Blanche had one older sister, Marge (Margaret), who was four years older than she was, and Blanche looked up to her a lot. When Blanche was born, her parents had wanted a boy. In fact, her mother had gone to a fortune teller who said she would have a boy. On Blanche’s birth announcement her dad wrote: “Damn fortune teller lied. Blanche and her mom are fine.” Later, however, Blanche’s mother did say: “Boys are with you till they marry. Girls stick to you for life.”
As a child, Blanche Gelders hung out with her dad. He taught her to be handy. They had a Model T Ford pick-up and a fire started in it. He tried to fix it and got frustrated, saying to Blanche, “If you can fix it, you can have it.” She did fix it and drove it, but things kept going wrong with it and it needed lots of upkeep. There was a rumble seat, and gas for the car was under the front seat. Eventually Blanche traded it for a 1939 Chevy.
When she was young, Blanche was a tomboy and enjoyed spending time in her father’s workshop. Her mother didn’t mind—she was feminine enough for two and was very beautiful. Blanche was allowed to take shop in school, but also had to take sewing. They were supposed to make a wool skirt or shirt, but wool was very expensive (this was during the Depression). Blanche’s sewing teacher didn’t want to waste the wool on Blanche, so she let Blanche take care of the sewing machines instead.
Blanche always loved to sing, which might have started when she was in the Girl Scout chorus as a child.
They lived in Alabama (her mother and father were from Alabama) until Blanche was 10, when they moved to New York for a brief time—her dad was there for civil rights work. They returned to live in the Birmingham area. During World War II, he was in the Army Signal Corps and stationed in Davis.
Blanche’s sister often didn’t want her younger sister tagging around. Marge was very intelligent—she graduated from high school at 16 and got a full scholarship to Radcliffe. She taught in the first Women’s Studies Department at Santa Cruz. Blanche came to feel better towards Marge after she found a copy of her sister’s autobiography. In it, Marge spoke very fondly about her younger sister.
Early adulthood and meeting Lou:
Blanche went to college at UC Davis, which was then much smaller that it is now. She went to Berkeley for summer courses—things she couldn’t get at Davis. Her idol was Lou Hartman, who did a radio show based in Berkeley. He would sing: I Will Love You Till the End of Time. So she always managed to be near him (“in his face”, she said), but he didn’t notice.
At that time Lou was writing a play about the Spanish Civil War and needed someone to play a Spanish girl. Blanche looked the part and so she was drafted. There was also a veteran of the Spanish Civil War involved with the production as an advisor, and all the girls had a crush on the idea of him (a veteran of that conflict was a very stylish thing to be in communist circles in the forties). Blanche was confused, and thought that Lou was the veteran, so she developed a crush on him. Later, she found out she was wrong, but she stood by her crush . The veteran wasn’t actually attractive, she said.
A friend, Sue Williams, said to Lou, “Blanche Gelders has a crush on you.” Blanche was then 18. So the first time they were alone Lou asked Blanche, “Sue Williams says you have a crush on me. Is that true?”
Lou was 30 and had been married before to Marjorie, who wanted children. Their first child, Landis, was developmentally disabled and needed to be institutionalized, and the second died at birth. This was found to be due to a rare chromosomal abnormality passed through the mother, but Lou didn’t know that at the time and was concerned about having children. Lou and Marjorie were no longer married at the time Lou met Blanche. Not long after he told Blanche about his past, he sent her a letter of proposal. The next time he saw her he asked her what she thought of his letter. She said that it was kind of sudden. She went to ask her father what to do and he said, “Whatever you decide is right. If you decide to get married, you can make it work.” And she decided to marry Lou.
Blanche left UC Davis after she married Lou. Her father died of a heart attack when he was 50—and when Blanche was pregnant with her eldest son. They named him Joseph Gelders, after her father.
When they had children, Lou would help at their co-op pre-school. He came home exhausted because so many boys who didn’t have their fathers wanted to play very vigorously with him. He had been a restaurant cook and liked to cook for both of them and for guests. A barbecued leg of lamb was a favorite of his.
