Remembering Tony Topolski

RUMBLEY, Md. — Tony Topolski was a stubborn man, refusing to slow down even with his painfully disabled knees.

Last summer, Military Families Speak Out staged a march to the Dover Air Force Base, protesting the Bush administration’s return of soldiers killed in Iraq in the dead of night with no photos allowed.

Topolski drove up from his home near Salisbury, Md., and marched the entire two miles. He shrugged off the pain in his joy at the fightback against the war. He lived for the class struggle.

A few months later he was stricken with brain cancer. He died last October just before the Nov. 2 election. His wife, Joann, remembers that even as he failed, he was still combative. “He voted by absentee ballot just before he died,” she said. “He was determined to cast his ballot against Bush.”

Tony and Joann often drove three or more hours to attend meetings, demonstrations, and rallies in Baltimore or Washington. They were regulars at the summer cookouts in Baltimore to raise funds for the PWW and at our annual New Year’s Eve blast. Tony and Joann were expert jitter-buggers even with his bad knees.

Walking through a mall in Salisbury one day, Tony heard men speaking Polish. He greeted them. They told him they were undocumented workers from Poland toiling each night in virtual slavery cleaning Wal-Mart and other chain stores on the Eastern Shore. They had been brought to the U.S. on tourist visas by a labor contractor who ran his racket up and down the eastern seaboard. Tony called, urging me to come down and interview them. We visited the workers at the sleazy motel and they gave the World a revealing exposé of their peonage.

More recently, Tony wrote a blockbuster story for the PWW about a strike by workers in Salisbury. The company was a subsidiary of Halliburton and the workers were fighting wage and benefit takeaways that flowed from policies enforced by Vice President Dick Cheney when he was CEO of Halliburton. Tony interviewed the local United Auto Worker president who blasted Halliburton and Cheney. Topolski distributed that edition with his story to the strikers. This was in the run-up to the 2004 election in a part of Maryland the Republicans hoped to carry for Bush-Cheney. They lost.

Over the years he participated in labor-religious coalition work in defense of farm workers and poultry workers on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was an unwavering peace activist.

Tony Topolski was born Jan. 25, 1941, and grew up near Mount Carmel in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. His father was a coal miner and his mother a textile worker.

Tony and Joann and their three sons were living in central Pennsylvania in 1979 when the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor came close to meltdown. The disaster was a major factor in radicalizing Tony. He and Joann decided quickly to move to Maine, where he opened a small office repair shop.

They moved to Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1989. Tony worked as a truck driver until he suffered a shoulder injury on the job. He fought a bitter struggle with the trucking company for compensation.

When the family moved down from Maine they brought a Maine lobsterman’s boat named “Long Time Passing.” Tony painstakingly restored it and it now rests handsomely in its berth at the Goose Creek Marina here in Rumbley, a picturesque Chesapeake Bay fishing village that he loved. He is survived by Joann, sons Toni, Stefan, and Marek, and several grandchildren.

Tony was an ardent fighter for equality, workers’ rights and peace. We in Maryland loved him as a brother. We miss him.

The Topolski family has established the Tony Topolski Memorial Scholarship at Salisbury University. It provides $500 to a SU sociology major committed to equality, justice and social change. Contributions are tax deductible. Checks should be made out to Salisbury University Foundation, Inc., P.O. Box 2655, Salisbury, MD 21802. On the memo line identify it as a gift to the Tony Topolski Memorial Scholarship.