Making a Difference

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Most people, when they hear about an injustice, think to themselves that someone should do something about that. The general feeling is that if it is important enough, someone else will do something about it. Today, civil disobedience and protesting are often thought of as things of the past. People are too busy, have other concerns, or just don’t want to get involved. This has never been the attitude of John Maddux, who has been an advocate for social causes since the late 1960s. Through his passion and his dedication to raising awareness of social causes, John Maddux has been able to show the importance of what people can do to change the wrongs around them.

John’s first encounter with injustice happened when he was just a child. While vacationing in Georgia, which still has Jim Crow laws at the time, John tried to take an African-American boy to the same bathroom that he had just used. “A man started yelling at me,” John said. “I started crying. I didn’t know what I had done wrong.” Later, when John’s parents explained it all to him, he was confused and horrified. “I was raised in the Quaker tradition,” John stated. “There is a deep sense of social justice that we are taught.” The need to get involved began in John when he started to understand what injustice meant at a personal level and wanted to see the injustice changed.

From civil rights to gay rights, John has participated in protests, worked with local and national groups, and taught classes on civil disobedience. Though John participated in various protests as a young man, his major work with social change has been since 1992. “I came out then,” John explained. “I realized the need and just kept volunteering. I continued to get more and more involved.” John has served as board members of various local organizations, including the Greater Cincinnati LGBT. He was the president of that organization for three years, during which time he helped create a community center for LGBT people to gather. John’s earlier involvement in protesting was not as regular, but no less important to him.

John’s first awareness of the significance of public protest as a means for change came at a protest against the Vietnam War in Cincinnati. There, he met Joan Baez. Her passion and dedication to social change inspired him to become more involved in the community and take part in national protests. In 1970, four student protesters were shot and killed on the campus of Kent State University. He was in history class when the professor announced what had happened. “He told us that anyone who wanted to could leave without penalty,” John said. “I was the only one who did. The rest of the class booed me as I walked out.” John later joined other students who were protesting at Van Wormer Hall, which was the administration building at time. The protest lasted overnight until the police made the students leave. The University closed down shortly afterwards.

Protesting comes with some risks, including being arrested for breaking the law. Usually the charges are not for protesting, which is protected by the Constitution, but for peripheral reasons such as trespassing. “I’ve been arrested in a lot of places,” John laughed. He was arrested near Seattle as part of a protest against the shipping of nuclear weapon parts. He was also arrested in Maryland for protesting in front of the Center for Disease Control because of the lack of money being used for AIDS research. Another time John was arrested in Washington DC for blocking the steps of the Supreme Court while they heard a case about sodomy laws in Georgia.

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John marching in a protest in downtown Cincinnati

Though John has participated in protests nationally, he has done most of his work locally in Cincinnati. He is most proud of a boycott he helped organize in 1988. At the time, he was the Chair of the Task Force against Discrimination. The group was receiving complaints against a local restaurant chain, In Cahoots. The management had been firing employees for being gay. When the management refused to work with the group, they called for a boycott. Many other local groups joined the protest. According to John, “All in all, 33 groups joined the boycott. After one month, their business fell off by 2/3. They eventually gave in to our demands.” Not only were the fired employees given their jobs back, but they received back pay as well. The chain also agreed to a non-discrimination pledge. “It was the first national protest against a major corporation that was successful. Seeing something happen as a result of what you have done is very rewarding,” John said.

In order to pass along his own passion for social change, John teaches this topic in some of his classes. The courses cover civil disobedience, but also include political protest and community action as part of the class. “You can’t expect everyone to go out and commit civil disobedience. I just want them to get involved in the community somehow.” When John teaches his course on these issues, he uses service learning to engage the students in the ideas he is presenting. For the course, which uses service learning as its base approach, students must join an organization in the city that provides some social service to the community. In the past, students have worked food banks, boys and girls clubs, and political campaigns.

The course also includes readings by prominent figures in civil disobedience and political action, such as Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Joan Baez. “I also include one of my own articles on civil disobedience,” John said. “Because it is important for students to know what true civil disobedience involves.” John is very clear that most of what he has done is protesting, and not true civil disobedience. His article covers what is required for an act of protest to be considered legitimate civil disobedience.

John lists four elements that must be present for legitimate civil disobedience. First, the law in question must be broken as part of the protest. He cites a protest in London as an example. “In a major London park, probably Hyde Park, a group of gays and lesbians got together for a Kiss-In to protest anti-gay laws in Britain. There was a law that forbade any public displays of affection between same sex people, and they broke the law as part of the protest.” Secondly, the protesters must accept the legitimacy of the system of government. “It’s not a coup or a revolution,” explains John. The act must also be done in public, and the protesters must accept responsibility for their actions.

The purpose of the course is to make students aware of the legitimacy of public protest. “This right is guaranteed in the Constitution. A lot of people think of protesters as disgruntled. That’s not what protesting is about. It’s about giving back to the community.” The reaction of the students to the class was “overwhelming,” according to John. “They really enjoyed it. That class got the highest evaluations I have ever gotten.”

