'Mr. Civil Liberties' Fought For Poor, Powerless

Special to The Courant

For more than two decades, Bill Olds was known around Connecticut as "Mr. Civil Liberties," the title of a 1995 editorial recognizing Olds' work with the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. "He has fought for the poor, the powerless and the unpopular," the editorial said, in part.

Olds served as executive director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, as it was then called, for 25 years. He realized early in his tenure that public relations for the fledgling organization, which sometimes took controversial positions, was essential.

His phone number was listed, and reporters knew they could contact him at any time on any issue. "He would be right there with a quote," said Shelley White, then a CCLU staff attorney.

Although Olds was not a lawyer, he knew the law and could explain it in terms anyone could understand. He relied on a huge sheaf of newspaper articles, which he clipped regularly and filed according to topic. (Not everything he saved made it into the file cabinet: Ann Tremont, who was the office manager, remembered him requesting a dining room table for his new office, in order to have more space for his papers.)

William R. Olds, a longtime resident of Bloomfield, died Sept. 30 of Alzheimer's disease. He was 81.

While Olds was director of the CCLU, from 1970 to 1996, the organization took positions on many controversial subjects, including prison overcrowding, the use of Medicaid funds for abortions, defending the right of the Ku Klux Klan to march in Meriden, and demanding that schools in Hartford be desegregated. The group secured religious rights for prisoners, fought against the forced sterilization of children with mental disabilities, and helped a woman become the first female firefighter in New Haven.

Olds articulated the Constitutional authority for each position, continuing a path of defending the underdog that had begun in childhood.

He was born on Nov. 26, 1934 in Willimantic, where his father, Willard Olds, worked in a bank and his mother, Henrietta, was a domestic worker. "This was my first awareness that there were some people who had to be servants for people of better means," he told The Courant's Northeast Magazine in 1988. "I wasn't resentful about it, but I do remember having feelings very early about being fair."

In elementary school, he befriended the smaller kids and the poor athletes and, when he could, picked them for the baseball teams he played on. He rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first major league baseball team to sign a black player.

Olds was extraordinarily shy and quiet, and the idea of performing at Senior Night at Windham High School must have been frightening. He blurted out to his friends that he was going to put on a ventriloquist act — although he had no idea how ventriloquism worked. He bought a book and a puppet, and practiced until the night of the performance. It became a hobby he enjoyed for the rest of his life, although only his family and close friends knew about it.

He attended the University of Connecticut and spent a year at Willimantic State Teachers College (now Eastern Connecticut State University), but left before graduation (many years later, the University of Massachusetts, under a policy of granting college credits for life experiences, awarded him a bachelor's degree; he went on to earn a master's and doctorate in legal education at UMass.)

After leaving college, he became a sportscaster at WILI Radio in Willimantic, and then served from 1965 to 1969 as the first director of the Windham Area Community Action Program, an anti-poverty agency.

When he saw an advertisement for executive director of the CCLU, he applied for the job, and was hired in part because he was not a lawyer. "They wanted an executive director who could be an ambulance chaser and could call people," said Astrida Olds, Bill's wife. Lawyers would have been prohibited from contacting people facing problems related to civil liberties.

As the group's first full-time director, Olds earned the respect of many people, not only in Connecticut, but in the national ACLU community.

"He listened to people and treated them with respect," said Larry Albert, a former commissioner of the state Department of Correction and member of the CCLU board (Albert resigned from the board after his department was sued several times, although he helped resolve many of the issues involved in the lawsuits).

Many people would come to the office seeking legal assistance, and Olds often had to explain that their problems, while serious, did not involve the Constitution or civil rights. "He would hold their hand while letting them know he wasn't going to take their case," Albert said.

"He had the most gracious way of helping people who said their civil rights were being violated," said Shelley Geballe, who was a lawyer at the CCLU while Olds was director.

One frequent visitor believed that the CIA could read his mind through his dental fillings, and repeatedly sought Olds' help. Olds, sympathetic, suggested that the man chew licorice gum, which appeared to help his symptoms.

Olds testified frequently at the state Capitol on bills that had civil rights implications. "He had a great presence, and was greatly respected," recalled Albert. "He didn't have much fear and could talk on whatever issue."

Don Noel, who was then an editorial writer at the Hartford Times, saw Olds frequently at the legislature. "He was a very laid back guy, very quiet and very persuasive," Noel said. "He was so relaxed you wouldn't think he was the leader of a major organization, but he was extraordinarily effective."

Noel won a commendation from Olds in a competition Olds sponsored for editorials that best supported CCLU values. "He was the voice of civil rights in Connecticut for several decades," said Noel, who went on to be an editorial columnist at The Courant, and joined the ACLU of Connecticut in 1997 after retiring.

To make civil rights issues more understandable, Olds made short movies and wrote pamphlets on multiple legal issues. Many of the publications were aimed at students at a time when civics were no longer part of the high school curriculum.

The legal arm of the CCLU was extremely active during Olds' time with the organization. "There were 15 consent decrees," recalled Martha Stone, who was the legal director for the organization — agreements reached with state agencies after they had been sued.

Two cases are still being monitored by the courts: Sheff v. O'Neill, the Hartford school desegregation case, and Juan F., a case against the Department of Children and Families over a claim of inadequate services.

There were cases involving voting rights in New Britain, prisoner's rights and rights of minority police officers, among others. "The cases were generated by the most powerless people," said Stone. "He broadened the base of the kinds of cases the CCLU was taking, and Bill was totally supportive of that. … He was totally committed to the First Amendment and equal rights for all. He could make the argument and people would listen to him."

He also served as president of the council of ACLU executive directors and was a liaison to the national ACLU office in New York.

"It was his life," said White, who is now litigation director for New Haven Legal Assistance. "CCLU, the entity, and the man were identical."

In the early 1970s, Bill and Astrida decided to move out of Mansfield, where they had been living, after hearing that the Blue Hills neighborhood in North Hartford was taking steps to maintain racial integration. Many Jewish families had moved to the suburbs, and were being replaced by black families. "We went to an open house [in Blue Hills] and both of us at the same time said, 'We have to do it,'" said Astrida Olds. They bought a house and lived in Blue Hills until 1982.

After Olds decided to retire, he faced the idea of a party, which would be attended by dozens of lawyers, legislators and friends, but he dreaded being the center of attraction.

To everyone's surprise, he stood up at the microphone, and Wally, a puppet who was "a wise ass of a kid," became the guest speaker. Gov. Lowell Weicker was one of the guests.

After leaving the CCLU, Olds was a consultant with the Open Society Institute and with the Compassion in Dying Federation, which dealt with end-of-life issues.

Olds is survived by his wife, Astrida; two daughters, Laura Tate and Lisa Heath; three grandchildren; and a sister, Mary Meikle.

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