Sally Lilienthal, 87; Created Peace Fund

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006

Sally Lilienthal, 87, who founded the Ploughshares Fund, an influential foundation dedicated to the prevention of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of war, died of a bone infection that led to pneumonia Oct. 24 at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

Ms. Lilienthal, a sculptor who had long been involved with human rights activism, founded the organization in her living room in 1981 at the height of the Cold War -- as superpowers stockpiled nuclear weapons, the international arms trade boomed and intercontinental ballistic missiles grew more lethal.

"We started with nothing. I mean really nothing," she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996. "But in the first year, we were able to give away about $100,000 to individuals and small organizations to study the problems of nuclear weaponry and to get ordinary citizens informed about the issues and the danger."

As of 2006, the fund has given away more than $40 million, mostly for startup research, becoming the largest grant-making foundation in the United States focusing exclusively on peace and security issues. It was an early funder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, whose efforts led to a global treaty to abolish anti-personnel landmines and which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.

The Ploughshares Fund paid $3,000 to send scientists from the Natural Resources Defense Council to Moscow for what resulted in a breakthrough agreement allowing the installation of seismic monitoring equipment, which proved that a nuclear testing ban could be verified. And its $5,000 grant to Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Theodore Postol allowed him to finish a technical paper that exposed the Pentagon's exaggerated claims of the effectiveness of Patriot missiles during the Persian Gulf War.

"Sally was an absolutely vital figure in supporting researchers, policy activists and scientists in the U.S. and overseas who were trying to change government policies while [governments] were inflating the powers of nuclear weapons," said George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The thing about Sally that was so great is she went out and hustled and raised that money, then gave it away, which is heroic. . . . Sally had a lot of guts and wasn't afraid of anything."

Ms. Lilienthal introduced herself to controversy early in life. Born in Portland, Ore., as Sally Ann Lowengart, she was 12 when her family moved to San Francisco. She was quickly expelled from a private grade school for passing a note containing an obscenity. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and returned to San Francisco in 1940.

"My father told me that if he caught me voting for FDR, I could look for somewhere else to live," she said, but she trusted in the secrecy of the ballot. "There was some kind of message in my family that doing good was somehow naughty."

During World War II, she moved to Washington to work in the Office of War Information. She married and returned to San Francisco after the war, where she volunteered for a local anti-discrimination league.

During the 1950s, she studied sculpture at what is now the San Francisco Art Institute and began working in clay, plastic, metal and resin. Her works sold, and she also began collecting art.

Her first husband, Arthur J. Cohen Jr., died in 1953. Two years later, she married George Hellyer. That marriage ended in divorce in 1963. In 1970, she married Philip Lilienthal and with him founded the northern California chapter of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. She served on the regional ACLU board and also was national vice chairwoman of Amnesty International when the group won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977.

The Council on Foundations recognized Ms. Lilienthal with the Robert Scrivner Award for Creative Philanthropy in 1987, and the United Nations Association gave her its Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award in 1990.

Philip Lilienthal died in 1984.

Survivors include five children from her first marriage, Laurie Cohen, Liza Pike and Thomas Cohen, all of Mill Valley, Calif., Matthew Royce of San Francisco and Steven Cohen of Berkeley, Calif.; two stepdaughters, Sukey Lilienthal of Oakland, Calif., and Andrea Lilienthal of New York City; and 11 grandchildren.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company