Joseph Thomas Marver (alias Tom, alias Yosef ben Hillel) was born and raised in Saint Paul, in his family’s home along Mississippi River Boulevard. Tom still seems to live life to the fullest, starting in the heydays of the 60s and 70s and continuing to this day. His life provides a veritable who’s who of the counter culture, all centered around his passion for social activism. And his bongos.
This photo was taken in the inner sanctum of the Minnesota legislative reference library at the State office building, where you will generally find Tom lobbying, attending hearings, or as shown here, working on his ‘opposition research’.
Well my first name is actually Joseph. Joseph was my great grandfather, on my mom’s side, who died before I was born. My mother’s name was Gloria, and my father’s name was Hillard, which was a variation of Hillel, and had been a name in the family for generations. My great grandfather was Hillel, and we just named my grandson Hillel.
I grew up in Saint Paul, in a neighborhood called King’s Maplewood, which is the area north of Randolph and south of Summit, and east of Cretin. My father had a chain of about 30 clothing stores called Stevenson’s that he ran with his father-in-law, mostly in northern Minnesota and in the Dakotas. He sold that by the time I was about 8 or 9, and then he was into real estate, in downtown St. Paul. He had owned the property where the Dayton’s department store ended up. Actually at that time Dayton’s wouldn’t buy property from Jews, so my dad had to sell it to a friend who then sold it to the Dayton’s. And my dad also owned most of the block where Galtier Plaza is now, and he sold that to the Dayton’s. But that was years later, and they had changed their policy and would buy from him.
Did you know your grandparents growing up … what were your families like?
I did, but my parents both had small families, and a lot of distant relatives married other distant relatives, so a lot of us look alike.
What about schooling?
I went to Saint Paul Academy for kindergarten through 12th grade, and I played varsity football and hockey, and we actually had cardboard helmets. I graduated in a class of 29 students. Back then, SPA was still all boys, and a military school. I also went out for football in college, but I was too small.
Where did you go for college?
I wanted to get as far away from Saint Paul as I could, so I started out at Menlo College in California. I graduated from there with an Associate’s degree in prelaw, and then I went on to NYU to get my BA in Chinese Philosophy.
OK, that sounds like a logical next step.
This is my yin yang (pointing to the chain around his neck). I wear it all the time – I haven’t taken it off in over 40 some years.
I’ve never noticed your yin yang.
That’s probably a good thing. It’s a symbol for Taoism, one of the Chinese philosophies.
So do you practice something other than Judaism, or in addition to it?
No, but I spent some time being a seeker. These days I study Talmud and Torah at Beth Jacob, and I also take part in Torah study and services at Mount Zion.
Where did you go after your NYU degree?
I couldn’t decide whether to go to the west coat or the east coast, so I moved back to Minnesota. I was supposed to go into the family business, but then my dad sold it to the Dayton’s the next year. Then I was stuck here with a degree in Chinese Philosophy. So I worked a couple years for the Bronstein family, at King Koil, and then for a while in real estate at Burnet Realty when it first started, and then I worked at HB Fuller for 12 years as a financial analyst – without ever taking an accounting course. And then I got a job for three months in an art gallery because I am a crossword puzzle addict. I didn’t know a lot about art, so I decided to work in an art gallery so I could answer questions in the crosswords.
When or how did your career in politics and activism begin?
I was always interested in politics. I had my driver’s license and a car by the age of 15, so I would go listen to Gus Hall speak. He was a communist, from Minnesota, and ran for President a number of times. And I also went to Socialist party meetings.
And in 1964, as part of my American Government class at SPA, we were assigned to go to a caucus, and I worked my way all the way up that year to being a page for Governor Scranton at the national convention. That’s also where I got all my bad habits over the years – at conventions back then. That’s pretty much what conventions use to be – a lot of drinking and smoke-filled back rooms. But I got the bug for politics, and I started taking political science classes during summer sessions at the U, while I was still in high school, and then at NYU.
But I actually started my career helping Norm Coleman run his first campaign for mayor of Saint Paul, back when he was a Democrat. Then I was hired to run his transition team, and then of course I hired myself to stay on. And he was mayor for two terms, so I would work three and a half years in the office and then I would take a half year off to run the campaign. Then I did the same thing for Randy Kelly.
