Claire Ebel’s passion for justice knew no ideological division

  • Claire Ebel is pictured following her retirement in January 2013 after serving 30 years as executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union. Monitor file

  • Claire Ebel with grandson Quinlan and daughter, Malia Ebel. —Courtesy

  • Claire Ebel with her grandson, Quinlan. Courtesy

Monitor columnst
Published: 4/29/2022 5:41:32 PM
Modified: 4/29/2022 5:40:04 PM

Claire Ebel, who died from dementia earlier this month at the age of 79, was full of surprises.

More than 30 years ago, she supported a cop who said he’d been fired because of his affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan. Another time, the former executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union – now the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire – rallied against a bill that sought to introduce harsher penalties for hate crimes.

Ebel leaned hard left, valuing many progressive ideas and causes. Keeping LGBTQ students from going to their proms never sat well with her.

Yet her passion for fair play, justice and consistency – three credos that were stamped on her heart – overrode her feelings on the KKK and the addition of harsher penalties for hate crimes or targeting victims based on social or racial demographics.

That’s how she’ll be remembered. By most.

“She once told me, ‘When I die, (the NHCLU) is going to use me as a fundraiser and just lay out my body,’ ” said Malia Ebel of Sunapee, Claire’s lone daughter. “Everyone knows her as the former director, but that was just one chapter in her life. Most people think of her as just that person.”

Malia, the librarian at Colby-Sawyer College, knew only so much. She was crystal clear on some background. Important background. But other aspects of her mother’s life were more private, like the key role Claire played during the presidential campaigns of Democrats Robert Kennedy in 1968 and George McGovern in ‘72. Or even the cancer she was fighting, news that surfaced after she’d already had surgery.

So many surprises, in fact, from a stoic New Englander who was born in Melrose, Mass., worked as a corporate lawyer in Boston, and kept a lot of things close to her vest. She was petite, yet outspoken.

“She was tough,” Malia said, “and she expected her kids to be tough, and sometimes that was hard.”

She led the NHCLU for 31 years, retiring in 2013. Before she left, Claire made sure her organization remained independent from the bureaucratic and red-tape obstacles she anticipated from the national headquarters. She never spoke about it much.

“Although she was the smartest person in the room, she did not come across that way,” said family friend Jean Boulter of Bow. “She never much discussed what she was doing at work and what was happening in the world. She was private.”

According to Malia, her mother sang like a bird and performed with a local folk group. She listened to hippie music during the 1960s and loved to sing along with whatever was on the car radio. And she once backed up John Denver in Hawaii, before he was John Denver.

She loved dogs more than most, earned a Master’s degree in economics and would be ecstatic these days with the play of the Boston Celtics, one of the favorites to win the NBA title.

She loved Larry Bird and his down-home, unpretentious ways, loved the “ugly sweater guy, not a tailored-suit guy.”

“When there were playoff games and she had to be somewhere, she would bring one of those little portable TVs,” Malia continued. “One time I had a class trip to the beach and she brought her little TV because the Celtics were on.”

Her pet peeve? Whining, which made her mad. She thought Ted Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas, whined a lot, and she never hid the fact that she did not like him.

Her political roles in a pair of presidential campaigns were invaluable, yet Malia and her brother, Brian, never really knew the details. Her ex-husband, Robert, who lives in Washington, D.C., accompanied her on both trips and kept a journal.

He wrote that Claire’s role in Kennedy’s campaign was vital. She worked at his headquarters in Indiana and was the only staffer not to give Kennedy a glowing report about his chances in that state’s primary.

“She was an outlier,” Robert Ebel wrote in his journal 54 years ago. Claire told Bobby Kennedy “that winning was far, far from a sure thing.”

“She did it all,” Robert continued, “from fundraising and opening and managing a headquarters in downtown Lafayette (Indiana) to organizing door-to-door-to-door canvassing of the entire county.”

Kennedy’s assassination two months later, in June of ‘68, had a profound impact on Claire. “She was really devastated by his death,” Malia said. “She thought he was America’s last chance to be equal and fair.”

Of course, Claire never mentioned the inner workings of the campaign to anyone. She never let on how important her job was. At least not right away.

“I was really surprised about her work on the Kennedy campaign,” Malia said.

Years later, Claire took the reins of the NHCLU and began building her reputation.

“There are not many non-lawyers who understand the legal system and constitution as well as Claire did,” said former Executive Council member Andru Volinsky, now a professor at Franklin Pierce University. “She did the Legislative work almost by herself.”

Added Devon Chaffee, the current director of the NHCLU, “For more than 30 years, Claire Ebel fearlessly and passionately defended the civil liberties of every Granite Stater — something we are immensely thankful for each day.”

In later years, Claire mentioned her fear of dementia. She had seen her mother destroyed by it, and told her children that if she began showing signs, take her out back and shoot her.

Those signs began about four years ago. Claire hated going to doctors, but had no choice this time. Asked to name some animals, as many as she could, during testing, Claire answered birds and dogs and “many others.”

“She was still trying to cover it up,” Malia said.

Eventually, Claire forgot names, failed to recognize friends and family, and grew angry at her son, Brian, who moved here from California two years ago to help care for her. She died on April 8. She got her wish, dying at home with loved ones by her side.

There was also the breast cancer episode back in 2004, perhaps the best example of Claire’s tendency to keep things to herself.

Ten weeks after her diagnosis, she had surgery and still nobody knew. This was a shocker that no one saw coming.

Two weeks later was Thanksgiving. Claire needed help opening a window. That seemed odd to Malia.

“What’s wrong?” Malia said she asked her mother.

Told that Claire had cancer and had already undergone surgery, Malia responded, “Did you plan to ever tell me?”“Not if I’d been able to open that window,” said Claire.

“And she'd prepared a Thanksgiving turkey that morning, before I'd gotten there,” Malia said this week. “It was as if nothing was  wrong.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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