“She needed no help in conveying her sense of injustice, her commitment to fighting for the underdog, her indomitable sense of equality for all,” said Larry Golden, executive director of the Illinois Innocence Project and emeritus professor of political science and legal studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. At the age of 51, Gingold was one of Golden’s first students at UIS, and the two became close friends. Golden laments the loss of Gingold, to whom he refers as the “tiny woman with the quiet voice” that nevertheless rang with the power of justice.
Born in Terra Haute, Ind., in 1918, Ethel Silver Gingold grew up with three sisters during the Great Depression. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1940 and earned two master’s degrees during the 1970s from Sangamon State University, now the University of Illinois Springfield.
Gingold won numerous awards for her devotion to equality and right, including the University of Illinois Humanitarian Award in 2007, the Annetta Dieckmann Volunteer Award from the Roger Baldwin Foundation of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1995, and many more stretching back decades. She was involved with civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the ACLU, the League of Women Voters, the Urban League and the Springfield-based Coalition to Promote Human Dignity and Diversity.
Gingold worked extensively with ex-convicts to help reintegrate them into society after prison, served on the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, and served several roles in quasi-governmental agencies dealing with corrections issues. It was Gingold who lobbied the Sangamo Club in Springfield to allow women full membership during the 1970s, and she even created a scholarship fund at UIS to help students who overcame challenges while pursuing a degree. Her résumé takes up several pages and is so full of accomplishments and awards that it’s almost hard to believe a single person could do so much.
Gingold’s friends remember her as a tireless fundraiser for many causes. Mary Jo Potter, a close friend of Gingold, says Gingold was so persuasive in her fundraising that people would sometimes turn around when Gingold approached to avoid buying tickets to a charity event. Potter says that was just one facet of Gingold’s “fierce determination to continue struggles she didn’t see were over yet.”
What motivated Gingold to devote her life to ideals like equality and justice? Potter speculates that Gingold’s Jewish heritage made her especially sensitive to the tragic suffering and inhumanity of the Holocaust.
“She was committed to equality for all so that a similar situation would never arise again,” Potter said.
Gingold was known for supporting idealistic political candidates. Potter’s favorite memory of Gingold is the time Gingold took Potter to meet a young Democratic state senator from Chicago. That senator would later become President Barack Obama. Potter says Gingold treasured a book that contained a personal inscription from Obama, and Gingold may even have foreseen Obama’s rise to the White House.
Sangamon County associate judge Brian Otwell knew Gingold when Otwell was just a boy. His parents were friends with Gingold, and Otwell says Gingold “adopted” him when he moved to Springfield in 1979 as a young man preparing for law school.
“She was such a delightful person,” Otwell said. “She was always very generous with herself and her time. You could tell she always cared. She made you feel like you were one of the most special people in the world to her.”
Gingold would sometimes play matchmaker, Otwell recalls, and he would often bring his love interests to Gingold for her approval. He adds that Gingold’s evaluations were spot on.
“There was one occasion in which she wasn’t thrilled with my selection,” he said. “Needless to say, that particular relationship didn’t last very long.”
Otwell says he’ll greatly miss Gingold’s sense of humor, which he described as sardonic and often ironic.
“She was very sophisticated and intellectual on one hand, but she also enjoyed a good laugh or a good tease,” he said. “It was nothing malicious; there was not a malicious bone in her body. She could dish it out and take it equally.”
Larry Golden says Gingold had a knack for challenging assumptions and the status quo.
“Whenever we got together and particularly started talking about anything in the realm of social justice or politics, she would always come up with something that went against the grain and yet was right,” Golden said. “Discussions with her were always tinged with that, yet it was evident that she had a genuine respect for those around her.”
Golden says no matter the issue or who was affected, Ethel Gingold was involved.
“She would be in a group of people where she would know there would be some disagreement – maybe she would even be standing alone – and she was not afraid to push ahead for things she thought were right,” Golden said, noting that Gingold was one of the few white people involved in the leadership of the NAACP in Springfield. “It wouldn’t make any difference whether it involved a white person or a black person. She would stand up and call things as she saw them.”