Remembering Karl Dennis, PWW booster extraordinaire

TUCSON, Ariz. — With the 2007 People’s Weekly World fund drive ready to start on Labor Day, Arizona PWW supporters, like supporters across the country, are gearing up, but we find it so strange to do so without the paper’s biggest booster, Karl Dennis, who passed away last February at the age of 87.

Karl loved this paper. He believed that it was not only important to contribute financially, which he generously did, but also to build and increase the paper’s circulation.

In the winter of 2001, Karl picked out a multiracial, working-class neighborhood on Tucson’s South Side. Each Sunday morning he was there with his bundle of 100 papers.

He started by leaving a paper on each doorknob. After a few weeks he started knocking on doors. His newspaper route gradually moved, leaving behind dozens of subscribers. Over four years, through cold winter mornings and blazing 100 degrees-plus summers, he sold almost 200 subscriptions, an average of about one per week. He was forced to stop by his failing health at age 85.

Karl also strove to make the PWW even better. He wrote letters to be published, and letters making suggestions on how to improve the paper. The “Ask a Communist” feature, now appearing in the PWW, was his inspiration.

Karl, named for Karl Marx, was born to a left-wing Jewish family in New York. As a young man he worked as a machinist and a jazz musician and was active in the trade union movement.

After World War II Karl and his new wife, June, moved to Tucson. They soon joined a young group of Communists who were active in civil rights and labor struggles. June spent weeks soliciting signatures on a petition to raise weekly Unemployment Insurance payments from $13 to $26.

Karl worked as a carpenter and at any odd job he could find. Tucson was a very small city back then and good jobs were scarce.

In 1950, Karl and June moved back to New York where he worked in machine shops as a toolmaker. Both Karl and June were active in their unions, in the American Labor Party, and in the campaign to free Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

One of Karl’s favorite stories was about a Labor Party meeting he chaired with a guest speaker, a very young pastor working on voting rights for African Americans in the South. The young pastor was an as yet unknown Martin Luther King Jr. The audience, made up mostly of low-paid garment workers, was so inspired by King’s oratory that they emptied their pockets to the tune of over $1,000, a huge sum in those days.

Over the years Karl had become less active politically, but that all changed after retirement and a return to Tucson when he started picking up the PWW in a local library lobby. When Salt of the Earth Labor College was founded in 1993, Karl became an eager participant.

June’s failing health kept Karl from becoming even more active, but he found ways to contribute from home. He bought a computer so he could design leaflets for events, and became Tucson’s best sign maker, making hundreds of sturdy colorful signs for demonstrations and picket lines. One of my favorites has a picture of George W. Bush behind bars with the caption, “A third term for Bush.”

We miss the old timer who would slip us a $100 bill, asking only that it would be put to good use, or show up at a labor picnic with a case of cold beer, apologizing for not being able to stay, but mostly we miss his optimistic view of a better future that can be won.

It’s a view that can best be summed up in Karl’s own words about his youth in Tucson: “We stood up for justice and equality. We were among friends who felt like we did and we were secure in the knowledge that eventually the working people of the world would understand their might and demand their rights. It’s the long view. Progress against the excesses of the establishment has always come through struggle.

He continued: “I still feel that way.”