Blanche became a chemist and originally worked for a company that made ink. When she found out that the men were being paid more than the women there for doing the same job, she quit and went back to UC Berkeley to finish her degree. She graduated when her daughter, Trudy, was 10. She then became a bio-statistician, which was a very new field. At a certain point she went into civil service. There, she analyzed levels of lead in the blood of people who lived near freeways, to see if it might be greater than the norm. But she discovered that men were also paid more than women for doing the same job in civil service.
Life at Tassajara:
Blanche was a bit older than the other students when she was at Tassajara. She wanted to be liked by them and would make them ice cream. That was in the days when dry ice was used and one time it was too hard and students and staff were upset. Blanche then wanted to be Tenzo (head cook) to get over her “needing to be liked”—it was impossible to serve food that everybody liked, and it was a practice in not taking criticism personally. She found herself putting out coffee and tea on a tray to make it easier for the students. She noticed students ordering peanut butter and so made sure there was peanut butter at the back of the kitchen snack area. She also helped with getting students access to hard-boiled eggs.
End and Beginning Stitched Together
Alone, in the City Center sewing room
Sitting on a high stool seeking natural light
Blanche and I
I draw my last stitch of teal silk thread
relief at completion
grief at completion.
Threads cannot be separated–
all friends have lent a stitch.
Three times we circle the fragile cloth–
the final dance
between teacher and student.
Each precept a piercing of a needle of truth
threads of intention, motivation, action.
Nothing is ever lost, or wasted.
Blanche, here for me. Tears of gratitude.
Beclee Wilson Ren Getsu Kei Do
In an article published in Tricycle magazine, Shosan Victoria Austin says that Zenkei “Inconceivable Joy” Blanche Hartman lived up to her name
Vicki’s article can be read here.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman studied Nyoho-e, the practice of sewing Zen ceremonial robes, with Kasai Joshin Sensei, in the lineage of Sawaki Kodo Roshi. She taught this unique form of Zen practice to hundreds of students at Zen Center, and played an important role in establishing the practice in North America.
To celebrate and honor Blanche, we have established a memorial fund in her name. The fund will be used to support the renovation of a new sewing room at City Center. Blanche could be found regularly in the City Center Sewing Room helping students to sew their rakusu or okesa, as well as passing on the practice to other sewing teachers who followed in her footsteps.
The new sewing room will be named in her memory: Inconceivable Joy Sewing Room: In Memory of Zenkei Blanche Hartman.
If you would like to support this fund in memory of Blanche, you may donate online. Or you may send your check made out to San Francisco Zen Center by mail to:
Zenkei Blanche Hartman Memorial Fund
Attn: Nancy Petrin, Director of Development
300 Page Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
For more information, please contact Nancy Petrin via email: email@example.com
Our memories of Zenkei Blanche Hartman, who died at the age of 90, are deep and numerous. Here we offer a small selection of the vast array of photographs that we have assembled over the years: formal portraits, casual snapshots, and intimate family heirlooms. If you see a photo you recognize, please let us know so we can credit the photographer. If you have a photo that you would like to add to our collection, please leave a comment below.
For the last three days, through the weekend, many people have been sitting with Blanche’s body in the Buddha Hall at City Center. Day and night, members of her family, residents, and students who traveled from all over the country to be here sat quietly with their friend, mother, teacher. At 7:30 am this morning, the body was taken to the crematorium. More than 50 people stood in the hallway and on the sidewalk to bid her farewell. As the vehicle moved away, some bowed in the traditional farewell gassho and some waved their hands and said, “Bye, Blanche!” The cremation will be a private ceremony on Tuesday morning at 11 am; everyone is invited to attend the full memorial service in early July, approximately 49 days after her death. For the next 49 days, there will be a memorial service at City Center every seven days on Fridays.
Shunbo Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Roshi, a widely respected Zen teacher, former Abbess, and Senior Dharma Teacher of San Francisco Zen Center, died on Friday, May 13, in San Francisco. She was one of the first women to lead a Zen training temple outside of Asia. Her Zen teaching focused on simplicity, curiosity, patience, love, and compassion, and she sought to make the Zen community open and accessible to everyone.
