Eleanor Engstrand

Date of Birth

November 1st, 1908

Date of Death

November 12th, 2016

Memorial Meeting

Santa Cruz Monthly Meeting

Minute

Everyone has their own Eleanor. Over her long life we have come to know her as our friend, neighbor, mentor, aunt, grandmother, mother and, as Marge knew her, “the love of my life”.

Reviewing Eleanor’s life, we are aware of her intelligence, her capacity to listen, her plainspoken manner, her passion for history, her belief in doing the right thing both personally and politically, and her resilience.

Eleanor was born in Los Angeles on November 1,1908, the oldest of four girls. Her sister Evelyn was born in 1910, Betty in 1915, and Emma in 1921. When Eleanor told the story of her life she said she was born two months before the predicted delivery date “scrawny and jaundiced” and “unlikely to survive”. Certainly no one expected her to live to be 108 years old.

Reflecting on her childhood, Eleanor described herself as shy and afraid of everything. She claimed that she didn’t have the looks or the social skills of Evelyn, and thought that since she couldn’t be popular, she would be good. “My goodness was episodic. I liked school and did what was expected of me there.” Looking at photos of Eleanor’s family and listening to the stories of her parents and grandparents, one can see that she was born into a family that valued hard work and education. In her early years, the family lived primarily in the Sacramento Valley where Eleanor’s father raised beans, wheat and rice. Though her mother didn’t like the farming life, Eleanor loved “the space, the quiet, and the smell of newly plowed fields in the spring”. She imagined being a farmer when she grew up. Her love of the outdoors emerged again later when she and Marge joined others to purchase a ranch in Sonoma County, backpacked with family members in Yosemite and the Sierras, planted gardens, and eventually moved to the redwood mountains of Ben Lomond.

Eleanor was truly a life-long learner. She recalled that when she was a girl, she kept a book in her drawer and sometimes read when she was supposed to be doing her chores. She and Evelyn attended a one-room school in Delavan, and in 1921 they took a bus to high school in Willows where they studied world history, chemistry, Latin, English and math. Reading Scribner’s, the Atlantic and Harper’s magazines provided an entry into current concerns and thinking. Eleanor relished good literature and keeping up with world events. As her sight diminished, friends routinely read to her from biographies, novels, nonfiction and periodicals such as The Nation.

When Eleanor’s father decided to raise sheep instead of crops, the family moved to Wildcat Canyon near Richmond, but left the two sisters behind in Berkeley to continue high school. There they became dependant on one another. Eleanor recalled that Mother warned them not to drink more than two cups of tea a day, and they were given a limited amount of money for food and upkeep. They took a home economics class that helped them survive, as well as a class in “the genteel life” which would acquaint them with “what one needed to know”. Not attracted to the usual social scene, Eleanor joined the Berkeley High Girls’ Athletic Association.

Eleanor graduated from high school in 1927 when the Depression had begun for farmers. It was a hard time for the family, and Eleanor took time out to work. Eventually, she went on to college at UC Berkeley where the tuition was $25 a semester, and she constantly took jobs to support herself. In 1934, Eleanor worked for the Bureau of Occupations at ten cents an hour cooking for a family. Feeling this was exploitive, she applied to work with the National Youth Administration, a New Deal agency that provided work and education for young people. Her job was to translate articles from French periodicals on criminology for the chief of the Berkeley police department.

Eleanor loved the academic life. She was very well-versed in English literature and the classics, but especially loved to study history and politics. When she was a graduate student, she worked as a reader in philosophy and history; women students weren’t allowed to be teaching assistants. Eleanor’s intention was to study each of the great powers of World War I and then figure out how wars could be avoided. She was fascinated with Russian history and wrote her master’s thesis on the first diplomatic relations between Russia and China. She worked for several years in researching the exploration and conquest of Siberia in the 17th Century. She passed the written preliminaries and orals for her doctorate, but she found that she didn’t have the self-confidence to finish her dissertation. During this time Eleanor’s father decided to buy a 100-acre farm in Sebastopol.

