Donald Jelinek, a former Berkeley council member and lawyer remembered for his enthusiastic work with the civil rights movement in the 1960s, died June 24 in his Berkeley home. He was 82.
Jelinek grew up in the Bronx, New York, and earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from New York University. He was known for his efforts in both the Berkeley City Council and with the Civil Rights Movement in the South.
In 1969, Jelinek moved to Berkeley, where he played a vital role both inside and outside the City Council, according to current Councilmember Kriss Worthington.
Jelinek’s advice and endorsement for Worthington’s run for City Council in 1996 inspired Worthington to become a council member despite his initial reservations.
“When other people made fun of me talking about and caring about students, (Jelinek said,) ‘I talked about students and it seemed to work quite well,’” Worthington said. “(Jelinek) sort of saw students in the same way as he saw (the) civil rights movement. … Students are just one more group we need to be inclusive and fair to.”
During Jelinek’s years as a City Council member, he advocated for UC Berkeley students and lobbied to provide them with parking spaces. He ran for mayor against former Berkeley mayor Shirley Dean twice, losing both times.
After he left City Council, Jelinek still acted as an adviser to council members — especially progressive council members.
“He was an invaluable resource to us as somebody who had years of experience, who knew how to be practical and progressive at the same time,” Worthington said.
From 1965 to 1968, Jelinek worked with the civil rights movement and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, in Mississippi and Alabama both as a grassroots organizer and a civil rights lawyer. According to an obituary prepared by his family, Jelinek wanted his gravestone to read that “he was SNCC.”
Bruce Hartford, a member of Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement — an organization of which Jelinek was also a member — said Jelinek was a charming man with a great sense of humor. According to Hartford, Jelinek personally exposed the hunger and starvation faced by Black sharecroppers in the south and brought the problem to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s attention.
As a civil rights lawyer, Jelinek represented Native Americans who seized Alcatraz Island in 1969 and was recruited to coordinate the defense of 61 inmates charged after the Attica prison riot in western New York.
“He stood his ground and didn’t give up,” Hartford said. “He spoke without dogmatism and without being bellicose.”
Jelinek had established a law practice firm, Jelinek & Associates, in Berkeley. The 32-year-old firm handled business litigation and real estate disputes, including a three-year defense of hundreds of flea market vendors who were ousted from the weekend Ashby BART parking lot.
Jelinek is survived by his wife of 30 years, Jane Scherr, his brother Roger Jelinek, Scherr’s daughters Dove and Apollinaire and his grandchildren Hannele and Pascal.
A memorial service will be held Saturday at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.