Ken Colvin, liberator, activist, Israel advocate, dies at 87

The sight of countless dead at the concentration camps never left Kenneth Colvin. It haunted the former soldier to the end of his days. But that experience as a camp liberator inspired him to devote his life to strengthening Israel and the Jewish community.

An indefatigable Jewish activist, Colvin died of natural causes on Nov. 4 at San Francisco’s Jewish Home. He was 87.

As a businessman, he built two produce companies. As a family man, he basked in the love of his wife of 65 years, Thelma Colvin, their three children and seven grandchildren. As an advocate for the Jewish people, he served on boards for a range of causes and visited Israel nearly three dozen times.

Ken Colvin

“He was a shining star,” said daughter Cynthia Colvin of Berkeley. “His sense of civic duty compelled him to give.”

Said his friend of 40 years, Hebrew Free Loan Association executive director Ed Cushman, “He was a throwback, a roll-up-your-sleeves, get-it-done, don’t-let-things-stand-in-your-way type of guy.”

Born in San Francisco, Colvin

attended Alamo Elementary and Lowell High School. But summers were what he looked forward to most; for 10 of them he went to Camp Tawonga, gaining much of his passion for Jewish life.

His daughter said Tawonga was a “refuge” for Colvin, adding, “One year he wasn’t allowed to go for lack of funds, so he worked in kitchen. As a result, it forced him to say [to himself] ‘I will never let this happen to another child.’ ”

The payoff came years later when as an adult he joined the Camp Tawonga board and funded camperships for needy Jewish kids.

While a student at U.C. Berkeley, Colvin was drafted into the Army, serving as a surgical technician in the 515th Medical Clearing Company. He helped liberate six concentration camps and labor camps in Germany and Austria.

The experience affected him profoundly. In a 2007 interview with j., Colvin recalled, “Our company had the assignment to go into these camps and set up emergency medical treatment. You walk in and see 20,000 prisoners, all of whom were dying. You walk through the barbed wire gate and see the chimney still spewing. In front, a pile of bodies, maybe 15 to 20 feet high.”

On Passover 1945 in the camps, Colvin obtained a Haggadah and matzah. “I gave them to the men in the bunk,” Colvin recalled. “One started to cry. He said to me his family was gone, his home was gone. The only thing that kept him alive was the thought of Eretz Israel. What that one man taught me about Israel propelled and directed my whole life.”

Ken and Thelma Colvin

After the war, Colvin married his sweetheart. He and Thelma reared their three children in Burlingame and, later, Hillsborough. The Colvins were founding members of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in business from U.C. Berkeley in 1960. Throughout his life, Colvin remained active with the Holocaust liberators movement. He served as an officer on dozens of Jewish community boards, including Camp Tawonga, Israel Bonds, Jewish Vocational Service and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, for which he served as vice president and North Peninsula campaign chair.

As a young federation employee, Cushman watched Colvin in action. “He was a wonderful father, a wonderful family man, full of life, funny, charming and a pleasure to be around,” Cushman said.

Cynthia Colvin traces her father’s passion for Israel to his wartime experiences. He not only advocated for Israel, he was on the board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and regularly spoke to young people about the Holocaust.

Over the years, Colvin traveled to Israel 33 times. In 1982, he and his wife established the Thelma and Kenneth Colvin Pre-Kindergarten School in Kiryat Yam, near Haifa.

In his later years, he found his greatest joy in family life. Get-togethers at the family condo at Lake Tahoe were common.

“Those were magical summers at Lake Tahoe,” Cynthia Colvin remembered.

“He would go down to the beach after dinner, not just with the grandchildren but all the kids, and play ‘Red Light Green Light’ and take the kids on the boat.”

Though a man of action, Colvin also was contemplative, writing his memoir, “Cause and Effect,” in 1989. He wanted his descendants to know about his life-changing experiences in the camps long ago.

“He had inner challenges and struggles,” Cynthia added. “He was able to find ways to channel them through writing. If a week went by that [his children and grandchildren] didn’t get a poem from him, people would wonder, ‘Where’s Grandpa?’ ”

In April 2000, Colvin wrote a first-person account in the Jewish Bulletin (j.’s predecessor) about working in a soup kitchen: “I learned years ago that when a human is reduced to the level of asking for charity, one never asks questions. You just give because the person needs help.”

Ken Colvin is survived by his wife, Thelma Colvin of Hillsborough; children Francene Colvin of Kentfield, Larry Colvin of Mill Valley and Cynthia Colvin of Berkeley; and seven grandchildren. Donations may be made to the Colvin Campership Fund, Camp Tawonga, 131 Steuart St., San Francisco, CA 94105.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.