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// -- Anarchist Encyclopedia: Dick Ellington, (1930-1991)

Dick Ellington, (1930-1991)

[Editor's note:

Dick Ellington's name came up awhile back, & I recall meeting him briefly in the early-mid70s in the Oakland/East Bay area.

As I recalled he was an anarchist, Wobbly, printer & typographer, & perhaps involved also in the Peace & Freedom Party. He appears to have co-published, with Boris Yelensky, Maximoff's "My Social Credo", among other things, in the 1970s. In August of 2000 I sent an email appeal for any reminisences, photos, & particularly dates or events, along with any background information.

The following are responses received, including the obituary which appeared in the Industrial Worker in July of 1991.]

On August 28, 2000, BK wrote:

I wish my anecdotal memory was any good. Dick helped me and the other Malcom Tents on several projects. And, his anecdotal memory was excellent. He told of moving presses to new facilities in New York due to evictions or harassment and humorous discussions [arguments?] with Pete Seeger.

The fact that he was able to cheerfully [gleefully if it was a particularly impish project] typeset with hands completely crippled by rheumatoid arthritis was a source of amazement to me.

He also liked to play blackjack. An accomplished card counter who could make money at the tables but not greedily.

But the details on all this, unfortunately, escape me.

From Robby Barnes, Sept. 23, 2000:

Here are some things I remember about Dick Ellington:

Sylvie and I met Dick and his companion Pat in Oakland during the early 1970s. They were both very outgoing and friendly, and not at all cliquish.

He helped us with some typesetting and printing projects we did during the 1970s in New York.

Dick told us he was born and grew up in Seattle.

He lived in New York during the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1959, he worked with Dave Van Ronk to write and self-publish THE BOSS'S SONGBOOK, the subtitle of which was Songs To Stifle the flames of discontent. It was supposed to be a humorous collection, consciously modeled on the IWW Little Red Songbook.

Dick had a Multilith 1250 and did some movement printing in New York City during the 1950s, including VIEWS AND COMMENTS, which was published by the Libertarian League. It was either a weekly or biweekly paper edited by Sam Dolgoff and Russell Blackwell.

In Oakland in the mid to late 1970s Dick did freelance typesetting on his stand-alone IBM Composer in his home. The name of his enterprise was Roll Yur Own Typesetting. (I didn't make a mistake in spelling) He did a lot of typesetting free for various movement organizations and individuals, in the Bay area and throughout the country. He persisted in this, even as his arthritis grew progressively worse, and he had some joint replacements in his hands.

On Sept. 24, 2000, Jon Bekken wrote:

Dick Ellington is discussed in Sam Dolgoff's memoir, Fragments. Dick worked with Sam for many years in the Libertarian League before relocating to San Francisco Bay area. There is much Ellington correspondence in the IWW papers at Wayne State University (Dick was typesetter and despite severe arthritis in final years contributed his typesetting skills to several IWW and anarchist publications).

In December 2000 David Jacobs contacted me & kindly provided a copy of the obituary he wrote for the IWW's Industrial Worker:


A simple introduction — I knew Dick Ellington only during the last few years of his life, but that being said, I believe that I came to know him, and his life, well.

During the course of a handful of intense conversations, Dick spun out the tale of his lifelong commitment to the cause of revolutionary anarchism, a cause which drew him to the IWW in the mid-1950s.

I claim no expertise on the specifics of Dick’s involvement with the Wobblies, but thanks to the help of his wife, Pat (who herself was the first woman chair of the IWW’s General Executive Board), and to the recordings that my friends and I made of Dick’s reminiscences, I hope that I can get at least some of the facts straight and try to give some idea of the compass of this man’s, this rebel’s, life.

"Nil desperandum" (Do not despair")

— Latin Proverb

To speak of Dick Ellington is, first of all, to speak of how he spoke, his manner of speaking, his way of being in the world through his words. Dick was a man who, even as he was consumed by illness, transcended the limitations of his body (and before lung cancer, he suffered from emphysema and debilitating arthritis) with the power of his mind as expressed through his words. And what words! In an age in which language is degraded on a daily basis by commerce and politics, Dick spoke an idiosyncratic (and idiomatic) English all his own, the kind that most younger American radicals would kill for. To Dick, however, it came naturally: his language reflected a life spent in rebellion, in a search for at least an approximation of the truth, and it reflected his own love of words themselves. He delighted my friends and me by his use of certain long-forgotten (at least to us) phrases drawn from American radicalism. One such expression, "A Jimmy Higgins," mystified us until Dick explained that it came from some distant marxist source and referred to that indispensable person (with a perfectly anonymous name such as "Jimmy Higgins" [*see editor's note below] ) in any group or organization who kept the whole thing going by doing the unglamorous, day-to-day work of running an office, sending out the mail, checking the p.o. box, etc.

Dick’s conversation was replete with such gems of vernacular language, but it was rich also for its iconoclasm: Richard Ellington, at least as far as I know, had no respect for the idols of any ideological camp. He took a particular pleasure in his own contempt for cant and dogma, making us laugh with his anecdotes about how he and his friends used to purposely violate the decorum and conventions of leftist gatherings by the use of a few choice —and outrageous—remarks. His own speech, though it could be as elegant as any, was liberally dosed with the richest of obscenities and punctuated with a forceful body language. When Dick wanted to make a point, he ended his particular remark with a kind of flourish of his right hand, as if he were driving a knife home. And it is well known that Dick had a passion for knives, fighting knives—he had a collection of several hundred.