And from there?
Then I worked for a PR firm for a year, and helped bring the Titanic exhibit to Union Depot. The post office had owned the Depot, and we had to spend a million dollars to clean up all the asbestos. So when you look at the Depot today and everything that has been done, none of that would have been possible today. And then I worked for the Saint Paul RiverCenter Commission, and then with the Saint Paul convention and visitors bureau.
And then? I’m trying to get us up to today, I didn’t realize there were so many stops along the way.
Then I sort of semi-retired, and I started working in even numbered years, and I now do consulting and opposition research. That involves looking at my candidate’s opponent through their press clippings, audio tapes, and things like that. Right now I am helping out on the campaign for Angie Craig who is running for John Kline’s seat in Congress. And I also negotiate the debates for candidates – which ones they’ll do, and what the rules will be, and debate preparation. And I am also on the board of Jewish Community Action, and I’ve been appointed to the Commission for Social Action for the RAC (the Reform movement’s Religious Action Committee).
Do you tend to work for campaigns that are local or state wide?
I work for the ones that can afford me. But when you have a degree in Chinese Philosophy you can’t be choosy.
So let’s turn to your family life. You have been married?
Twice, at least. I decided I won’t get married again. I will just find someone I hate and give them a house.
I remember that! I think that’s the first thing you ever told me.
I met my first wife at an Embers after a Minnesota Gopher basketball game. She was a student there, and we were married within a year. She was Jewish and from Hibbing, and Bobby Dylan used to babysit her. We were married in Hibbing by Rabbi Milgram, from the Hillel. He was a chess master, and I beat him. But that marriage only lasted about five years.
Then your next marriage, I assume she was the mother of your children?
Yeah, we met at an open house. She wasn’t Jewish at the time, but she was working for a Jewish family and she wanted to marry someone Jewish so she could get the same holidays off.
Tell me about your kids.
The oldest is Amity, she is a Staff Sergeant and plays semi-pro hockey. She’s not married, but she has a Harley. She used to have a monster truck. So you don’t mess with her. And the youngest, Dustin, was a Staff Sergeant in the Army Airborne. He was named after Dustin Hoffman. Amity and Dustin were both in Iraq at the same time.
And Emily is the middle one. She’s been engaged for about ten years to a Navy vet. I think there should be a statute of limitations on engagements. She has one child that she named Hillel, so he might be the sixth generation if he goes to Mount Zion.
How far back does your family go at Mount Zion?
The first family was the Schlessingers. If you go down the hallway in the school wing, the first confirmation class pictures were given to the temple by the Schlessingers. That was my dad’s mother’s side. My great grandfather was a hopmaster from Austria, and he worked in a brewery and settled in South Saint Paul. He was the first from our family to be a Mount Zion member, around 1870. The commemorative book for our 150th celebration includes a quote by Rabbi Plaut where he talked about my great grandfather, and mentioned the continuity to me, though not by name.
I think he was also in the video you posted (on the Mount Zion Facebook page), when they were laying the cornerstone for the new synagogue. At the time, he was either one of, or maybe the oldest living member.
Wow there are a lot of connections.
And my great grandfather, Hillel Marver, came here from Lithuania in 1880 and worked for Sons of Jacob as a teacher, or shamash. When he came over his name was Marver, but they told him that didn’t sound Jewish enough, so he changed his name to Bernstein. That was the name of his roommate at the hotel where he was living on Wabasha in downtown St. Paul.
So how come you’re not a Bernstein?
My dad was named Hillard Bernstein. The second generation wanted to change it back to Marver, but they had already established businesses, so it wasn’t until my dad’s generation that they changed it back to Marver. Except for one first cousin, once removed, who kept the name Marver Bernstein. He became president of Brandeis, and dean at Princeton. And he wrote the very first book on government that I used in college.
Let’s go back to your wild and crazy days.
OK, but it’s still the same today.
I assume you were in the antiwar movement. Were you at the Chicago convention of ’68?
