Lenora Young died on November 16, 2014. Her death didn’t make news on television or the Internet. She wasn’t well known, but just as social history rescues the lives of the unknown and places them and the famous in the context of their times, her history reflected the importance of immigration and individual rights, and that an individual can try to make a difference.
She was born Lenora Block, Americanized from Bloch, in Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1920, four months before women cast their first presidential vote after the Nineteenth Amendment’s passage. Her parents were immigrants from Minsk, now in Belarus. They were part of the great migration from southern and eastern Europe that reshaped the population and culture of eastern cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then her family became part of another great migration, this time within the U.S., west to California in 1927. They lived in Boyle Heights.
Her father, Peretz Bloch, worked as a carpenter before opening a candy store. Despite or perhaps because of the significant Jewish population in Boyle Heights, he encountered some anti-Semitism. But he worked through it and around it, mainly by being kind to his neighbors and reasoning with his critics. He wanted his daughter to get an education in a time when women’s options were limited. She started college after graduating from Roosevelt High School, and then volunteered for the WAC’s during World War II. She was part of the first contingent of women at the Army Air Corps base in Fairbanks, Alaska, working in the finance department.
After the war, she entered the University of California, Berkeley. Then as now a liberal enclave, it added to her basic beliefs in right and wrong, acquired from her parents and nurtured in their support for Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. She joined the communist party, where she also saw a striking example of right and wrong. The party held a dance and she had no date. A history major friend of hers also planned to go solo, so they went together. Her friend Nat was African American. The next day, her communist friends took her aside and told her that she shouldn’t go out in public with a black man. She resigned from the party. Years later, she was pleased to learn that her friend Nat Huggins had become one of the nation’s most distinguished historians of the African American experience.
She also encountered gender and religious discrimination. In the early 1950s, she went to the law school and discovered that when she turned in group work, her grade was lower than that of the men in the group, and lower than that of non-Jewish students
She met Bruce Young, who shared her political outlook but differed from her in significant ways. The child of Episcopalians, the son of a dentist, he had been a conscientious objector in World War II and worked as a medic. He wanted to get his Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia University but never finished because he questioned his ability to change society for the better in that way. He obtained a teaching credential instead. Similarly combining politics and practicality, Lenora obtained her bachelor’s degree in social welfare and studied both that subject and business in graduate school. The two married in 1953 and he planned on a teaching career. They moved to Van Nuys, in southern California.
In 1962, he obtained a teaching job at Atwater High School near Merced, California, a Central Valley community that depended mainly on agriculture and nearby military installations. They moved to Merced with their son and daughter. She began teaching business classes at the local community college and then at the high school. She joined the League of Women Voters, an organization that was the same age she was, and immersed herself in its efforts to promote openness in government and educate voters. She developed curriculum for the surrounding high schools and for the adult school. She served on the Merced County Regional Adult Vocational Education Council and as a consumer representative for the San Joaquin Health Consortium. The Youngs retained their liberal, even leftist views: they refused to allow their children to attend John Wayne movies because he was so right-wing, and they joined the Unitarian-Universalist Church rather than go to a military base to attend Jewish services.
Lenora Young became president of the LWV chapter in 1971 and led a mission to save the courthouse that Merced County hoped to tear down. The Italianate structure had stood since 1875, and the League’s efforts led to its preservation; it ultimately became the Merced County Courthouse Museum, staffed, as the League is, by volunteers.
Her other League activities led in another direction. “Through the League’s Know Your Town study, I got acquainted with all of the city departments and department heads. We had published a booklet for the schools about the city, what it collects in taxes, where the money goes, what each department does,” she said. With the encouragement of other reform-minded residents, she ran for the Merced City Council. She won, becoming the fourth woman ever to serve on it. Partly because she was a woman in a male-dominated political sphere, partly because she had experience with the League, government officials looked to her for information and met with her clandestinely to pass along whatever problems bothered them, so that she could bring them to the public’s attention at council meetings and through selective leaks to the press. She could work inside the system, but also outside it.
At the end of her term, she remained active in the League and in education, but returned to Berkeley in 1984, after her husband’s death. She managed a real estate office, adjusting to being on her own again and going back full-time to the workplace, while remaining active in local politics. She served on the Berkeley Commission on Aging and, at age 86, was still serving as an Election Day monitor for the League. After moving to Oregon to be closer to her son’s family, including her three grandchildren, in the Portland area, she still participated in League activities despite vision and hearing problems, until Alzheimer’s made that impossible. She died in November at age 94, benefiting from help from the Veterans Administration, which she had earned from her World War II service—part of an aging population whose success with the actuarial tables continue to influence policy and politics.
Young’s story may not be the stuff of which biographies are made, but it is the stuff of which history is made. As a woman and a Jew, she had to deal with prejudice, and overcame it. In an age in which women increasingly asserted themselves outside of the home, she worked and was active in politics, but also was dedicated to raising a family. All of that may make her seem unremarkable, but the life she lived was also truly remarkable.
She made history.