Thomas Siporin, 59; Lawyer, Athlete, Artist Overcame Disabilities


Thomas Victor Siporin, who surmounted the challenges of polio and bone cancer to become a successful athlete, civil rights lawyer, poet, painter and performance artist, has died at the age of 59.

Siporin died Thursday of cancer at his home in the east San Francisco Bay Area, said Paula Morgan, his companion of 24 years.

From 1980 to 1983, Siporin served as executive director of the San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services, based in Van Nuys. There he helped establish a program still in effect that pays for legal aid to the poor by using interest on money held by attorneys for their clients.

As a lawyer, Siporin also worked with Legal Services in East Palo Alto and aided the United Farm Workers in the Central Valley and the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee.


But he achieved even more perhaps as a disabled artist with legal training fighting for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and for access to facilities through the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

Two years ago, Siporin performed and exhibited productions and paintings on disability at the Art & Soul World Exhibition for Artists with Disabilities in Los Angeles. About 40 countries were represented.

In 1997, Siporin wrote and performed a play at the Berkeley Arts Festival taken from his own life, “Honoring Robinson’s 50th: Pete Gray, Jim Abbott and Me--Crossing the Able-Bodied Barrier in Baseball.”

Born in Moline, Ill., Siporin suffered from polio as a child, which left his left arm severely undeveloped. Nonetheless, he became a formidable tennis player and even more remarkably became a star pitcher for his high school baseball team in Winnetka, Ill.


He went to Harvard, where he earned a letter in baseball as a one-armed pitcher. Also a standout at soccer, he graduated with honors in philosophy and mathematics.

After earning a law degree at UCLA, Siporin next studied comparative literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Siporin curtailed his law career and switched to art in the early 1980s after bone cancer cost him his left leg.

A prolific painter of coffeehouses and other Bay Area scenes, he displayed his work in more than 40 group and solo exhibitions at the Berkeley Store and other galleries. He was a featured artist in the show “Against All Odds: Talent, Ingenuity and Disability,” staged last year by the Berkeley Art Center to demonstrate the adaptive art-making techniques used by artists with disabilities.

In addition to Morgan, he is survived by his parents, Seymour and Mary Siporin of Laguna Hills, and his brother, Michael of Montclair, N.J.