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Civil rights advocate Donald Shaffer, 84, dies

Donald Shaffer died Feb. 17 at age 84.

Donald Shaffer died Feb. 17 at age 84. Credit: handout

Donald Shaffer may have spent much of his life advocating for civil rights, litigating against practices he called discriminatory, and later, ascending to prestigious legal positions, such as the board of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

But it was not until he was nearly 60 years old when he decided to become a lawyer.

"He had quite a long gap year," said colleague Daniel Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party, who has known him for two decades.

Shaffer, who died Feb. 17 at age 84 from complications related to heart surgery, was an insurance salesman first.

"I think he was a little at sea in the insurance business," said Donald Shack, 84, his friend since the fifth grade. "He wanted to be involved in the issues of the day."

Before graduating from New York University Law School in 1991, Shaffer kept active fighting for progressive causes, friends and family members recalled.

During the Civil Rights movement, he helped found the Great Neck Committee for Human Rights, seeking to halt discriminatory real estate practices. From Great Neck, he and supporters, Shack said, helped organize sit-ins down South. They raised money to pay for protesters' legal fees.

But law school thrust him into new responsibilities. Afterward, he worked as a pro-bono lawyer for the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union. He worked on some of their biggest cases, charging that Nassau's property assessment system discriminated against minorities, and spotlighting educational disparities among minorities.

Shaffer was born in Cleveland in 1928 and moved to Brooklyn as a young child. He grew up in Crown Heights and attended Midwood High School, then Brooklyn College. He and his wife, Doris, whom he met in Brooklyn, were longtime Great Neck residents. They lived there for 35 years, before moving to Manhattan in 1997. She died in 2009.

Shaffer saw his young law school classmates as ripe candidates for politics. "He became friends and political associates with people I went to college with," said son Robert Shaffer, 57, of Mechanicsburg, Pa. "He helped mentor people in their 20s."

After Doris died, Robert Shaffer said, his father began a lecture series in her memory. On a handful of occasions, in the Berkshires and in Manhattan, he spoke about Middle East policy and nuclear disarmament.

Besides his son Robert, Shaffer is survived by two other sons: Nathan Shaffer, 60, of Geneva, Switzerland; and David Shaffer, of Nashville, Tenn. His body will be donated to New York University Medical School for research, the family said; a memorial service is planned for June.

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