OUR FRIEND AND ALLY, DON SHAFFER: When I first came to The Nation in 1978, the last guy I thought I’d be interested in meeting was our Aetna life insurance representative, whose name was Don Shaffer. Then I met his wife, Doris, who had volunteered to help put together a dinner in honor of longtime Nation editor Carey McWilliams. She was a dynamo and a pleasure to work with: dedicated, efficient and committed to The Nation. I decided if she could put up with this Shaffer guy, he must be something more than my condescending image of an insurance salesman.
But even before I met him, I discovered that Don was involved with a slew of organizations that were at the cutting edge of peace, civil rights and civil liberties issues. They included various groups in and around Great Neck, New York, as well as the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee and the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, for which he served as treasurer. His circle of friends included such citizens of social conscience as Norman Eisner and Herb Kurz, who were generous in their support not only of The Nation, but of various beyond-the-mainstream progressive causes.
The next thing I knew, Don quit as The Nation’s insurance guy and, at age whatever-he-was, enrolled in NYU’s Law School, where he earned his JD in 1991. From there, he landed a full-time pro bono job with the New York Civil Liberties Union, at a time when it was taking more radical stances than the national ACLU.
Don’t trust me on his personal qualities—for that, ask his three sons or seven grandchildren, most of whom were there to celebrate the much-deserved award bestowed on him last year by The Nation Institute at its annual gala in December. When I had the honor of introducing him that night, I said: “It would be hard to call him modest, because he asserts himself on behalf of the best and most critical causes time and again without stint.” But the fact is that he was notable for never letting ego interfere with mission.
Don was indefatigable. Anyone who cared about the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and Jesse Jackson would have run into him, as he combined financial support with political activism. His generosity extended to fellowships in the name of his late wife, in support of Nation Institute fellows like Jonathan Schell, Katha Pollitt and, most recently, Eric Alterman.
On a personal note, it never occurred to me and my wife, Annie, when we ended up as part of a community in the Berkshires, that the most politically interesting and inspiring summer events would have been founded and organized, again in Doris’s name, by Don Shaffer. The most recent of these public occasions featured and gave a valuable campaign boost to Elizabeth Warren, the already invaluable junior senator from Massachusetts.