She was born Blanche Loeb Gelders in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1926, the daughter of Joseph and Esther Frank Gelders. Blanche spent her young childhood in Tuscaloosa, where her parents taught Physics and English at the University of Alabama. The Gelders family hosted a steady stream of students and professors who filled the household with vibrant conversation, much of which focused on the injustice and inequality displayed in Depression-era Alabama. When Blanche was in elementary school, her parents’ increasingly vocal stances on political issues cost them their jobs at the university.
For the remainder of her childhood, Blanche’s family lived primarily in the Birmingham area, where Joe Gelders became a full-time labor organizer and civil rights activist. These were lonely years for Blanche, who experienced exclusion and harassment from her peers because of her parents’ work. Her family was threatened many times, and, when Blanche was ten years old, her father was severely beaten and nearly died. Though the Gelders family was Jewish, Blanche attended Catholic schools during the Depression, while the public schools were closed for lack of funds. She often spoke of one teacher, a nun, who provided a special comfort and inspiration to her at that time.
When Blanche was seventeen, her family moved to Davis, California, where her father was stationed during World War II. Blanche, who had been fascinated by mechanics since she was a small child, was delighted to work as an airplane mechanic for the Army. She continued to work on and appreciate vehicles for the rest of her life.
After the war, Blanche married Louis Hartman, with whom she had four children. The Hartmans lived in Berkeley, and continued to be involved with social justice and political organizing throughout the 1950s and 1960s. When Lou, a San Francisco radio personality, was blacklisted after refusing to cooperate with the House Unamerican Activities Committee, Blanche completed her chemistry degree at the University of California at Berkeley and supported the family as a chemist for the State of California.
In the late 1960s, Blanche was part of a group of mothers supporting student protests at San Francisco State University. As a chain of mothers locked arms at a demonstration, to shield the students from a force of riot police, Blanche met the eyes of one young police officer. She felt his fear, and all at once she experienced a strong feeling of identity with this young man on “the other side.” Soon after, she discovered Zen practice.
Blanche and Lou practiced Zen first at Berkeley Zendo with Sojun Mel Weitsman Roshi, then at San Francisco Zen Center with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Dainin Katagiri Roshi, and Zentatsu Richard Baker Roshi. In 1972, they moved from Berkeley to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, beginning a lifelong commitment to Zen practice, which led them to Green Gulch Farm and San Francisco Zen Center’s City Center. Blanche was ordained by Zentatsu Roshi in 1977, receiving the name Shunbo Zenkei, “Spring Full Moon, Inconceivable Joy.” She received dharma transmission from Sojun Roshi in 1988, and in 1996, she became the first woman to serve as Abbess of San Francisco Zen Center.
Blanche studied Nyoho-e, the practice of sewing Zen ceremonial robes, with Kasai Joshin Sensei, in the lineage of Sawaki Kodo Roshi. She taught this unique form of Zen practice to hundreds of students at Zen Center, and played an important role in establishing the practice in North America.
Blanche was a central and stabilizing figure at Zen Center for more than 40 years. She helped guide the organization through turbulent times, and her patient dedication to Zen practice inspired generations of students to persevere. Her teaching will continue through her many dharma heirs and students, who transmit her love and compassion every day at practice centers around the world, and through her recently published book, Seeds for a Boundless Life, edited by her student Zenju Earthlyn Manuel.
Blanche was preceded in death by her husband of 63 years, Lou Hartman, and her sister, Marge Frantz. She is survived by a large and loving extended family, including her four children, Joe Hartman, Earl Hartman, Trudy Briskin, and Mitzi Levine, and their spouses, as well as eight grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and her Zen students and sangha.
Rebecca Hartman Huenink
Thank you for letting me know of Blanche’s passing.
It was a great gift for me to know her for half a century.
I greatly admired Blanche and will always love her.
Not knowing that she was dying, I prayed for her last night.
Now, I lit a candle and incense and chanted for her.
The next three days, I will sit with you, though 6,000 miles away.
With a deep bow to Blanche and to all at SFZC,
Your brother David
The body of Zenkei Blanche Hartman will rest in the Buddha Hall at City Center, 300 Page Street, CA 94192, for three days. You are warmly invited to come and sit with her during this time; many people are sitting quietly in the Buddha Hall today. It’s best to come between 7 am and 9 pm, but do let us know if you need to come at another time.
As further arrangements are made for her funeral arrangements, we will post the information here.