May 1, 1925 – July 21, 2017
Joel Jesse Elias passed away peacefully on July 21, 2017 at his home in Kensington, California surrounded by his loving family. He was 92.
Joel is preceded in death by his parents and by his beloved wife of 63 years, JoAnne Mitchell Elias. He is survived by his adoring family: his children Nathan, Paul, Annie, and Edy; his children’s spouses, ten grandchildren, his brother, sister-in-law, nieces, and many close friends.
Joel was born on May 1, 1925 in Chicago, Illinois to Bato Paul Elias and Jesse Badal Elias. Both parents were Assyrian refugees from Iran who fled the genocide of 1914-18. Joel was named after his father’s brother Youel who was killed in the genocide at age 16. Joel grew up in an Assyrian-American community in Chicago so close knit that he entered school without speaking a word of English. He quickly advanced though, and graduated high school at the age of 16 having skipped two grades.
In 1942 he was drafted into the Navy. He served as a medical corpsman on the hospital ship the U.S.S. Rescue, which transported wounded soldiers from Okinawa to Guam. Writing years later of his experience in the head and neck injuries unit as a 19-year-old medic, Joel wrote, “before this, we had been excited …to ‘see some action.’ But I now saw the reality of war clearly for the first time, and I have carried it with me for the rest of my life. It is the most obscene form of human behavior that there is.”
When the war ended and Joel was discharged from the Navy he attended the University of Illinois on the GI Bill, receiving his B.S. in Zoology in 1949. He earned his MA, then his PhD., in Zoology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1958. Moving to Berkeley from Chicago was a breath of fresh air for him and he never stopped marveling at the weather in the Bay Area and how free he felt on arriving in his beloved Berkeley where a person could “skip down the street singing and no-one would care.” In 1958 he joined the Anatomy Department at the University of California Medical School at San Francisco where he was a professor for thirty-two years and conducted scientific research in breast cancer. He authored numerous papers for scientific journals on the mammary gland research he conducted. After he retired he continued as Professor Emeritus to volunteer, helping medical students in the laboratory at UCSF.
Joel, together with his wife JoAnne, spent many happy years at their second home in Jacksonville. They loved hanging out at The Good Bean, going to the Britt Festival and Oregon Shakespeare Festival and relaxing at their home on the site where gold was first discovered and where JoAnne’s grandfather, Augustus Mitchell, first settled in the 1920s and her parents lived for many years.
Joel was a loving and devoted husband and friend and was a model father to so many, demonstrating what a gentle, kind, good father can be by listening to young people respectfully, empathetically, compassionately, and without judgment. He was a born storyteller who loved to make his listeners laugh. A history and politics buff and expansive reader with an encyclopedic knowledge, Joel was always hopeful and positive and believed that the world is a beautiful place and that life is good. Having survived the Depression and World War II, he took nothing for granted and took delight in simple things like a perfectly ripe peach, a Rumi poem, or a robin nesting outside the window. He truly lived by the sentiment of one of his favorite authors, William Saroyan: “In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”