Having spent a career teaching peacemaking, opposing war, and raising money for social justice causes, Steven Brion-Meisels decided to set aside the words many use when they face a serious illness.
“The traditional language about cancer is full of battle metaphors — and more importantly, battle emotions and responses,” he wrote in a November 2012 e-mail to update friends about his health. “As I reflect on the power of peacemaking, on my Buddhist reading, and on my own need to place this experience in a positive frame, I will continue to work to leave behind that language.”
Working with students and pupils from college age to kindergarten, he taught for nearly four decades at places including the Cambridge Public School District and a humanistic Judaic Sunday school, Lesley University, and the Judge Baker Children’s Center. Always participating as a fund-raiser, he ran the Boston Marathon 29 times, stopping along the route to kiss his wife and daughters.
“He saw himself as a teacher and an activist, and he lived that way,” said his wife, Linda Brion-Meisels, a longtime psychology and education professor at Lesley. “He was very intentional about how he wanted to live and how he wanted to die.”
Mr. Brion-Meisels, who incorporated inspiring quotes from writers he admired into bookmarks he gave to friends as gifts of gratitude, died of kidney cancer March 9 in his Cambridge home. He was 64 and the day before had taken part in the naming ceremony for his second grandchild.
Nearly always clad in a tweed jacket purchased from Goodwill, and sporting a button with a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Brion-Meisels had the understated presence of a piano chord that resonates softly after other instruments fall silent.
“He had a stance of learning,” said his daughter Gretchen of Somerville. “He didn’t take up a lot of space in the room, but instead made more space for others in the room to come out.”
Asking question after question, he drew out everyone in his presence, leaving a lasting impression more by listening than by speaking.
“He treated all people as if their knowledge was deserving of being heard,” said his daughter Sophia of Cambridge, “whether they were 9 or 40, whether they were coming out of juvenile justice or a professor of Harvard.”
From his upbringing, Mr. Brion-Meisels learned to value humility. He finished a doctorate but preferred to go by his first name, rather than a title, and resources were never to be squandered.
A running joke was that he was “going to earn his place in the museum of self-sacrifice,” Gretchen said. “He was a vegetarian, but if someone was going to throw away meat, he would eat the meat, rather than waste it.”
Sophia, a clinical social worker at Trinity Boston Counseling Center, added that “from a very young age, I learned from him that you have to chase your own dreams, but you also have a responsibility to pay your debt for being on the earth. There’s sort of a rent to be paid, and that payment needs to be what you’re going to do to help the next generation of human beings.”
The oldest of four children, Mr. Brion-Meisels was born on Long Island, N.Y., in Amityville and grew up in nearby Lindenhurst. His father, John Brion, worked in public relations and served on the public schools board. His mother, the former Freide Kuehnel, was a secretary in a Lutheran church.
He graduated from the University of Notre Dame, where he studied French literature. Moving to Salt Lake City, he helped develop an alternative school program, for which he was a teacher and administrator.
He met Linda Meisels while attending a summer program in Greater Boston. They corresponded for a couple of years while he finished a doctorate in educational psychology at the University of Utah and spent considerable time together when he visited again.
To address an unacknowledged mutual attraction, she began a clearing-the-air conversation one evening and he interjected, “well, we can raise the kids Jewish and we can die at the same time because I’m younger,” she recalled.
They married in 1976 and repeated their vows annually in front of family and friends. They also took time to review each year.
“I think in a very good way we were very intentional about a lot of our lives,” she said, “and I give Steven a lot of credit for that.”
Mr. Brion-Meisels taught for a decade at the Manville School at the Judge Baker Children’s Center and for 13 years in the Cambridge schools, focusing on dropout prevention and peacemaking programs. In 2000, he began working for what is now Peace First, a nonprofit that grew out of the Peace Games and teaches cooperation and peace-building to young people, parents, and educators.
He helped found the Peaceable Schools and Communities institute at Lesley University and taught education leadership and peacemaking at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Springfield College, Cambridge College, and at the University of Los Andes in Colombia. He also helped found the Social-Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts, which provides education programs for prekindergarten through 12th grade.
At Kahal B’raira, a humanistic Judaism congregation in Cambridge, he taught Sunday school for many years.
“Steve taught me that I could think for myself and that I was allowed to think for myself even at 13,” Leah Schneider wrote in an e-mail for a collection of tributes gathered by his family. “My parents said that was because they let radical hippies teach me Sunday school.”
In the past few years, Mr. Brion-Meisels was an education consultant, though he often didn’t charge “because the work was what he cared about not the money,” said Gretchen, who is a lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education. “I do the kind of work that he did, and I benefit from all the things he knew and thought about. My work in a way is a reflection of his work.”
In addition to his wife and two daughters, Mr. Brion-Meisels leaves three sisters, Kathleen Brion of Arlington, Va., Lois Lauria of Huntington, N.Y., and Marguerite Lee of Gainesville, Va.; and two grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. April 26 in First Parish in Harvard Square.
“It’s incredible how much of an effect he had on people, the impact he had as a listener,” Linda Brion-Meisels said. “Somehow, the message was who you are and what you think matters.”
Mr. Brion-Meisels also “had a miraculous ability to make everything fun,” Sophia said, and made gifts for others. He would write a favorite quote on a piece of paper, paint it, and turn it into a bookmark that became a present he handed out by way of saying thanks.
“He was really into saying ‘thank you’ a lot,” Sophia said. “He felt that as a culture, we often didn’t show gratitude for the small things. He was very into thanking people for their thoughts, for participating in a class or a group, or for taking the small risks they had to do in their everyday lives to build relationships.”
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