My dear friend and teacher Gene Hoffman passed away this week. This was not unexpected, or even sad news, since she has been in the final stages of Altzheimer's and unable to speak or to recognize people for a long time. Nonetheless, I will miss her. I used to visit her at the Atzheimer's facility and her bright blue eyes were always radiant when she saw me, and I loved spending time with her, holding her hands and gazing into her luminous face and feeling her loving presence. She will always have a place in my heart.
Her son asked me to write an obituary for Gene, so I am including a draft here. It was drawn from the book of her writings called Compassionate Listening, which I edited.
Elinor Gene Knudsen Hoffman—Quaker peace activist, pastoral counselor, workshop facilitator, poet, columnist, author, actress, and mother of six children—was born in Los Angeles, California, on January 3, 1919 to Valley and Thorkild (“Tom”) Knudsen, who emigrated from Denmark in 1909 to found a successful diary business. On July 21, 2010, Gene passed away peacefully at an Alzheimer’s facility in Santa Barbara, California, where she had resided for six years.
Encouraged in the arts at an early age, Gene studied acting in New York and at the Pasadena Playhouse. She performed on the radio as well as on stage, and her acting career continued through the 1960s.
In 1942, Gene married Raymond Chamberlin Boshco, and bore him two children, Nikolas (1944) and Valley (1945). In 1948 she divorced Boshco in order to marry Hallock Hoffman, the son of a prominent businessman and Republican political leader, Paul Hoffman. Hallock resigned his commission as captain in the Air Force and became the associate regional director of the American Friends Service Committee. Much to the chagrin of their conservative parents, Hallock and Gene both became ardent liberals and pacifists.
Soon after the birth of their son Erik Thorkild (1950), Gene and Hallock discovered Orange Grove Quaker Meeting in Pasadena. When she and her husband were accepted into membership the following year, Gene remembers “dancing down the street, feeling exultant that I had joined so great a company of seekers, people of God. I felt that together Hallock and I would perform miracles.”
In the 1950s, she began writing a newspaper column and became involved in peace and social justice work. When she wrote a column favoring the United Nations, she was “fired” from the columnist job that her father had secured for her. Taking a strong stand on civil rights, Gene insisted that her children attend an integrated school in Pasadena—something that was not common for families of her background in the 1950s.When she published an article on her family’s experiences with integration, she was invited to become the first white columnist for the African-American newspaper, the Amsterdam News. Gene also took a controversial stand against the loyalty oath. In 1954, she became involved with a lawsuit against the city of Pasadena because it used a form requiring property owners to swear a “non-disloyalty oath.” Partly because of her family connections, her case attracted media attention, and Gene received hate mail from anti-communists.
During this period she also bore three more children: Kristian Robert, Nina Kiriki and Kaj Lathrop.
In the 1960s, Gene’s marriage to Hallock came to a tumultuous end and Gene had a nervous breakdown. Signing herself voluntarily into a mental hospital, she emerged with new insights that enabled her to become a pastoral counselor. She wrote a book about her experiences called Inside the Glass Doors.
During the 1970s, when her children were full-grown, Gene decided to devote herself full-time to peace activism. She traveled around the world to study the peace movement and spent a year as a student at Pendle Hill, a Quaker adult study center near Philadelphia.
An active Quaker and member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) for over fifty years, she traveled dozens of times to the Middle East and the former Soviet Union during the 1980s and 1990s to do reconciliation work. In 1989, after American planes downed two Libyan planes, she went to Libya with an FOR delegation to meet with Libyan leaders. She has met with and listened to Palestinians and Israelis, and published articles, books, and pamphlets about her experiences, including Pieces of the Mideast Puzzle (1991) and No Royal Road to Reconciliation (1995). When Alaskan hunters and fishers and indigenous people came into conflict over hunting and fishing rights, Gene helped to arrange Compassionate Listening sessions through the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). She has published over one hundred articles as well as books, poems and pamphlets and given innumerable workshops and talks about peacemaking. Her work has inspired numerous others, including Cynthia Monroe, AFSC staff person in Alaska, and Leah Green, founder of Mideast Citizen Diplomacy’s Compassionate Listening Project. Gene has been rightly called a “pioneer” in the Compassionate Listening movement, and has worked with such other notables as Adam Curle, Herb Walters, Virginia Baron, and Richard Deats.
In 2003, her writings were collected into a book called Compassionate Listening: the Writings of Gene Hoffman, Quaker Peace Activist and Mystic.
Gene summed up her approach to peacemaking as follows: ““The call, as I see it, is for us to see that within all life is the mystery: God. It is within the Contra [opponent of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua], the Nazi, the Africaaner, the Israeli, [the Palestinian], and the American. By compassionate listening we may awaken it and thus learn the partial truth the other is carrying, for another aspect of being human is that we each carry some portion of the truth. To reconcile, we must listen for, discern, and acknowledge this partial truth in everyone.” Dennis Rivers, a communication skills instructor from Santa Barbara, observed that Gene’s “calling was to carry pastoral counseling out of the pastor’s study into public life. What has energized her work over the years is the Quaker teaching that ‘there is that of God in every person.’” Judith Kolokoff, former AFSC regional director in the Pacific Northwest, said of Gene: “She is a real prophet. And she’s a remarkable facilitator. She has the capacity to bring out the very best of the truth in each individual.”