Ian Thiermann

Date of Birth

May 29th, 1918

Date of Death

April 28th, 2017

Memorial Meeting

Santa Cruz Monthly Meeting


Ian Thiermann was  born in China and lived in Scotland until the age of three, when he was adopted by the Thiermann family in Milwaukee.  His chief early influences were his mother, who he said never lied, and Stephen, his older brother by two years, who would later introduce him to Quakerism.  His father, a successful but largely absent businessman, took his life when Ian was 13 after losing everything in the stock market crash.  Ian's lifelong gumption and salesmanship ability was doubtless modeled by his mother's subsequent need to find a job, at which she soon rose to be one of the top life insurance salespersons in Milwaukee.

The fidelity to conscience Ian displayed throughout his adult life was tested early when, in high school, he had to decide whether to report two football teammates who had broken the no-smoking rule.  If he did, the team might sacrifice its undefeated record.  He reported them anyway, and the team still won their last game.  Not many of Ian's conscience-driven decisions would end, as this one did, without pain.

Ian got a scholarship to Yale, where he also played football on a team one of whose coaches was future president Gerald Ford.  His dorm advisor was Dave Dellinger, who later became a noted anti-war activist jailed for draft resistance.  Dellinger took students to Harlem, where Ian saw, for the first time, social conditions which left a lasting impression on him. Ian had thought of enrolling in Yale Divinity School, but wound up getting a degree in Applied Economic Science in 1940.

His brother Stephen  had graduated from the Quaker Haverford College, and was working for AFSC in Milwaukee, where he also joined the Milwaukee Friends Meeting.  Ian followed him there, and after hearing talks by Rufus Jones and other Quakers, both Ian and his mother also became members. He loved to quote the saying found above the door to the Evanston, Illinois meetinghouse:  "Enter to worship, depart to serve".

Ian found work at a factory which, because of the war effort, had been converted to making cartridge belts for the military.  Ian soon rose to a supervisory position over 110 men who exceeded expected production levels.  But his conscience soon led him to question what he was doing in support of war, even though the job came with an exemption from the draft.  He quit the job, his disappointed fiancee returned the ring he had given her, and he was assigned to a work camp for conscientious objectors.  He volunteered  for firefighting in California, later built corporate farms in North Dakota, and worked in a mental hospital in Pennsylvania until the war ended.

Toward the end of the war Ian married and then worked for AFSC in Chicago, living in a poor African-American neighborhood, where he organized work camps to rehabilitate houses.  Their living and working conditions were so difficult that his wife persuaded him to move.  They first found work on a farm run by Methodist ministers near Modesto, CA  and stayed there for about a year before moving to Santa Monica, where Ian first got a job making seat covers, and then selling TV sets. Although a great salesman, Ian saw that many of his clients were unable to make their payments, and his conscience once more obliged him to quit a well-paying job.  Knowing nothing about it, he began doing tree work, and quickly learned the business so well that he started his own tree company, the first one with an interracial staff in the area.

In the early 1950s, Ian's first marriage ended in divorce, leaving him with custody of three children.  He began studying and eventually teaching re-evaluation counseling, or co-counseling, which he said had a strong influence on his life and spurred a major growth period.  He married again under the care of Santa Monica Meeting, where he and his wife both eventually became clerk of the Meeting.

In the 1960s, a talk by Linus Pauling on nuclear power led Ian to begin participating in anti-nuke demonstrations, cementing a concern that would occupy him for much of the rest of his life.

Since some of Ian's children had attended UC Santa Cruz and were living there, Ian and his third wife moved to Ben Lomond in the 1970s.  Since she had cancer, he opened a health clinic in Santa Cruz for research and practice in alternative cancer treatments, working there until she died near the end of the decade.  Ian joined the Board of the Ben Lomond Quaker Center and volunteered at the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz and with People for a Nuclear-free Future.  At a workshop at Quaker Center on saying goodbye to relationships, Ian met Terry Abrams, who in 1981 became his fourth wife.

Becoming more aware of the medical consequences of nuclear war, Ian was led to make a five-year commitment to do something about it.  He wound up editing a video called The Last Epidemic, which the San Jose Mercury News review said was "the best film you'll see this year".  He went on to have a hand in two other videos: In the Nuclear Shadow, about children, and Women for America for the World, which won an Oscar for best documentary.  He and Terry founded the Video Project, which promoted and distributed hundreds of media presentations on nuclear, peace and environmental concerns.  Ian recalled this time as the most creative work he had ever done.

In the 1990s, conscious now of global warming and unsustainable energy use, Ian led the way to the replacement of incandescent lightbulbs in Santa Cruz City Schools, Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Sentinel, and the Ben Lomond Supermarket.  Not content with all this, he also worked with John Robbins' Earth Save Institute and his son Ocean's Youth for Environmental Sanity.

Ian's security was shaken yet again when he and Terry lost their savings in the Bernie Madoff debacle.  Ian responded with grace, not blaming anyone, but going to work at the age of 90 as a greeter, bagger and all-around helper at Ben Lomond Super.  When it seemed his working days were finally over, he and Terry loved to take a cherished daily walk at nearby Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Ian died at home in Ben Lomond a month shy of his 99th birthday, in the presence of his family, which had come to include his four children, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren together with the eight others who had joined the family through Terry.  Indomitable until the very end, Ian would repeat, often several times, to whoever happened to be around, his favorite Shakespeare quote: "Sweet are the uses of adversity" which had become for him not only a touchstone, but an expression of how he had transformed his life.