Remembering Manny Margolis

Emanuel “Manny” Margolis died early this morning.  He was 85, and had lived in Westport for 46 years.

Manny Margolis

An attorney with a lifelong devotion to civil liberties and civil rights, he brought a draft refusal case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — and won.

As a member of Westport’s Planning and Zoning Commission, Manny was a strong advocate for low and moderate housing regulations.

He and Estelle — his wife of 52 years — spent years at peace vigils in Westport.  They began during the Vietnam War.  For the past 6 years they’ve stood on the Post Road bridge, protesting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Besides his wife, Manny is survived by 5 children and 10 grandchildren.

Services will be held this Friday (August 19, 10:30 a.m.) at the Abraham L. Green Funeral Home in Fairfield.  Shiva will be at 72 Myrtle Ave., Westport, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., Friday through Sunday.  A memorial service will be held later.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Connecticut ACLU:  2074 Park St., Hartford, CT 06106.


I would like to write some nice words about a great man.  But Manny’s grandson Jonah did a far better job, a few months ago.  Last December, “06880” ran this tribute from the 17-year-old to his grandfather.  I introduced the story this way:

It’s a standard school assignment:  Interview someone, then write about it.  The idea is to develop interviewing skills, learn history from someone who lived it — and then connect what you learned with the world.

I can’t imagine anyone carrying out that assignment better than Jonah Newman.  The 17-year-old son of Staples graduate Abby Margolis was asked — by his American Protest Literature teacher in California — to find people who had been politically active.

He did not have to look far.  His grandparents — longtime Westporters Estelle and Manny Margolis — define the term.

Here’s part of what Jonah wrote:

As far back as I can remember, Emanuel and Estelle Margolis — my maternal grandparents — have been a part of my life.  Every year my parents, my brothers and I join the rest of the Margolis clan at my grandparents’ home in Westport, Connecticut to celebrate Passover.

The house occupies a special place in my heart — like its own timeless world it remains the same every year, as comfortingly consistent as the presence of the two people who have lived there for five decades.  Perhaps it is because I have known my grandparents for my whole life that until recently, I had rarely thought about their rich backgrounds as political activists.  I discovered that my grandparents, who participated in many of the key social and political movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, are the very definition of living history.

Emanuel Margolis and Estelle Thompson (“Papa” and “Buba” respectively) were both born in New York City in 1926.  Papa, whose father and stepfather were both rabbis, came from a conservative Jewish family.  He was highly academic, and attended University of North Carolina, Harvard graduate school and Yale Law School.

Manny Margolis always appreciated his military service.

When he was only 18 years old, Papa fought in Germany during World War II. He was wounded in the knee at the Battle of the Bulge.  He returned to college after the war thanks the G.I. Bill, and it was at UNC that he began his career as a political activist.

Papa’s experiences in Germany changed his perspective about the world and catalyzed his transformation into a political activist upon his return to the United States. Because of his religious Jewish background, he had never thought about becoming an activist; he had been assured God would make the world better.

“World War II dispelled myths about my life,” he says. “Previously, there had been no reason for me to be involved in political activity because I believed in the power of God to solve the problems of the world.” His view of life was shattered by the reality of war.

He remembers seeing a Reader’s Digest article that said “there are no atheists in foxholes,” and calling it nonsense.  The war had “changed [him] from a religious believer to an atheist.”

With the dissolution of his belief in God came a “great yearning for activism and political activity.” “I now believed,” Papa says, “that the world needed changing, and we could change the world.”

Returning to UNC after the war, Papa found a much greater social awareness at the school.  He began writing for the school newspaper about current issues, and joined several activist organizations on campus.  At one point, Papa and other veterans used the organizational skills they developed in the military to protect a group of desegregationist bus riders from a mob armed with baseball bats and 2-by-4s.

Becoming an attorney after college in many ways inhibited his activism, since the profession demands exclusive and objective devotion to the law. However, Papa notes, “a lawyer can play a very important part in helping ensure the protection of rights.”

Throughout his life, Manny Margolis' opinions were sought after, and respected.

He continued fighting for his political beliefs, specifically human rights.  He repeatedly argued in support of Constitutional principles, in particular the First Amendment.

He even defended the Ku Klux Klan’s right to march publicly, contending that it was expression of free speech. After the U.S. became involved in the Vietnam War, Papa helped young people who had been arrested while protesting the war argue their cases in court, again invoking the First Amendment.

From his marriage to Buba in 1959 until the present day, Papa has persisted in his political activism.  He is a regular columnist for the Connecticut Law Tribune, often writing about political or human rights issues. He has been a dedicated participant in anti-war protests, from Vietnam until Iraq and Afghanistan, with his wife and family.

He believes that the reason so many people support war is because they do not understand it. Having fought in a war himself, Papa firmly believes that “war is a monstrosity” that wreaks emotional damage on all involved, including those on the home front. About the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Papa asserts that “even the GI’s do not know their mission…they haven’t the foggiest idea about what they’re trying to accomplish…We’re spending trillions on wars that have no foreseeable ends.”  Though he is 84 years old, Papa’s continued activism supports the principle that humans can indeed “change the world.”

Papa and Buba fervently believe America and the world are fundamentally good.  We just need to fight to keep them that way.

5 responses to “Remembering Manny Margolis

  1. one of the greats. a true giant. much love to the family. tommy

  2. I am remembering an incredible day…near my 13th birthday for which, as a close friend of his son Josh, he and I were treated by Mr. Margolis to a Saturday afternoon of college basketball at Madison Square Garden….the great Phil Ford and his UNC Tar Heels (Manny’s alma mater) up against, I believe St. Johns. On that cold February day, from my child’s eye I had never held a man (not Phil Ford, I should clarify, but Manny Margolis) in higher esteem. It is certainly evident to me now, as I’m sure it was then, that I am not alone in my adoration for this man….the dignity, strength and conviction with which he lived his life. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, old friends, and wonderful days in the beautiful house with the basketball rim off the red barn garage in the back.

  3. Unfortunately in 1968 I was young and immature. I did not understand the principles that stood behind what Atty Margolis defended in court. I do now. Clearly he was a true humanitarian and a great civil libertarian and on top of it all, a genuinely fine man.

  4. Dear Estelle…..I just learnied of Manny’s death….and I was so sorry to hear about it. As you know, Manny was my very first boyfriend….way way back…when I was 14 years old in Far Rockaway New York. I send my deepest comdolences to you and the family.
    Much love
    Bobbe Weinreich Evans

  5. We know we speak for all of the Thorkelsons in expressing our deepest love and gratitude for Manny and his gifts to the world, and sending tenderest love and sympathy to Veech, Libby and all the rest of you for your loss. The world is a poorer place and a little less honest without Manny in it.
    Annie &Nick