Ellen J. Pinter, a retired Legal Aid Bureau paralegal and social and union activist who helped organize steel workers at Sparrows Point, died Saturday of coronary artery disease at the Lutherville home of a daughter. She was 85.
From 1970 until she retired in 1984, Mrs. Pinter, a longtime Highlandtown resident, was a Baltimore Legal Aid Bureau paralegal, assisting clients with unemployment compensation appeals in administrative hearings.
She was a legal secretary for Harold Buchman, a Baltimore attorney, from 1956 to 1969.
An interest in social issues that began in her youth defined her life's work. She was an active member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the American Friends Committee and the Southeast Community Organization, and a co-founder in 1961 of the Baltimore chapter of Parents Without Partners.
Mrs. Pinter also participated in protest marches against the Vietnam War and marched for civil rights and women's rights.
"She was a staunch working-class person who was committed to the struggle and the rights of working people to be represented by unions," said Tim Wheeler of Govans, a writer for People's Weekly World, a New York labor newspaper, and friend of more than 30 years. "She was always interested in progressive causes. She was the salt of the earth and a dear, dear person."
Born Ellen Lund in Warren, Ohio, she was the daughter of Finnish immigrants. Her father, a miner, had early embraced the principles of Marxism and socialism espoused by the Industrial Workers of the World.
In 1922, he moved his family to Sparrows Point when he went to work for Bethlehem Steel Corp.
"Social activism was very much a part of who she was," said a daughter, Frances Lodder of Lutherville. "Her political activism came from her father, and she had a deep commitment to social change and helping improve conditions for the working class."
In 1927, she carried petitions protesting the executions of Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were convicted of killing a paymaster and guard in Massachusetts in 1920. She spent her 16th birthday in the Women's Federal Detention Center in Virginia after being beaten during a demonstration in 1932 protesting the death sentences of the nine Scottsboro Boys, none of which was carried out.
Dropping out of school in the ninth grade to help support her family, she was a chambermaid and a waitress. She completed her education in her 50s, earning her high school diploma and, in 1971, an associate's degree from Baltimore Junior College.
In 1939, she married Frank Pinter, a steel worker and union organizer who became the first secretary of Local 2610 of the United Steelworkers of America.
Mrs. Pinter was secretary to the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the late 1930s, when Sparrows Point steel workers fought to unionize, and was active with her husband in the drive to get the union established there. Her husband died in 1953.
"She was always concerned for the underdog and world peace," said Sirka T. Holm, a childhood friend who shared her passion for helping those in need. "No one could scare her. She believed people deserved decent salaries and social security in their old age. She really was an old-time radical."
Because of her activism, she was branded a communist by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in the 1950s, and her husband was compelled to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951.
"Our children and grandchildren will never be able to understand or experience the role we played in building this great society," she wrote in a 1993 memoir for the Finnish-American Tomes-Eteenpain newspapers. "May there never again be a mantle of suspicion by the likes of McCarthy toward anyone fighting for the just rights of all people."
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday in the parish hall of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter, 130 W. Seminary Ave., Lutherville.
She also is survived by a son, Frank L. Pinter of Catonsville; another daughter, Judith P. Smith of Baltimore; a brother, Veiko Lund of Dundalk; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.