Nationally, Mr. Sandperl was best known for helping Joan Baez found the Institute for Nonviolence. Locally, Mr. Sandperl was best known as a greeter and clerk at Kepler’s Books and Magazines in Menlo Park, where he worked off and on for more than 30 years. He was a very loving, committed and opinionated person who influenced thousands of people through his work in the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War peace movement,’ said Steve Ladd, an Orinda marketing consultant who accompanied Mr. Sandperl to Kent State University after the shootings in 1970, to deliver the message of nonviolence. Mr. Sandperl also delivered the message to Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, David Harris, Daniel Ellsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and most prominently Baez.
His biggest impact was as Joanie’s mentor, politically,’ said Harris, ex-husband of Baez, who first met Mr. Sandperl when he arrived at Stanford University. Some night in some freshman dormitory there would be Ira, giving a talk about disarmament and peace,’ said Harris. ‘For a lot of us, he was our first contact with someone outside of the normal palette of politics in 1963.’
Ira James Sandperl was born March 11, 1923, in St. Louis, where he grew up the son of a prominent surgeon. He came west to attend Stanford University in the 1940s. Mr. Sandperl was ineligible for service in World War II because of a childhood bout with polio, but attempted to join the ambulance corps, said Black. When his application was rejected, he dropped out of Stanford, ‘to pursue my education,’ he liked to say, and drifted down to Mexico. He returned to Palo Alto after the war and had a transforming moment one day as he was walking up University Avenue.
In a bookstore window, he spotted an autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi. Mr. Sandperl had no money on him, but he convinced the clerk that if he was interested in a Gandhi book, he would probably keep his word and come back to pay later. He was fond of saying, ‘Gandhi, that rat, he ruined my life‘ says Ladd. “Ira committed his life to the principles of nonviolence, truth and justice. ” When fellow pacifist Roy Kepler opened a bookstore in 1955, Mr. Sandperl became his chief clerk, making change out of a shoe box, as Kepler’s became a famed centre of the mid-Peninsula counterculture. Columnist Herb Caen assumed that Mr. Sandperl owned Kepler’s, and so did the customers. People thought Ira was Kepler,’ said Clark Kepler, Roy’s son. ‘He was a big draw to the store. Part of the experience was listening to Ira. He was like a guru to young people.’ Mr. Sandperl became a seventh-grade teacher at the Peninsula School in Menlo Park, and taught Sunday school at a Quaker church in Palo Alto. It was here that he met Baez, who was then a student at Palo Alto High School.
They became close and stayed close even as Baez became a national sensation as a folk singer. In the mid-1960s, Baez, Mr. Sandperl and Kepler formed the Institute for Nonviolence, a combination retreat and seminar centre, first located in Carmel Valley and later in Palo Alto. In 1966, Mr. Sandperl and Baez took the concept on the road, to Mississippi, where they marched alongside King.
Mr. Sandperl wrote one book, ‘A Little Kinder,’ published in 1974, with an introduction by Baez and a cover blurb by Chronicle columnist Art Hoppe. But Mr. Sandperl’s main avocation was the collection of books by other people. He had 5,000 of them. He was a real scholar in that sense,’ said Ladd. ‘He was very particular about which translation was best of a Tolstoy book, for example. Mr. Sandperl never owned a car. He got around by bicycle until his late 70s, then took to walking. A collision with a jogger, 10 years ago, resulted in a broken leg, which began his decline. In response, his many admirers formed a pacifist organization called the Friends of Ira Sandperl, (www.irasandperl.org) and arranged for him to move into a one-bedroom apartment a few blocks from Kepler’s. The place was small, but Mr. Sandperl insisted that all 5,000 books move in with him. Board and bricks formed shelves, floor to ceiling, even in the bathroom and kitchen.
Though he no longer worked at Kepler’s, he still made the walk to the bookstore or the cafe next to it, on El Camino Real. ‘He would hold court,’ said Ladd, ‘commentary on world events, suggestions of books to read and Gandhi. Mr. Sandperl was married three times, and is survived by ex-wives Susan Robinson of Paso Robles, and Molly Black, of La Honda. He is also survived by a daughter, Nicole Sandperl of Aptos, and a son, Mark Sandperl of Placerville.
By Sam Whiting