Notes for: Leon SVERDLOVE

Notes for: Leon SVERDLOVE

profile of Leon Sverdlove in the Seattle Post Intelligencer.

Leon is a 93 year old lefty still hustling his ass for his fellow man. He volunteers at a homeless shelter serving lunch and at a hospital checking on former patients by phone.

Born in Philadelphia in 1910 to Russian immigrants and raised in Montreal, Los Angeles and Manhattan's Lower East Side, Sverdlove and his two younger siblings were orphaned as teens and relied on other relatives as hard times descended. He left school after ninth grade.

"The Depression made me a socialist," he said. "I became socially conscious."

He admits to a youthful flirtation with radicals - the dance at which he met Sema, his wife-to-be, "was organized by some left-wing group, maybe the Communists." But although he lost faith in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, he holds fast to many of the tenets of socialism.

"I marched in every demonstration," he said. "I was always interested in making things better for the poor. The right to organize, civil rights. I think being interested in people, in how people are doing, helped me live this long. I want to see how things turn out."

. . . When he was 15 or 16, Sverdlove became an apprentice stone setter in the jewelry district, then centered on Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan. He quickly began militating for a union - "it cost me a job now and then," he says - and helped found the International Jewelry Workers Union, which won its first contract in 1936.

He and Sema married that year and he went on to serve during World War II in the Army Air Force, repairing the gun turrets on B-26 bombers in England and France.

From 1941 on, he was employed by the jewelry workers union and eventually became international president, the position he held when the union was merged with the Service Employees International Union. He then served on the SEIU's executive board.

He retired in 1980, but remained available to the SEIU, even becoming trustee of a troubled local. After Sema died in 1982, "I realized it wasn't enough just doing chores, taking care of the trees and the flowers. You can read The New York Times every day, but then what do you do?"
Six years ago, Sverdlove pounced on an ad for the Volunteers of America and has been happily engaged ever since in what he finds to be a logical extension of his career. He expects to attend the SEIU convention in San Francisco next month.

"All those years in the union, I fought for things like Social Security, pensions, all the things people needed," he said. "Now I'm helping to feed the hungry and help the sick."

What a guy.