The bare bones of Dick’s life have been covered (by a dubious source, Stephen Schwartz) in the San Francisco Chronicle (see the obituary page for June 7, 1991), but such bones barely do justice to the man. As Dick recounted his life, he came to a radical point of view by unorthodox means: military service and an intense interest in science fiction literature.

It might be worthwhile to reflect on the experiences which radicalized a former chairman of the Executive Board of the IWW. Although he was born in Seattle (in 1930), Dick did not come to the anarchist movement through some mythical encounter with a hobo on Skid Row, nor did he grow up in a household which preserved a memory of the Seattle General Strike. As a 17 year old with few pros- pects (his middle class Catholic family having been reduced to poverty by the death of his father) but with a high I.Q., Dick was recruited by the Army; little did the Army know what it would discharge when it let loose a changed Richard Ellington.

The Army’s discharge pay and his own inclinations led Dick to trade Seattle (nothing but fucking water sports") for the somewhat more cosmopolitan horizons of New York, a city which would trans- form Dick into that most dangerous of creatures, a rebel with a cause. Dick’s love of science fiction (a lifelong love, one which he devoted much passion and thought to, giving my friends and me another bon mot, "publish your ish," meaning "publish the issue of your fan- zine") motivated him to join an informal club of offbeat types into the same scene, a scene that bordered on an even more radical kind of alternative reality, that of revolutionary anarchism. Through the sci-fi crowd, Dick met the "legends" and they were always real people, with real faults and limitations, to Dick) of the New York anarchist milieu: Sam and Esther Dolgoff, Russell Blackwell, Boris Yelensky, Bob Calese. It was also the place where he met his companion, collaborator and wife, Pat.

As he reminisced about this period of his life, Dick exhibited an almost senti- mental fondness for his participation in the Libertarian league, a group which in the 1950s (a grim time, to say the least, for anyone daring to be a "libertarian," when libertarian still meant "anarchist," "anti-authoritarian revolutionary," sworn enemy of Stalinists, fascists, cops) kept a certain black flag flying when all seemed dark. Dick lovingly described the personalities, conflicts, adventures of an unusual, international (and internationalist) group of people who tried to shed a little light on questions that were proscribed during the deadly "peace" known as the Cold War—questions such as the nature of social revolution, free association, freedom itself. Trifling matters to be sure— issues that were virtually excluded by the dominant ideologies of Cold War liberalism and Stalinism.

Through the Libertarian League—and Dick movingly described what he felt when he finally met people who "had the same fucking ideas I did politically, but they had a fucking political theory about it... and a history!"—Dick met up with History itself, in the sense that he came into direct contact with Spanish anarchists, with Americans who had fought in Spain on the anarchist side, with people who had known Kropotkin and Nestor Makhno, with the friends of Carlo Tresca and Emma Goldman. His and Pat’s interest in the ideas behind this history would lead them into contact with the English anarchists around Freedom Press; history would also give them the name they chose for their daughter, Marie Louise, named for the anarchist Marie-Louise Berneri, who is unjustly known today more for being the daughter of Camillo Berneri (the legendary Italian anarchist who died during the Spanish Revolution [probably murdered by Communists—typesetter]) than as the thinker and activist she was in her own right.

If the recent Gulf War has done anything, it should give pause to those that think they are revolutionaries. Unlike Vietnam, no one can comfort himself or herself with tales of how they "stopped" the war; those who do comfort themselves with the stale platitudes of the left do so at their own peril. It is clear that a new epoch of warfare (remote controlled and "legitimized" by mass support) and of social warfare (authority holds almost all the cards) has opened up before our stunned eyes. In a different, but equally dark, time, Richard Ellington and others found the courage to persevere, to keep on, to transmit something to others of another way of life, another way of thinking. And life was very much what Dick Ellington was about: Even as he faced a certain death, Dick chose life, chose to deny death any victory other than that which everyone must cede some day. My friends and I never heard one word of remorse or self-pity. To the end, there was the inimitable black humor of Dick Ellington, who could even make jokes about how many friends he met every time he was hospitalized (the friends were other patients facing their own ordeals) [...]**

In all his years as a Wob (and he joined up in the mid ‘50s, serving a number of times on the Executive Board), Dick never thought that he was continuing some lost cause. He always hoped that others would take up the challenge that confronted him in his youth: How to respond to the world in a radical way, a real way. Dick’s life offers one such answer; there are undoubtedly many other ways to respond (and Dick was as non-exclusive as they come on the "anti-authoritarian" left, preferring a sense of the "movement" to any particular label). Dick didn’t tolerate bullshit from others; he wouldn’t have wanted any funereal incense to enshroud his name. The old s.o.b. died on Memorial Day weekend. Anyone for a barbecue in his "honor" next year?

— David Jacobs

*[ed. note: Robby Barnes notes that "Jimmy Higgins is a character in James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan Trilogy of the 1930s, which was read and appreciated by anarchists as well as other activists of the time."]

**[An appeal for funds to cover medical bills & reference to a hoped-for archive with now defunct addresses have been excised -- ed. ]

Page created 11/23/2001

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