a school in a remote community, traveling to the Mexican border in 2018 to help incoming refugees at a respite center, or simply offering support and instilling confidence in those around him.

One of Lloyd’s defining characteristics (besides his trademark Hawaiian shirts) was that when he was interested in something —his family, social justice, music, church, history, baseball, and much more – he dove in, and deep.

Lloyd Elliott. Credit: Elliott family

His family formed the core of his world for his entire life, even when they were not nearby.  He met his first wife, Ava, at the University of California Santa Barbara.  When they graduated (he with a bachelor’s in philosophy), they moved to Berkeley, where he received a master’s degree in religion from the Pacific School of Religion, and she earned her master’s in nursing at Merritt College.  They had three children, Evan, Aaron, and Ava Elise, while Lloyd was still a graduate student, putting him in the unusual (for the time) role of primary caregiver. For all its tragedy, when Ava tragically died of an asthma attack in 1992, living in this role prepared him to be a single parent. Turns out, caring for and teaching children was a calling. 

Lloyd was proud of his children, perhaps more for how they handled their trials than their triumphs. Always leading with compassion, gentleness and humor, he raised his children to be kind, curious and quick with a witty joke. As his sister Rhonda Lakatos said, “He nurtured those kids to be healthy and happy and knowing they were loved. If anyone was put on earth to do one thing, it was Lloyd to raise those children. The fact that to this day they enjoy each other and like to be together is a testament to his parenting.”

Some of the family’s fondest memories with Lloyd took place at the family cabin at Fallen Leaf Lake. They would spend Thanksgivings there, snowy weekends, and a chunk of every summer. Lloyd said that a tradition was anything you did more than once and so it became a tradition to take each child when they were five or six on an overnight backpacking trip to Gilmore Lake and then to the top of Mt. Tallac, which looms 10,000 feet over the Tahoe Basin. Those wilderness trips were among many examples of how Lloyd instilled in his children confidence and self-acceptance. “He taught me the idea that you can mess things up and you will be OK,” says his son, Evan.  “He trusted us and wanted us to trust ourselves.”

Said his daughter Ava Elise Elliott: “When we left the house, no matter where we were going, he would say ‘Don’t get lost in the woods.’  This was his way of saying, without putting too much pressure on us, ‘I’m thinking about you, I care about you, and I trust you to make good decisions.’”

He was always encouraging and never pressured his children to be anything but themselves.

Said his son Aaron: “He modeled for us that the world is a place to be curious about, and there’s so much out there to discover and explore. And he taught us that not everybody has to like the same things.”

At the same time, he emphasized you don’t have to be one thing; you can change what you want to do later on. “In our culture, there’s this pressure to follow a strict path, but he didn’t feel like you had to do that. He said you can be a ballerina AND an astronaut,” said Elise.

While working on his degree in Divinity, he served as a volunteer parent at Dandelion, the cooperative nursery school in Berkeley that his children attended. A teacher observed his natural talent with that age group and suggested he could make that his career. Lloyd ran with it and became a nursery school teacher, for a time at Dandelion, and then for the children of UC Berkeley faculty and graduate students. His teaching skills transcended age and subject matter. For example, later, he was an ESL pronunciation teacher in San Rafael for adults.

Lloyd was famous for teasing. He challenged children’s grasp on reality with ridiculous claims that led them to peals of laughter, like referring to their toes as mushrooms. This was ultimately a lesson too, teasing without meanness brings folks together and helps us never take ourselves too seriously. Lloyd was a master at walking that line and knew how to stop and help heal when children became frustrated. There was never a question that he didn’t have a silly answer for, but also knew when to treat children as equals and give them the serious answers they need.

He spent a great deal of time with his beloved grandchildren, Lubo, Ava Mina and Adah, and loved observing how they interacted with the world around them. He fostered their curiosity and growth by following their lead in games and activities. He had a special bond with Lubo, the oldest, and loved nothing more than playing with him and sparking his innate inquisitiveness, as usual, opening doors without proselytizing or pushing.

Lloyd’s curiosities ranged far and wide, and he let his imagination run free. An avid student of history, local cultures, and current events, Lloyd would marry those interests with his love for his children and their interests. Wherever they lived after graduating from Berkeley High, he would subscribe to the local newspaper in that city, from Boulder to Jerusalem. He thoroughly researched his and his second wife Annette’s many visits to their children so they could all have a unique experience, decidedly off the beaten path. When Lloyd and Annette visited their son Aaron while he was working for Habitat for Humanity in South Carolina, Lloyd took them out to a small town to find a man who made handmade fishing nets and knots, generational knowledge passed down from his grandfather.

Lloyd inherited his affinity for children and his social justice bent from his father, Marvin, a public-school elementary teacher and conscientious objector in World War II, and his mother, Adah, who taught deaf and hard of hearing children. He learned from them that your life does not have to be compartmentalized, all your interests and activities could be embraced and integrated under the big tent of life.

