clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Balanoff taught social justice and fought for it

The former Roosevelt University professor advocated for civil rights and environmentalism.

Elizabeth “Betty” Balanoff
Elizabeth “Betty” Balanoff

Lessons can be taught systematically in school or by example in daily life. As a college professor, mother and social activist, Elizabeth “Betty” Balanoff excelled at both methods.

To the legions of students who filled her Roosevelt University classes, Betty Balanoff was the teacher who made history real because she told stories of everyday people. She spent much of her life compiling those stories but also did much more.

For years, she stood and strategized with African Americans, Native Americans and others fighting injustice and environmental harm. She endowed four children with her love of learning and her devotion to civic activism, and all grew into professional occupations.

“My mother always believed that if you didn’t fight for something, you lost already,” said her son Thomas, who is president of Chicago-based Local 1 of the Service Employees International Union.

Ms. Balanoff died May 28 at age 92. She was a proud part of a family that has made the name Balanoff synonymous with progressive activism in the Chicago area, but especially in the Calumet region spanning northwest Indiana, the 10th Ward of Chicago and nearby Illinois suburbs.

Heavy industry defines the landscape. Working-class neighborhoods alongside areas of distressing poverty define its interactions. It can be an uneasy mix and often a hostile area for anyone taking on entrenched power or promoting civil rights to blue-collar white people.

In 1947, the native of Salisbury, Missouri, was fresh to Chicago and volunteered for the 10th Ward aldermanic candidacy of a progressive who lost, but not really. The candidate, James Balanoff Jr., married her. They would spend most of their years living in Gary or next door in Hammond.

Her husband was a steelworker who became president of Local 1010 of the United Steelworkers Union and later was elected to the Hammond City Council. He died in 2000.

Betty Balanoff and John Freels took part in a faculty exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Betty Balanoff and John Freels took part in a faculty exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in June 1976.
Roosevelt University

While the kids were young, the Balanoff household would seldom rest. When America’s preferred self-image was a “Father Knows Best” fable of contentment and conformity, the Balanoffs managed their own lives while working on the problems around them. There were rallies to attend, petitions to gather, congressmen to pester.

A highlight of their civil rights work came in 1968, when Ms. Balanoff helped Richard Hatcher get elected mayor of Gary, the first black mayor of a large U.S. city. The Hatcher campaign would be seen as a prelude to the 1983 political upheaval in Chicago that resulted in Harold Washington’s election.

And how those Balanoffs could bedevil — and sometimes beat — the regular Democrats. Ms. Balanoff’s sister-in-law, the late Miriam Balanoff, got elected to the state House in the days when Illinois had a “bullet” voting system that helped independent candidates. She later became a judge. Her son, Clem Balanoff Jr., also served in the Illinois Legislature and is active in Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

Betty Balanoff lost many battles, but those who knew her remembered that she never lost heart nor patience. They said she was utterly unflappable, and throughout her life had a smile that welcomed strangers and comforted friends.

“Even people who opposed her would say she was the nicest person, but that she never budged in her positions,” Thomas Balanoff said. The union he leads has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.

Ms. Balanoff studied biology at the University of Missouri and came to Chicago for her master’s degree in history at Roosevelt, followed by a doctorate in history at the University of Chicago, where she studied under John Hope Franklin. Her dissertation was about the history of African Americans in Gary. Her research interests included American colonial and Civil War history.

“She was always extremely generous, kind and patient,” said Lynn Weiner, professor of history emerita at Roosevelt. “I kept up with her for many years after her retirement. She never lost her passion for justice.”

Ms. Balanoff started at Roosevelt as a lecturer in 1966 and advanced through the academic ranks until being named professor emeritus in 1993.

Weiner said Ms. Balanoff’s leading legacy to Roosevelt is the most-used resource in its archives, the Labor Oral History Project. Ms. Balanoff assembled it from 1970 to 1985, transcribing and conducting interviews with labor union leaders and rank-and-file members. “She preserved a part of the past that could have been lost otherwise,” Weiner said.

In 1997, Ms. Balanoff received an award for her project from the Working Women’s History Project. Family members said that after her retirement, Roosevelt established a teaching award in her honor.

But “retirement” as in taking it easy wasn’t the plan. Ms. Balanoff co-founded the Committee for a Clean Environment and for almost two decades took on many issues, such as the dredging of a polluted canal that she feared could be mismanaged and compound the region’s exposure to toxic chemicals. In 2007, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency honored her for her advocacy.

She also served on the Hammond Public Library Board.

In recent years, Ms. Balanoff lived in a nursing home in Oak Park, and then at a nursing home on Chicago’s North Side. Her survivors include daughter Katherine Robinson, a retired nurse; sons James Balanoff III, a retired lawyer; and Joseph Balanoff, an accountant; seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

The family plans a private memorial July 6, two days short of what would have been her 93rd birthday.