Honoring the Life of Dr. Edgar S. Cahn: Timebanking Founder, Legal Scholar, Humanitarian

By Grace Maselli




Dr. Edgar S. Cahn left the world in better shape than he found it. The father of timebanking died Sunday, January 23, 2022 of heart disease. He was 86 years old, as reported in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Edgar Cahn was many things to many people: in addition to being the creator of timebanking, he was a lawyer who helped thousands of poor Americans receive justice as the driven individual who catalyzed the emergence of public interest law. He co-founded the groundbreaking National Legal Services Program and Antioch Law School in Washington, D.C., now the David A. Clarke School of Law. He was the author of three important books, No More Throw Away People: The Co-Production Imperative; Time Dollars; and Our Brother’s Keeper: The Indian in White America. Edgar was also creator of the “Time Dollars” concept, a refreshed approach to currency enabling people to earn credits through hours of volunteer work; within this system, once hours are accumulated, people can spend those credits to receive services from other volunteers — a particularly useful way to build connections between timebankers, especially those living within economically depressed conditions.

Edgar Cahn’s work, compassionate intellect, and humanitarian drive to assist the disenfranchised, inspired Marie Nelson (pictured here on the left with him) to found and continuosly build our very own Tampa Bay Timebank until her death in 2021.

Edgar was also about beauty, particularly where flowers and plants were concerned. “He was an avid gardener,” Dr. Christine Gray says of her husband of 22 years. “Being Edgar, he had to blend the public and private, and made this a project that he said was a way to be a good neighbor.”

Edgar and Christine lived together in Washington, D.C. where their place became known locally as “the flower house.”

“Our flower show ran from late March through August every year, a kind of slow fireworks display, full of color, and changing configurations. Every day was different,” adds Chris, an independent scholar-practitioner, organizational consultant, and longstanding partner with Edgar in timebanking.

Last year was particularly abundant for reasons that started as accidental in Chris’s telling of a story. One of the couple’s annual rituals together was to get out flower catalogues in spring and fall to order hundreds of bulbs and other plants that Edgar would joyfully and diligently plant each year. “Last year we pre-ordered 800 spring bulbs, then forgot we had done that so ordered a whole different 800 bulbs in the fall. We were busy assigning places to plant the first set of bulbs when the new boxes suddenly started to arrive,” Chris says.

Undeterred, the gardeners went to town: “We planted them all. Stuffing bulbs into every little corner we could find,” says Chris. “When spring came it was amazing, the best show ever.” The COVID-19 pandemic meant public gardens in Washington, D.C. were more meager than usual. “So our show became a fallback for locals and their visiting friends. Whenever we walked out the door, there would be people wandering up and down the sidewalk, taking photos, talking to each other. We would meet people from all over the United States.”

“This year I’m going to put up a little plaque commemorating Edgar’s passing, because so many people would recognize him as the man doing the gardening, even if they didn’t know him,” says Chris, pictured here in an embrace with her husband.

Those of us at TBT are indebted to Edgar. Not only for his intelligence, but his tenderness and life dedicated to the betterment of others, including us. The world has lost an irreplaceable humanitatrian who applied his gifts for the advancement of others. The effects of Dr. Edgar Cahn’s work and community-building will resonate for generations to come.