Lloyd brought many of these interests into his long affiliation with Epworth United Methodist Church in Berkeley. For starters, he met his beloved wife, Annette, at Epworth — she says she noticed him because she was enchanted by his gift with his children. Lloyd served in many capacities there, including Children’s Council, Trustee, confirmation mentor, and AV specialist. In a lively shift from the staid Protestant pancake dinner, Lloyd helped organize, cook for, and perform music at Mardi Gras night, as the Swampland Band. With his in-depth knowledge of theology, church history and social justice movements, he served as Epworth’s lay representative to the United Methodist Church’s annual Cal-Nevada Conference and attended national and international assemblies.

One of his greatest impacts on the church – and many others — was his work in Nicaragua. In 2008, Epworth’s pastor wanted to form a relationship in Nicaragua, and Lloyd took the ball and ran with it. He traveled to the small city Nueva Guinea and fell in love with its people, most of all with the faculty, staff, and students at Rubén Darío High School. He and Annette began leading contingents from Epworth (and others, including his children and their partners) there annually to speak conversational English, provide school supplies and musical instruments, and assist with other projects, but most importantly to build relationships.

Lloyd played washtub, washboard, kazoos, percussion, and his favorite: a National steel guitar with raised strings, which he traced to a Portuguese Hawaiian in the 1920s.

Lloyd worked with the church to sponsor intercultural exchanges, bringing teachers from Rubén Darío to Berkeley. They visited local schools, shared their cultural heritage, such as music, folk dance, and cooking, and deepened the relationship with the Epworth community. Lloyd and Annette would host teachers at their home and help find other congregants to host others. He also led the charge to raise funds for supplies at the school as well as for stipends for graduates of the high school to help them attend college. Even though Lloyd would describe himself as a “lifelong learner” of Spanish rather than an actual speaker of the language, he connected with everybody that he crossed paths within Nicaragua, communicating through the universal languages of children, music, and a full heart.

His most profound connection there was with Carlos Altamirano, an English teacher at Rubén Darío who met Lloyd on his first trip there. Carlos has visited several times at the Elliott-Cayot house, as well as at the homes of other Epworth congregants. He and Lloyd formed a strong bond and Carlos considers him a father figure. “Lloyd helped me grow, gain new life experiences, and be open-minded about others,” he said.”  “He taught me about being a professional and a true Christian. Our conversations were very deep, and he understood me better than anyone in the world. He helped me get through the worst time of my life. He is an angel.”

Music was another lifelong enthusiasm. For many years, Lloyd was a member of local bands that performed American traditional music, including early blues and New Orleans-style music. As Annette described his most recent band, The Jailhouse String Band, “It’s a jug band with no jug.” Lloyd taught himself to play many instruments, including raspy wood hollow instruments, gourds filled with beads, spoons, washtub bass, drums, and slide guitar. At Jailhouse String Band rehearsals, usually hosted at Lloyd’s house as he had too many instruments to transport; Lloyd played washtub, washboard, kazoos, percussion, and his favorite: a National steel guitar with raised strings, which he traced to a Portuguese Hawaiian in the 1920s.

“He was always a larger-than-life figure,” says his partner in musical crime, Miller Wise of Berkeley. “I remember when I first met him at a San Francisco folk music get-together. I thought ‘He’s such a big man! And he carries himself wonderfully!’ I always thought of Lloyd as a musicologist. He would become fascinated by a tune and start researching all the versions going back to their origins. He was our go-to guy to introduce tunes at our performances and educate the public in an engaging way.”

Lloyd loved music of all kinds, and he was an avid supporter of Annette’s decades-long stint singing with Pacific Edge Voices (formerly Pacific Mozart Ensemble). He would attend all her concerts — and even traveled with the group on its European tours on a few occasions.

Lloyd brought his appetite for bringing people together to another love, cooking. He relished cooking for a crowd. He mastered many cuisines, rarely using recipes. Says his stepdaughter Jessica Gelay, “One of my favorite things about coming home to Berkeley was getting to eat Lloyd’s delicious food. Cooking and feeding people was a passion of his. He always had a plan for dinner and his cooking always made the house smell so good.” He passed on to his children his hunger and skill. He taught them that you can always make a meal out of what you have on hand.

The weekend before Lloyd passed away, he was at the top of his game. He spent Easter weekend participating in Easter services, organizing Easter egg hunts for his grandchildren, and purchasing a fishing boat for Fallen Leaf Lake – he loved seeing his children grow up on the water, and how it helped them develop competence and independence, and wanted to extend this to his grandchildren. And he finally accomplished his life-long goal of not finishing Moby Dick.

He is survived by his wife, Annette Cayot; children, Evan (Jessica Tudor), Aaron (Justine Carmer), Ava Elise (Ross Fraser) and stepdaughter Jessica Gelay; adored (and adorable!) grandchildren, Lubo, Ava Mina and Adah; and sisters, Rhonda Lakatos and Bronsa Swint. Ava Pischel Elliott, his first wife and mother of Evan, Aaron, and Ava Elise, preceded him in death in 1992.

The Appreciation of Life for Lloyd Elliott will be held 2:30 p.m. June 11 at Epworth Community Church.

The family asks that if anyone is moved to make a donation in Lloyd’s name, please do so to Epworth UMC Berkeley: Sanctuary Action Committee, Canal Alliance, or Consider the Homeless.