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By Anh Lê
On Dec. 3, 2006, my son Minh Jeffrey and I had the honor of attending a memorial service for Garwood "Gary" Stephen Eberling, a retired community organizer who advocated for seniors and worked on numerous community issues in San Francisco. The service was held in the intimate setting of the Noe Valley Ministry chapel, with the Rev. Keenan Kelsey officiating.
I first met Mr. Eberling in 2005 at Senior Action Network (SAN), an advocacy organization for seniors in San Francisco. Mr. Eberling diligently attended the monthly SAN meetings held at St. Mary's Cathedral. He also periodically stopped by the SAN office, and we would enjoy good conversations.
In 2005, Mr. Eberling joined a group of SAN seniors to meet with a representative of Mayor Gavin Newsom at City Hall. He urged the mayor and the city of San Francisco to renew and fund the C.H.I.P.P.S. program (Community and Home Injury Prevention Program for Seniors), which provides education on how to prevent injuries in the home and in the community, and helps seniors obtain devices that help prevent falls.
Mr. Eberling also was an active member of the Noe Valley community. He participated in Friends of Noe Valley, often addressing sidewalk safety issues by pointing out "big cracks" in city sidewalks. He was a member and deacon of the Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church. In addition, he established and ran a LifeRing support group (an alternative group to A.A.), which met at the Ministry on Sanchez Street.
Rev. Kelsey shared with Mr. Eberling's family members and friends gathered at the chapel: "Gary's journey was not always easy, but always grounded in hope and optimism. And true to the Christian call to community and to love one another, Gary's hope was not passive wishful thinking, but a hands-on, active, ongoing striving and embracing. He cared about people and about community."
Gary Eberling was born in San Diego, Calif. Rev. Kelsey noted that he gained an early appreciation of extended family. His parents divorced when he was barely 3, and he spent time with his grandmother and a variety of aunts and uncles, and also lived in Illinois for a short time.
Scouting was one of the ways that young Gary kept focused and connected, Rev. Kelsey said. Despite periodic moves, Gary began as a Cub Scout and at 17 achieved the high honor of Eagle Scout. In fact, he proudly attended the Boys Club Jamboree in Laguna Beach in 1993, in order to encourage younger generations to try scouting and Boys Club.
Gary went to Alhambra High School for three years, and graduated from Point Loma High School. At 19, he joined the National Guard, perhaps, said Rev. Kelsey, to avoid draft deployment to Korea. Already, his heart was centered on nonviolence and peace. He trained at Camp Roberts and at Ft. Sill in Oklahoma.
He worked to support himself while attending San Diego State University, selling Carnation Ice Cream and working at the postal service. Upon graduation, he was accepted for graduate studies in social work at Atlanta College, a predominantly black college in Georgia, and set off cross-country in a rickety old Studebaker. "One can only speculate what drew Gary to Atlanta College," Rev. Kelsey said, "but it certainly honed and shaped his already apparent sensitivity to the well-being of others and his growing passion for justice and equality. Early in his college career, he went up to Philadelphia to participate in the rent strikes there. Predictably he was active in the civil rights movement--and proudly wore his peace medallion for years and years to follow."
With his graduate studies almost complete, Gary came to the San Francisco area and joined the county social services department. He worked with AIDS families with dependent children, and as luck would have it, met a coworker, Patricia Greenacre, whom he married in 1966.
After a field placement in Cincinnati, Ohio, Gary began working for the Office of Economic Opportunity. While his wife was attending San Francisco State University, both he and his wife became involved with racial protests, strikes, and picket actions on the campus, fully experiencing the unrest of the S.I. Hiyakawa days. They hosted strategy meetings in their apartment, met Angela Davis, and attended some Black Panther meetings where, according to Rev. Kelsey, Gary strived to get the different groups who were in the room to understand each other's point of view.
His career at the Department of Social Services focused on the goals of the "War on Poverty." As a community organizer, he went to work in the Bayview Hunters Point District, a predominantly African-American community.
"Gary Eberling never stopped being angry at injustice everywhere, whether racial inequities or worker exploitation," Rev. Kelsey said. "He worked on issues affecting seniors, such as elder abuse. He was always politically involved, from campaigning for Supervisor Tom Ammiano, to working with Senior Action Network (SAN), to union work while he was employed." He also was concerned about environmental issues, and initiated a campaign at the Noe Valley Ministry to make it a more energy-efficient church.
During the 1970s, Mr. Eberling was a member and warden at St. John's Evangelist Episcopalian Church, and later he joined the Noe Valley Ministry. Rev. Kelsey said she remembered his two talks at the Ministry, "one sharing his faith life, another talking about the amazing epiphanies or coincidences that led his life.... I remember Gary's love of Pat and his sons, his eagerness to work on behalf of the community, his friendship and loyalty, and his faith and action."
At the memorial service, Mr. Eberling's sons Brent and Neil spoke not only of their father's involvement in the community, but also of his strength and guidance in raising his family, and of their parents' marriage. The family shared many ball games, camping trips to Yosemite and the Gold Country, and weekend jaunts to nature settings and Lake Merritt. His sons remembered that he liked to wear vivid colored T-shirts, most of them emblazoned with a social or political message.
Other family members who attended the memorial were Gary's brother Lanny Eberling and Lanny's wife Lura, his cousin Barbara Marlow and her husband Scotty, his nephew Dale Gimlin, his mother-in-law Harriet Greenacre, and nieces and nephews.
My son Minh Jeffrey had the opportunity to meet Mr. Eberling on several occasions, and he fondly remembers his big smile, ruddy complexion, and gentle demeanor.
I will cherish the memory of Mr. Eberling, a soft-speaking, gentle soul, caring and committed, optimistic and hopeful, possessing a contagious sense of humor, and striving and working hard to help his fellow human beings.
Before we all sang the hymn "Amazing Grace," Rev. Kelsey shared with us the words of Dorothy Day, who "expressed the same fire that burned for justice, love, peace, and human kindness that we knew in Gary":
"We have all known the long loneliness, and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. There is plenty to do, for each one of us, working on our own hearts, changing our own attitudes, in our own neighborhoods."
Anh Lê serves as the director of Senior University, at Senior Action Network (SAN) in San Francisco.