I was involved in SDS, and Weatherman, and at NYU I was my junior and senior class president, in a class of 12,000. I was supposed to speak at commencement but I never showed up. We were protesting the war. It was in Madison Square Garden, and it probably would have cost me an extra $1000 just to spend the time in New York City.
But I was not at the convention in Chicago. At the time I was hitchhiking through Russia. I started out on a tour, but when it ended I just kept going on my own for six more months, from what was then Leningrad, to Moscow, Kiev – all the way down to Yalta and the Crimea.
That sounds adventurous. Was it dangerous?
No. It was still the cold war. I got to speak on Air Moscow about being against the war in Vietnam.
But people all wanted to buy my jeans. For 50 rubles. Or my wingtips.
I also recall that you were in Israel recently. What was that about?
It was through the United Theological Seminary, and organized by Rabbi Amy Eilberg. A lot of the social activism that I do now is interfaith, working with different religious groups. She put together a trip for the Seminary that included Christian, Jewish, and Muslim participants, including pastors and reverends, rabbis and imams. We saw things and went places that most people never get to go, and we had two tour guides – one was an Israeli Jew and the other was Palestinian, and they were the best of friends.
We visited Ramallah, Hebron, Nazareth, Bethlehem, and had home stays with Palestinian families. We also met with a lot of different Palestinian and Israeli groups involved in the social action and peace movements. The hardest part was to find places where those kinds of groups can meet, because of all the checkpoints and different areas. We also went to the monthly service of the Women of the Wall, where we prayed with the Men of the Women of the Wall. They actually have their own space as well, and their own prayer book.
So after all that, are you hopeful about the situation there?
I don’t believe there is a chance for a two state solution, seeing just how much everything is carved up. And I don’t think the Israelis sincerely want it.
What are your memories of growing up on River Road?
By the time I was about nine my parents would let me go down to the river by myself and I would fish with a cane pole and bobber. I loved watching a bobber. To me that’s a zen experience.
Really? Me too. And I still have a cane pole and bobbers if you ever want to borrow them.
I can just watch it for hours.
Right, but it’s nice if it bobs once in a while. So you have mentioned crosswords and chess, do you have any other hobbies?
I now have a Hammond B3 organ, with a Leslie speaker. When I went to NYU, I took a class in songwriting from Paul Simon. And while I was there I started an all toy band, and we would play in in the dormitory stairwells.
I never know where these little discussions are going to go.
I also knew Jimi Hendrix, and used to hang out with Timothy Leary. He was a lot of fun – we used to hang out at the Mystic Eye in Laguna Beach. I was in San Francisco from 1966 to 68, but by then things started to happen more in Greenwich Village, so I went there.
As for music, my parents had bought an organ for my mom when I was a kid, but they told me I wouldn’t be able to play it. So instead, my parents bought me bongos, and they actually had some guy come out to the house and give me bongo lessons.
Don’t tell me. Desi Arnaz?
No, but it really ticked me off, so I taught myself how to play the organ. We used to go to a restaurant in Saint Paul called the Criterion, and there was an organ player there, and I would sit on her lap and learn how to play. And Ray Kroc (the founder of McDonalds) used to come to town, and he came to that restaurant quite a bit. And she ended up marrying him.
So given all your social activism, can I ask, have you been arrested?
Well, OK, let’s start with lately.
No, but I do keep bail money with me, just in case I ever need it. I have used it to bail out friends at times. And I do remember one time I was in DC, we were protesting the moratorium, and they arrested 30,000 of us and kept us in JFK stadium surrounded by the National Guard. The guards kept tossing us beers, cigarettes, and joints. I was in a group that was eventually bailed out by the baby doctor, Dr. Spock. The National Guard was required to be there, but we all eventually got out. So it was kind of an existential question of just who was keeping who prisoner.
When was the last time you demonstrated?
Last Thursday, for the maintenance and janitorial workers.
Final question, I gotta ask – why do you do this? Is there a common thread, or something that still drives you?
It’s in my DNA. I think what I do is just a reflection of the values that have been handed down to me. Even with my kids today, I believe that a family that protests together stays together.