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Sid Topol, at home

Beyond Violence

Sid Topolís bid to create a generation of peacemakers

Although he volunteered for military service during World War II, Sid Topol, J79P, doesn’t think the globe’s problems are best settled by force. “Wars have been notably disastrous failures,” he says. “Think of Vietnam, Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon—thousands of people killed, fortunes spent that could have been used for schools, infrastructure, health.” Today, he funds research and teaching on nonviolent resistance. His goal is as simple as it is ambitious. “I want to support a community of young people who will become leaders themselves and who will influence other leaders to work toward peace, reconciliation, diplomacy, and nonviolence,” he says, a note of urgency in his voice. “This isn’t research to write a paper. We have to reignite a peace movement.”

Topol was a pioneering entrepreneur in satellite communications and cable television, working for Raytheon before becoming president, CEO, and then chairman of Scientific Atlanta. At ninety, he directs his current effort from his Boston home office, which is filled with photos of him with Barack Obama, Harry Belafonte, and other liberal luminaries. His goal is peace, and he wants to see results.

Topol made a gift to the Fletcher School last year to expand its commitment to the study of nonviolent resistance. His support has made possible a graduate student fellowship, student summer research stipends, and the introduction of a new course on nonviolent resistance.

Benjamin Naimark-Rowse, the first graduate student to hold the Topol Fellowship, points to Fletcher’s longstanding dedication to scholarship on nonviolent resistance. “Sid’s gift provides the financial support for building out that community, so we can convene policymakers, academics, and activists and continue to be a hub for practice, teaching, and research on nonviolent resistance.”

Topol has made similar gifts to Brandeis, Harvard, and two schools he attended: the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Boston Latin School. His connections to Tufts include his daughter and son-in-law, who both graduated in the Class of 1979, and his granddaughter, who graduated in 2014.

The son of Polish immigrants who met at a sweatshop in New York City, Topol grew up in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood in a Yiddish-speaking family. He worked on his father’s fruit and produce truck after school. His military training, which included attending radar school at Harvard and MIT, disrupted his college years, but provided the technical foundation for his later business success. He authored several patents for antennas, including one that became the standard transportable radar used by NATO, and led Scientific Atlanta, the once-small telecommunications manufacturing firm, into the Forbes 500.

Since his retirement, Topol has devoted himself to activism and philanthropy. He’s particularly inspired by those who’ve chosen the path of peace. One such person is Teny Gross, A94, a former Israeli army sergeant who now leads the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, a Rhode Island organization that Topol supports. Gross will head to the streets at any hour to talk down gang members who are ready to fight, Topol observes. “That takes as much energy as it takes to be a sniper.”

Fletcher has for ten years hosted the Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict, in partnership with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. The institute brings together scholars, journalists, observers, and participants in nonviolent resistance campaigns for rights, freedom, and justice. The study of nonviolent resistance is also woven into several courses at Fletcher. Naimark-Rowse cotaught a class on the topic for undergraduates through Tufts’ Experimental College in fall 2014 and hopes to teach it again. The new graduate course on nonviolent resistance will be taught in the fall by the Topol Lecturer, whom the school is in the process of selecting.

On top of that, Fletcher students can apply to be Topol Scholars in Nonviolent Resistance. Three students will each receive up to $5,000 annually in support of eight weeks of summer research or a summer internship focusing on nonviolent resistance. The scholars will reflect together on their experiences and present their research in the fall.

Topol says he hopes the school’s graduates will carry forward the passion and skills to make a difference. “I’m motivated by my age,” he says. “When you’re ninety, your long-term plan is what are you going to do next Wednesday. But I was always a long-term strategist.” Now, his vision is to establish a cadre of leaders who will fight injustice without taking up arms.

HEATHER STEPHENSON is an editor for the Advancement Communications team at Tufts.

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