Thursday, January 7, 2010

What about (Socialist) Bob

Baltimore leftist
would have enjoyed
his last turnout

Baltimore’s best-known socialist attracted what may have been his largest crowd Wednesday afternoon, but wasn’t around to enjoy it.

A. Robert Kaufman, a far-leftist who had been tilting at societal windmills for more than half a century, died on Christmas Day after more than three years of declining health – a result of being stabbed by a deranged boarder in a building he owned in a rough westside neighborhood. He was 78.

More than 100 people from varied walks of life offered condolences to Bob’s elderly sister – his sole survivor – and heard tributes from former newspaper columnist Mike Olesker, from influential African-American minister Marion Bascom, from a printing company entrepreneur who for many years had Bob as frequent customer, and even from a young man who described himself as a revolutionary socialist inspired by Bob’s example.

I probably met Bob no more than twice, but talked to him regularly over the course of nearly four decades on the city desk of The Baltimore Sun. He called frequently, hoping to talk to editors. I was the guy usually answering the phone. It was a curious relationship. I’d hear what he had to say, and send a brief message off to whatever editor he wanted to reach (but who had no time or inclination to chat with Bob). Usually just a sentence, kind of a tweet, about this demonstration, that hearing, his latest filing for elective office.

There was hardly a public office that Bob didn’t run for – mayor, council, congress, president. The point was never about winning. It was about the forum that comes with candidacy, the chance to espouse his views that in the short run of a campaign or a decade were largely ignored or brought him mostly derision.

Crazy stuff, you know – starting in the late 1940s, as a white Jewish teen-ager joining in civil rights picketing outside a whites-only downtown theater. He opposed war, opposed the death penalty, favored legalizing drugs, spoke out for universal health care and affordable car insurance, and wanted big business to share the wealth.

Sometimes it was a chance to criticize the political system when, deemed a minor candidate, he would be barred from an election debate.

He was roughed up and stuffed in a trash can back around 1960 outside Baltimore City College, by a mob of students who also tore up his socialist leaflets. I missed the ruckus, but Olesker, who was in my 10th-grade homeroom, recalled seeing the mob that day. It might have been Bob’s biggest crowd before Wednesday’s memorial, we joked.

Bob was uncompromising in his beliefs. If there was movement on his issues, it was society that did the moving – as witness the election of a black president, debate on universal health care on Capitol Hill, growing disenchantment with the latest war, city council eyeing the high cost of car insurance for Baltimore residents.

But in his last two years, living in a nursing home, Bob was pretty much a spectator badly in need of a kidney – his own kidneys having failed as a complication from the knife attack and subsequent infections. He had nearly died after the attack. More recently, he had a stroke.

Olesker, in his remarks, said Bob “could really make people uncomfortable because we were not living up to our ideals” – and neither was America.

“He was bigger than most of the religions we practice,” said Reverend Bascom. “He was a consummate humanist. He walked where most of us feared to walk.”

After the brief program, horticulturist and retired veterinarian L. Bruce Hornstein, a friend of Bob since their childhood days, observed, “He was a pacifist, and he was fearless.”

For more on Kaufman, including his obituary and photos, check out these entries at The Baltimore Sun:,0,4426848.story,0,4271671.story

Another passing

After the Kaufman remembrance, I drove across town to attend another memorial gathering – this one for longtime friend Mark Owings, who was among the handful of founding members of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. He was the most gentle, soft-spoken human being I have ever known.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, I found myself at age 16 becoming close friends in high school with future novelist Jack Chalker and traveling by Trailways bus with him and a few other fans of the genre to attend meetings of the Washington Science Fiction Association. I suggested starting a club in Baltimore, and the first official meeting took place in the tiny basement of my parents’ Royce Avenue rowhouse.

We also started holding an annual regional science fiction conference, which initially attracted a few dozen people, but grew to major proportions over the years – 1,500 or more, and filling hotels. There’s even been a couple of larger world science fiction conventions here.

While I drifted away from active membership, Jack and Mark remained involved in BSFS and collaborated on a couple of book projects that drew on Mark’s strength as a bibliographer: The Index to the Science-Fantasy Publishers and The Revised H.P. Lovecraft Bibliography.

Jack died nearly five years ago. Now Mark, on Dec. 30, at 64 – mere weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

The last time we had our picture taken together was in 2003, at BSFS’ 40th anniversary party – held in its spacious clubhouse, a former East Baltimore Street movie theater building.

I offered this comment at the party:

“I have proof that time travel exists. There’s just two drawbacks – it only goes in one direction, and it happens too fast.”

RIP, Mark. And tell Jack I said ‘hi’.


D. said...

Thanks for the remembrances.

I did not know Mr. Kaufman, but I knew many like him: uncompromising, eager to share the faith, gutsy.

Mark, I remember as unfailingly kind, and we had many conversations in passing, but the only encounter that stands out was discovering that he and Jul had the s/t/a/t/e/r/o/o/m/ economy sleeper across the hall on the northbound train after the Atlanta Worldcon. What a lovely time.

My condolences.

Eva Whitley said...

Thank you. This was a lovely tribute to two irasible guys, diametrically opposed on most issues (although Mark may have been in favor of legalizing drugs).

michele said...

Both Mark and Bob were special people in their own ways and will be missed. Ted and I visited Bob recently in the nursing home and talked about politics with him for a short while. Then due to his aphasia it became impossible to understand. We wished him well. I'm glad we visited with him.

I will miss seeing Mark dressed up as Father Time on New Year's Eve in Hampden. Perfect personification.

Michele Rosenberg

Herman Heyn said...

Even with its smattering of religion,
except for one factor, lack of TV
coverage, Bob would have approved of his memorial service...most especially the final (appropriate!), Marxist speaker. Personally, I think Bob missed his real calling in life...a civil
rights or civil liberties lawyer. Given his passion for those two areas and his sharp mind, he would have been another Kunstler! Due to his "my way or the highway"
approach, he was totally ill suited
as a mass movement organizer. It either wrecked or got him expelled
from EVERY organization he joined.
Re the former, he ever wrecked the
Friday night, Unitarian Church, singles group Liberated Singles...that's how consistently bad his working in groups problem was! So far as I'm concerned, the only he organized well was the socialist study group he ran in his Reisterstown room circa 1959-61. I would have never
adopted a Marxist outlook had it not been for Bob's study group.
For that I'll always be appreciative! RIP the Bob Kaufman
phenomenon, Herman Heyn