Nick Topping 1918–2007
First Supporter of the Milwaukee 14
On September 24, 1968 Nick was at his import store near Plankinton and Wells in downtown Milwaukee when he heard some sirens and commotion outside. He went outside to the nearby intersection to find 14 men standing around a fire praying and singing. He knew what was happening, that the men were burning draft files, and cheered them on. Thus Nick Topping became the first supporter of the Milwaukee 14.
Nick told me this story some years later after we had gotten to know each other. Although I probably visited his import store a few times, I never knew Nick until his son Christopher became a student in the early seventies at an alternative high school we had just started. Don Cotton, another member of the Milwaukee 14, Janice Ereth, an agency person working on the South side and I had started an alternative high school, Independent Learning Center (ILC), shortly after Don and I got out of prison.
It was one of the first, if not the first, alternative, accredited high schools in Milwaukee. Most of the early students were pregnant young girls who had been kicked out of school, or youth in trouble with the law who were “undesirable” in the public schools. We were located on the South side and one day, early in the history of the school, Chris Topping showed up. He was smart, was not in trouble at school, not at all our typical student. However, Nick and his wife said he could attend the school and we, not being judgmental, accepted him.
During Chris’s years at the Independent Learning Center I got to know Nick and often visited his store. In those days there were not many stores that carried Middle Eastern foods. Greek food is very close to the Lebanese food that is my tradition. It was during this time I heard the famous story from Nick about how he was the concert promoter for the Beatles’ first and only visit to Milwaukee, in 1964. During this time Chris graduated from ILC.
My wife and I moved away from Milwaukee for three years and then found ourselves in Madison. At one of our visits home to Milwaukee we went to visit Nick at his store, which I believe was still downtown. When we inquired about Chris, he sadly told us that Chris had committed suicide. As he described in detail the day it happened I could really feel his deep hurt and sorrow. It was the only time I ever saw Nick without a smile on his face. Over the years I have heard good stories of how troubled youth at ILC had some tough times, but had always landed okay. Here was our prize student at the school meeting a tragic death. It did not make sense and still does not, but as for Nick and his family, life moved on.
After we finally moved back to Milwaukee in 1995 was when I really got to know Nick. I would see him every year at the annual “Rice and Beans” dinner, and would go down to his store, which was now on the South side, the area where he had grown up. His store now was more of a museum than a retail store. He had few customers but was always willing to help those in need, be it in filling out a tax form or some other way. We had some long talks and he told me of his experiences growing up on the South side, working in his family’s store, about the early Bob Dylan concerns he sponsored, stories about the peace and justice movement in Milwaukee and about the emergence of the Latino community on the near South side. He had a wonderful collection of old records and old newspapers.
A few years ago, at one of the last beans and rice dinners, I did not see Nick. I went by his store and it was abandoned. After he was stabbed and robbed at the store in 1995 he had kept the front door locked, only opening it for persons he knew. But now there was no one there to open the door to this treasury of memories of the past. At the last Beans and Rice dinner I asked a mutual friend about Nick. He must have gotten Nick mixed up with someone else, because he told me what I most feared, that Nick had passed away.
However, last week I learned that Nick had just died and that he had spent the last year of his life in a nursing home. If I had known that I would have visited him there, even if he had a memory loss and did not know me. When my Dad was dying from Alzheimer’s in a nursing home I learned how to communicate with persons using silence and a few words. Nick’s death reminds me that I need to go someday soon to visit Gordon Zahn, one of the last great peace and justice persons from Milwaukee of Nick’s generation. Gordon now lives in a local nursing home and suffers great memory loss, not even remembering words.
I am glad I got to visit and take a picture of John Gillman, Milwaukee 14 Today still alive, at a recent peace rally. He is man of peace from the same generation. Great men and women of peace and justice like Nick, Gordon, John, Mary Durnin and Lucille Evans (both women who passed away in the last year) are my heroes, persons who paved the way in social justice and peace for my generation. If only we can be like them and pass on to the next generation the treasures we have inherited.
Nick, you are my Greek hero. Your wife of 56 years and daughters are sad that you have left us. But I am know that you are now together with your precious son, Chris, looking over us and still smiling. I am sure everyone with you is enjoying your great stories. We pray for your family and ask your intersession for us, the next generation of elders, that we can follow in your footsteps. — Bob Graf, 14 May, 2007