Benjamin Israel, 64; was journalist, activist, teacher and mentor

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Benjaman Israel, longtime teacher, writer and mentor, who most recently was a writing instructor at Harris-Stowe University, died Monday, Feb. 23 at his University City home.  He was 64, and according to his family, had been battling cancer and heart ailments.

Benjamin Charles Israel was born in Queens, N.Y.  His mother was a high school teacher and his father was a chemist, who was transferred to St. Louis. Benjamin graduated from University City High School.  He went to Washington University, where he was arrested for demonstrating against the Vietnam War. Throughout his adult life, Mr. Israel took part in protests against civil rights abuses in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, and most recently in Ferguson in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting.

At Harris-Stowe State University, he helped organize teachers into a chapter of the National Education Association Union in response to anger among faculty over not receiving pay increases for several years.

Mr. Israel received his bachelor’s of arts degree from the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia and his master’s degree in history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He wrote a 2008 master’s thesis at UMSL on the history of African-Americans in the St. Louis Police Department and for many years was working on a biography of Ira Cooper, the first African-American sergeant on the force in 1923 and the first black lieutenant in 1930.  Cooper’s skills as a detective are still admired by those familiar with his career.  He was often called upon by white police officers to help solves cases that they could not.

His initial research on Cooper was for an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  His comprehensive book on Cooper was left unfinished at the time of his death.

Mr. Israel met his second wife, Virginia Walker, in Columbia, where they were both students.  He was then a newspaper reporter and she was an elementary school teacher.  They married in 1990.  His wife vowed to finish Mr. Israel’s lengthy biography of Cooper, saying “it would be a disservice not to try.”

Howard Schwartz, professor of English at UMSL, a longtime friend and colleague of Mr. Israel’s, told the Jewish Light, “Ben Israel had the sharpest sense of fairness of anyone I’ve ever met. He certainly fulfilled the biblical injunction, ‘Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.’  He was also a complete mensch.”

Don Corrigan, a professor at Webster University, called Mr. Israel “a fellow of integrity few of us can match.” Charles Klotzer, editor-in-chief emeritus of the St. Louis Journalism Review and Gateway Journalism Review, praised Mr. Israel for having been “immersed in local  and national media, and his deep knowledge of African-American history.”  For years, Mr. Israel was a frequent contributor to the former St. Louis Journalism Review and the Gateway Journalism Review, and his reporting has been published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the North County Journal and the Columbia (Mo.) Tribune.

In addition to his wife of 25 years, Mr. Israel is survived by three daughters, Zainab Smith of Alexandria, Va.; April Heermance of Spanish Lake and Rosacaire Baisinger of San Francisco; three sons, Aasim Inshirah and Atief Heermance, both of St. Louis County, and Josh Baisinger of Middlebrook, Vt.  Also surviving are his sister, Sylvia Woodbury of Everson, Wash; and two granddaughters.

Mr. Israel donated his remains to science. Family members and friends gathered at the Panorama Restaurant at the St. Louis Art Museum on Feb. 28 to celebrate his life.