Eleanor chose to go to library school, and in 1937, she moved to take a job with the Los Angeles County Library. She had already met Warren, a student of Russian history, in Berkeley, and they decided to marry. With his master’s degree in hand, Warren took a job with the Farm Security Administration in Fresno. He worked seven days a week at the labor camps, so Eleanor took the bus from LA to Visalia every Friday to spend the weekends with him. The FSA moved Warren from town to town, and Eleanor, who described herself as pregnant and happy, eventually moved with him. In 1943, Cristina was born, and they returned to Berkeley. Two years later Richard was born. When the children were 2 and 4, the family moved to Nevada where Warren worked in vocational rehabilitation. After some difficult years, Warren and Eleanor decided to divorce. Eleanor stayed in Berkeley and accepted a library job at the University of California. She worked at the library for 23 years (1950-1973), where she felt that helping students and faculty uncover the facts was a very meaningful and fulfilling public service.

Eleanor held high standards for human behavior. Though she wasn’t one to spread gossip or pass judgement, she maintained high expectations of others, most of all, herself. She expected people to be honest, thoughtful, hard working, and compassionate. She admired people who were skilled in what they did, and had great admiration for those who had talents in the arts. Eleanor appreciated people who could delve into politics and give their discussion historical context. Having lived through many major events in history, including World War I, the Depression, and World War II, she was especially appreciative of people who willingly and forcefully backed up their political and historical knowledge with passionate words and actions.

In 1955, while Eleanor was working in the government documents section of the UC Berkeley library, she decided to attend a talk on Japan at the Unitarian Women’s Alliance. She expected the talk to focus on touring Japan, but the very pregnant and engaging guest speaker, Marge Frantz, talked about McCarthyism and nuclear tests in the Pacific. A few years later, she and Marge met again over government documents at the library and agreed to have lunch once a week. In 1961, Marge invited Eleanor to go with the family on a backpacking trip, and they fell in love. Their lives became richly entwined as they lived together, raised children, welcomed grandchildren, developed community, and participated in political activism. They were very different people, but their love for each other, for friends and family, and the interests they shared helped them face life’s challenges.

Eleanor was raised as a Methodist. While supporting Warren’s work with the Farm Security Administration, she met some young Quaker volunteers. She also tutored students at Mills College where she met Anna Brinton, a well-known Quaker who was an archeology professor and dean of the faculty. In 1958, Eleanor began to attend Berkeley Meeting. When she and Marge moved to Ben Lomond in 1973, Eleanor joined the Santa Cruz Meeting. Years later, they both became a significant part of the Quaker Lesbian Conference that met at Quaker Center. Members of this group recall appreciating their mentorship and support. Eleanor and Marge enjoyed discussing politics and history, yet while Marge was passionately involved in political action, including being arrested, Eleanor talked about “taking care of the infrastructure,” meaning she took care of the tasks of daily life. In many ways they provided role models for young women who were traveling a similar path.

Reflecting on her religious beliefs, Eleanor said she had “glimpses of what you might call “God”, and it seemed spiritual to her. Eleanor served on many Quaker committees, but was especially devoted to the upkeep of the library, peace and social justice concerns, and the general oversight of our members. She was also an active member of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and a supporter of Quaker concerns such as John Woolman School and the American Friends Service Committee. Whether sitting in silence or serving on a committee with Eleanor, one was touched by her determination to seek clarity on spiritual or social questions. She was quiet until she had something to say, and that something was always thoughtful, and often profound. She carefully observed human behavior, lovingly supporting others with her suggestions and wit.

During the last decade of her life, Eleanor became Marge’s devoted caregiver to the extent of her ability. Day by day, she adapted her activities and routines to Marge’s changing needs, and when Marge moved to Sunshine Villa, Eleanor visited her as often as possible.  Observing their personal interactions, one could witness true love. During this time there were several other significant family losses, including Marge’s oldest son, Joe, Eleanor’s granddaughter, Molly, Eleanor’s sister, Emmy, and finally Marge’s daughter, Virginia. With her indomitable spirit, and frequent visits with caregivers, family members and friends, Eleanor continued to live her life with generosity and integrity. In spite of personal limitations, she sought to be in touch with friends and family, and valued the efforts of others to engage her mind and converse about current events. She didn’t want people to be awed because she was a centenarian, but respected for just being Eleanor.