Ellen Straus

February 21, 1927 - November 30, 2002

Before I begin, it should not go without note that Ellen would have found it enormously funny that her cleaning habits were mentioned in the Rabbi’s eulogy at her funeral, and that the term “immaculate” was ever associated with her. Indeed, it is a fitting remembrance of her wonderful sense of humor, even at herself.

I stand here rent with a challenge both simple and profound. How to eulogize someone who was, for many of us, larger than life? And to do it with an economy of words to honor her own penchant for brevity, one of the many things she passed on to her family. “Keep it short, Alan!” But Ellen made it easy, for she really was simple in the most important ways. She loved her family - immediate and extended, extended to include Bill’s many relatives, me and my family, Jeanne and her’s - her Jewish heritage and people, and the land. She pursued these loves with an unparalleled commitment to action, bringing to her efforts an eternal and unflagging optimism and positive outlook, a lightness of spirit. She was deeply committed to not stand by. And she acted without reservation, conflict, indecision, nor care for her short-term good. She built bridges and coalitions, partnerships and communities through her persistence, good humor and patience. Her’s was the long and the deep view. Not simplistic nor easy, but simple.

Ellen accomplished great things - something she cared tremendously about, not the greatness in the eyes of others, but the accomplishments themselves. She was a doer, not a talker. So what did she do? She built and grew a marriage of 52 years on the scantest of courtships (the now legendary 16 days following the second cross-country junket by Bill). Grew a family of incredible people - Jewish in a world both near and distant that was ignorant and hostile to Judaism - decent, environmentally committed children and grandchildren. Showed us all, by example and by constant encouragement, to always work together, as a team, loving and supporting each other. Touched the lives of countless relatives and friends, brining to each relationship an unswerving belief in each of our goodness and our ability to be happy and to do what is right. Grew the farm business, as creative designer, team-mate, advisor, sounding-board, inspiration, partner.

Ellen died as she lived, in a simple way. She remained in control right to the end, with her family, on her land. She knew that the view was right out there - the freshly planted erosion control grass, the National Seashore and protected land - even if she couldn’t see it with other than her mind’s eye at the end. She was content in herself while still having her eyes set on the two worlds she loved so dearly as expressed in her few regrets: to leave her husband, to not see her grandchildren grow, to not finish raising $60 million for MALT. Her’s was perhaps the rarest form of leadership - we followed her gladly, joyfully, with energy and commitment, inspired and guided by her, while not feeling led. That is our challenge now, to continue her legacy of leadership beyond her passing.

Personally, I find tremendous comfort in the Jewish notion that we live on in the lives of others when we die. In the case, not surprisingly, it is again simple to see the many ways that she will live on in us. This is our greatest gift and challenge. So what so we see?

Ellen left a legacy in the community where she inspired and encouraged so many with her love and passion for what is good and right for people and for the land.

She left a legacy in the very land itself, from the garden beds surrounding the house, the roses that climb its porch posts and railings, the well-tended fields and animals of her family’s farm, to 47 ranches and 32,000 acres and the park. She helped create an organization that is the inspiration for dozens of other land trusts around the country, protecting countless acres of the working landscape. She showed us that farmers can be environmentalists, that work the land can preserve it, that we all - farmers and eaters - have a responsibility that transcends the dollar, the now, the me.

And on a more personal note, Ellen’s legacy lives on in the dear family members she leaves behind. In Bill, an unconditional, almost unbelievable happiness and love that is for many of us an inspiration and model for what love and marriage could and should be.

In Albert, a powerful and positive vision and the determination to pursue it, seemingly but not really against all odds because the world bends favorably around him as it did around her.

In Vivien, a creative and artistic spirit and spark, the ability to see the beauty and the humor in even the dark things that surround us, and by helping us laugh, making it less dark for us all.

In Miriam, that incredible joy of life, lightness of being, and wonderful strength that we knew so well in Ellen. Her legacy lives on in Miriam being the same kind of mother, where there is never any question about her love and belief in her children. She is the person you want to tell things to, reliving each experience, each joy, each smile.

In Michael, a tremendous dedication to good causes and to the kind of leadership that always puts himself, as Ellen did, in the background, while putting others - in Michael’s case, his clients, family, friends - forward.

We’ll miss Ellen terribly, but also will continue to be inspired in the richness of the simple life and goodness she exemplified - love, belief in self and others, and passion and tireless action on behalf of what is right and good.

Alan R. Berkowitz
3 December, 2002
Olema, California