Leon Sachs, peacemaker in race and religion, dies

July 08, 1992|By Albert Sehlstedt Jr. | Albert Sehlstedt Jr.,Contributing Writer

Private services were held Monday for Leon Sachs, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council for 34 years and a leader in the city's decades-long efforts to achieve equality among the races and comity among religious groups.

Mr. Sachs died Sunday of cancer at the nursing center of Roland Park Place, where he lived. He was 85.

Known for his work in the arbitration of labor disputes, Mr. Sachs was repeatedly called upon to settle labor-management arguments for such disparate groups as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the garment industry and tugboat operators -- as well as municipal and state employees at odds with their various bureaucracies.

"If there was one man who was instrumental in bringing together Jews, Catholics and Protestants and working out a program of cooperation among them in the pursuit of civil rights and social justice, it was Leon Sachs," said Rabbi Abraham Shusterman, rabbi emeritus of the Har Sinai Congregation.

Rabbi Shusterman was president of the Baltimore Jewish Council in the early 1970s, which were the latter years of Mr. Sachs' tenure as the organization's executive director.

The council was formed here in 1939 to help combat virulent anti-Semitism, then rife in Nazi Germany and painfully apparent in other parts of the world.

Mr. Sachs, who left the council in 1975 to work full time in labor relations, was born April 16, 1907, one of five sons of Louis Sachs, a South Baltimore wholesale grocer, and his wife, Rose.

Mr. Sachs attended City College and the Johns Hopkins University, where he was elected to the national honor fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa. He received a law degree from the University of Maryland in 1931 and taught law and related subjects at Hopkins until 1941.

"It was a great experience as a student and teacher at Hopkins for 17 years," Mr. Sachs recalled in an interview with The Sun in 1975.

"My biggest thrill was being around when the old guard was there -- people like [Arthur] Lovejoy in philosophy, [Jacob H.] Hollander in economics and [Frederick Jackson] Turner in history. I was the only legalist on the faculty."

Years later, Mr. Sachs became a member of Hopkins' old guard.

Asked years ago about his move from academic life to the Baltimore Jewish Council, he said:

"There's a continuity here. I've always had a passionate interest in the appropriate mechanisms in a democratically organized, civilized society that will resolve disputes peaceably. I've always been interested in the amicable settlement of disputes or reducing tensions that will generate disputes."

Then he added: "What helps more than anything else is a good bourbon" to help disputants see the other side's point of view.

Mr. Sachs' interest in racial equality stemmed in part from the Jim Crow laws that were in effect before the civil rights movement began making significant advances in the 1950s and 1960s.

He recalled riding on the old Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad one day when he was asked to move to the front of the car because the rear seats were reserved for blacks.

This momentary contretemps elicited an instant refusal. Then Mr. Sachs thought better of it and decided to fight discrimination in the courts. That choice was the beginning of a long effort, with like- minded people, to achieve racial equality.

For example, he headed a steering committee, with representatives from the NAACP, the Urban League, the AFL-CIO, the Catholic Interracial Council and the Council of Churches, to fight job discrimination.

"We finally got a fair employment law in 1956," he said.

Mr. Sachs is survived by his wife, Shirley Blum Sachs; his son, Stephen H. Sachs, who was U.S. attorney in Maryland from 1967 to 1970 and attorney general of Maryland from 1979 to 1987; and two grandchildren, Elisabeth A. Sachs and Leon Sachs II.

The family asked that memorial contributions be made to the Leon Sachs Scholars Program, c/o Johns Hopkins University, 157 Merryman Hall, 3400 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md. 21218.

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