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Stephen Banks, Community Activist and Leader, Passes at 72

Stephen Banks contemplating the Kerlin Farms property in August, 2010 (photo credit: Dan Rubin)

Stephen D. Banks of Wyncote, a Cheltenham Township resident for the last 25 years and a lifelong community activist, died Nov. 20 at the age of 72.

He was chair of the Cheltenham Township Historical Commission from 2008 to 2012 and on the Wyncote Board of Historical Review. An active member of the Cheltenham Democratic Committee, he was honored as its Volunteer of the Year in 2009.

Stephen was an administrator with the New York City Department of Health, where he managed clinics and other public health services in the Bedford/Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn and in East Harlem. He also worked for the Westchester County Department of Health in Yonkers.

A graduate in urban studies from the State University of New York at Old Westbury, he did graduate work in sociology at Rutgers University, where he completed requirements for a doctoral degree short of the dissertation and taught there on the Newark campus. He also was an adjunct professor at the City University of New York on Staten Island.

Born in Indiana, the oldest of six children, he spent much of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm in southern Indiana. He joined the Marines after high school in 1958 and trained as a radio operator.

After the Marines, he became a VISTA volunteer in New York City. Working in East Harlem, he organized a block association, worked with tenants in support of a rent strike and organized a food co-op. While still an undergraduate, Stephen worked for the National Welfare Rights Organization in New York City. He also organized a New York City contingent for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign and lived in Resurrection City in Washington D.C. with thousands of others during that period.

He later worked on voter registration and served as a poll watcher in Goodman, Mississippi, where, he said, his character became fully formed. One of Stephen’s first introductions to electoral politics was as a clerk on the Benton Township Election Board in Indiana. He later recalled that in the 1962 election there were 102 registered voters, all of whom voted, including two by absentee ballot, and the rest by marking paper ballots with number two pencils without erasers. Much later, Stephen worked numerous elections as a judge of election in his home district in Wyncote, a responsibility he took very seriously.

Stephen Banks was an admired community leader. One fellow-activist, Heidi Morein of East Chelenham, wrote of her most recent memory: “I adored him, and so did my family. I spent a 15-hour day with him at the polls two weeks ago, and it wasn’t enough. He was brilliant, funny, idealistic, curmudgeonly, a stalwart leader and true firebrand, and much tougher than his frailness implied.”

As a Cheltenham Democratic party stalwart, Banks put in time going door-to-door but credited his granddaughter, Kate, who accompanied him. “She helps me maintain my integrity and gives me purpose,” he said.

Stephen is survived by his wife, Regina, who grew up here and graduated from Cheltenham High School, as well as their daughter, Anna R. Bogan, two grandchildren, Katherine and Cole, three sisters and two brothers.

Their Wyncote residence includes two dogs, several healthy young chickens and a rooster. However, friends say that only the smaller dog can continue to be cared for over the long-term, so Robert Burns, a friendly border collie, will need a new home. Regina also will need immediate and perhaps longer term help caring for the chickens and rooster.

Funeral services took place today at May Funeral Home in Glenside, with an informal gathering first followed by a formal service, which included a Quaker-style memorial tribute.

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  1. Melanie Vallerio

    What a loss ! Mr Banks was an asset to our community in so many ways. He will be greatly missed.