Saul Mendelson was a political organizer, civil rights activist, union leader, teacher, historian, husband and father. He devoted his life to the fight for justice, equality and peace, while teaching generations of students and raising the three sons he had with his beloved wife, Jennie. Saul's life is memorable not only for what he accomplished but also for the way he worked for the causes he supported. He viewed politics not simply as a struggle for power - though he had not a shred of naivete about its importance - but also as an arena for democratic participation and grass-roots movement-building. He worked precincts, rang doorbells, stood on picket lines. He was a leader whose tireless commitment, speaking ability, tactical shrewdness, and broad historical knowledge enabled him to frame issues and inspire others. Saul was self-effacing, and he respected opinions different from his own. He had the rare ability to disagree with others on issues of substance while not allowing those differences to become personal.
At Saul's memorial service in 1998, Barack Obama said this about him:
"I didn't have the good fortune to know Saul Mendelson as long as did many of those offering testimonials. But in the few years that I did know him, he was able to touch my life as he did so many others.
Much of our relationship was built around a shared love of politics. His ability to organize a precinct was legendary, his advice on issues always sound.
But what became apparent to me as I got to know Saul was that for him, politics wasn't an academic exercise. Nor was it a mere pursuit of ambition or vanity. Saul's commitment to politics expressed his commitment to life: his abiding belief that we could make a better world for ourselves; his faith that words like freedom and equality and democracy were empty slogans unless people breathed life into them through collective action; his confidence that if people were informed and encouraged to participate in public life, they could be counted on to do the right thing.
It was those core beliefs that gave Saul that special air that he had, of a man unafraid to speak his mind, a man comfortable in his own skin. And by living out those beliefs, Saul imparted them to all of us.
And so we salute Saul today, as an activist, scholar, union leader, loving husband and father; someone who, in his quiet, determined, diligent way, expressed the best values that our country has to offer, and made those communities that he touched better than they otherwise would have been."
Saul was a member of IVI-IPO for 30 years. He served as state chairman from 1982 to 1984, at the time of Harold Washington's successful mayoral campaign in Chicago. Saul served on the IVI-IPO State Board from 1966 to his death. He was also the Area Chair for the south side lakefront precincts in Chicago for many years. He chaired the IVI-IPO Legislation and National Affairs Committee for many years as well.
Saul served on the national board of ADA from 1966 to his death. For many years he was the co-chairman of ADA's Foreign and Military Policy Commission.
Saul ran for State Senator in 1970, partnering with State Representative candidate Leon Chestang.
Saul was an area coordinator in Harold Washington's campaigns for mayor of Chicago in 1983 and 1987.
Saul helped introduce Barack Obama to progressive Hyde Park-South Shore politics and helped him get the IVI endorsement when Obama first ran for office in the 13th State Senatorial District in 1996.
Saul attended three Democratic National Conventions- as an alternate delegate in 1972 and 1984, and as a delegate for Jesse Jackson from the 2nd Congressional District in the 1988 Atlanta convention.
In 1961 Saul participated in the Freedom Rides in the deep South to protest racial segregation.
In 1963 he worked with Timuel Black to organize the Chicago presence at the 1963 March on Washington.
Saul was active in the Rainbow Beach integration effort in 1960/1961.
Saul actively participated in civil rights groups, including the N.A.A.C.P, C.O.R.E., and the Negro American Labor Council.
Saul fought for collective bargaining for public employees throughout his career. At DuSable High School he joined the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), and he helped to increase its militancy by co-founding the Teachers Action Committee caucus.
By 1966 Saul had become the Vice-President of the High School Division of the Chicago Teachers' Union. (The union obtained its first collective bargaining contract in 1966.)
At Loop College Saul was the union chapter chair from 1970-1986 (part of the Cook County College Teachers' Union). During the five times the union struck during Saul's tenure, he headed his chapter's strike committee each time. His colleagues held him in high respect for his ability to clarify issues, recommend tactics, and emphasize the principled basis for the positions he took and the recommendations he made.
Saul was a democratic socialist who revered Norman Thomas and worked with other socialists such as Michael Harrington and Irving Howe to promote anti-Stalinist, democratic socialist ideas.
He joined the Socialist movement at the age of 18, and was active in socialist organizing in the 1930's at Brooklyn College.
Saul chaired the University of Chicago Socialist club in the late 1940's.
In 1983 Saul was the Chicago delegate to the Democratic Socialists of America conference in NewYork City.
He was the co-founder of the annual Chicago Debs Day Dinner in 1958, treasurer for its first 10 years, and worked diligently for 39 years to make it a success. In 1988 Saul received the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America Thomas-Debs award at the 30th annual Thomas-Debs Day Dinner.
Saul received an MA in History from the University of Chicago, and worked on a doctoral dissertation about factions in the French Socialist Party in the 1930's. (He described his favorite class at the U. of C. as a seminar on the French Revolution taught by Louis Gottschalk in which he had to write a paper about a single day in the course of the Revolution.)
Saul taught at DuSable High School for 14 years, from 1953 to 1967, and was chairman of the Social Studies Department there from 1962 to 1967.
He taught at Loop (now Harold Washington) College for 20 years, from 1967 to 1987, and would have continued full-time teaching there well into his 70's if he had not been forced to stop by legal retirement rules.
At Loop he taught primarily U.S. and Latin American history. But his interests and knowledge were encyclopedic. He read the French political magazine Le Nouvel Observateur regularly and on occasion conversed with visitors about French politics- in French- for hours. He could discourse knowledgeably about political issues across the globe. He had a prodigious memory, and his broad and deep knowledge helped enable him to become a leading figure on the ADA Foreign Policy Commission. He was one of the first, for instance, to push for withdrawing support from President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War.
HUSBAND AND FATHER:
Saul was married to Jennie Mendelson (nee Rosenberg) for 50 years, from 1948 until his death in 1998. The couple enjoyed a close and loving union.
Saul and Jennie had three sons: Jack and Neal, who were fraternal twins born in 1951, and the youngest, Paul, who was born in 1954. Saul was a devoted father who taught full-time at DuSable High School and then worked as a banquet waiter on weekends in order to support his wife and children. He managed to pay for all three of his sons' college educations and made sure his family was financially secure. His favorite family activity in the summertime was taking his wife and children to Rainbow Beach in South Shore and swimming and sunbathing there. He also took his children on innumerable trips to the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry.
Saul was a highly-respected colleague whose sterling character and genial, courtly manner at work and in his political and union activities won him numerous friends and followers.
In addition to reading the New York Times every day of his adult life, Saul enjoyed playing bridge, swimming in Lake Michigan with long, relaxed strokes, drinking beer, eating at ethnic restaurants and talking politics. He was also a devoted moviegoer.
Saul underwent two coronary bypass operations in his life. He maintained his passion for politics to the very end of his life in 1998 when he passed away due to pancreatic cancer