Making a difference in the community at the most basic level starts awareness. Awareness is part of what inspires John to teach classes on community involvement. “I want students to see the value and fulfillment of getting involved,” John says. John’s own activities serve as an example to not just his students, but to anyone who has worked with him. John believes social engagement is central to any democracy, as it is through the involvement of its citizens that help keep a democracy strong. The dedication of a few can inspire others to get involved, and it is the passion of John’s beliefs that clearly demonstrate the difference that people can make, both at a local and national level.

Remembering Grandma

My grandmother, Anne Sopko, was born Anna Collner on July 18, 1908. She weighed only three pounds at birth, and her mother was told by the doctor, “Don’t get too attached to this one.” Grandma died on November 26, 2007, at the age of 99.  Throughout her life, Grandma defied the limitations placed on her and made her way in a world that did not encourage the accomplishments of women.

It’s Not the Destination; It’s the Journey

As a child, Anna was somewhat of a troublemaker. When her family got their first car, her father began to teach her brothers to drive, but would not teach 14-year-old Anna. Stubbornly refusing to be left out, Anna took the keys to the car and went into the garage to start it up. She got the car in gear, but had neglected to open the garage door. After crashing through the garage door, Anna was eventually allowed to learn to drive. In high school, she dated the captain of the football team. He skipped practice so often to go out with her that the coach came up to her and told her that she had to let him come to practice because the team needed him.

Anne (which she always pronounced “Annie”) was an accomplished piano player, and played professionally, touring Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin with an orchestra (what today we would call big band). Her orchestra once opened for Glenn Miller. Music was always a big part of her life. After she left professional music, she played the organ at church, and gave piano lessons. The centerpiece of her living room was a beautiful baby grand piano that her husband bought for her. In the days before TV, Grandma entertained her family by playing the piano after dinner and leading family sing-a-longs.

Love and Losses

Anne met her husband, George, when he came to the house selling neckties door-to door. Anne’s family was Croatian, and George was Slovenian. For that reason, Anne’s mother did not approve of George as a suitor. Once when George came to pick up Anne for a date, Anne’s mother chased him away with a broom. Despite the challenges, Anne and George were married in May of 1933. They opened a business together, a tavern, and had twin daughters (my mother and aunt) in 1938.

Grandma suffered many losses in her life. A beloved older sister died of tuberculosis in 1918. She had given birth to triplets, but one daughter died shortly after birth from a heart defect.  A close friend was killed in action in WWII, a brother died in a car crash, and her parents died within three years of each other –  her father in 1944 and her mother in 1947. Her biggest loss, though, was the death of her husband in 1950.

No Rest for the Weary

After my grandfather died, Grandma was left with two young children. George had been sick for some time, and money was tight. At one point, Anne worked four jobs to support her family. Her full time job was at the military arsenal in Joliet, Illinois, a 50 minute drive (before the interstate system) from where she lived.  Her job was as an accountant, but since she did not have a college degree, she was not allowed to be promoted past a certain point. Twice during her time at the arsenal, she had to train her boss.

Since she had never had a chance to go to college, Grandma was determined that her daughters would have a college education.  Grandma lived frugally, and was able to send her daughters to college, where they both earned degrees in chemistry. My mother worked for the FDA until she became pregnant with me, and my aunt worked for over 50 years as a nuclear medicine technician.

Better Alone than with the Wrong Man

Always popular, Grandma had boyfriends after her husband died. She dated one man, Andy, for three years while her daughters were in late middle school and early high school. Everyone thought Grandma and Andy were going to get married, but when they began to discuss marriage, Andy’s family insisted that he ask her to sign over her house since he was taking on the responsibility of raising Grandma’s children. Grandma flatly refused, so she and Andy broke up.

In 1963, Grandma remarried. After the wedding, Leo changed and became abusive towards my grandmother. Though divorce was not uncommon in 1965, Grandma was a devout Roman Catholic, and Catholics did not divorce. After the abuse became intolerable, Grandma was advised by a priest to leave Leo, and she eventually had the marriage annulled, something most women, much less Catholics, did not do at that time.

Growing Old Isn’t for the Weak

Grandma’s great determination never left her. When she was 95, she fell on the bottom step of her basement and broke her hip. Crawling back up the stairs, she was able to call a neighbor for help. After the surgery to repair her hip, Grandma sailed through rehab. The nurses at the hospital were amazed at how quickly she bounced back. Many elderly people who break their hips do not recover, and a large number of them pass away within six months.  Grandma was back home within three months.

At 98, Grandma was no longer able to live alone. She had to give up the house she had built after the death of her husband, and where she has raised her children. Life in assisted living was hard on her, as her hearing and her eyesight were failing. As someone who never had problems making friends, Grandma could not hear or recognize the new people around her. Nonetheless, her indomitable spirit was there. Sitting in the lounge, she would sometimes comment, “Look at those old people,” though she probably had 10-15 years on most of them.

Finally, Grandma’s body gave out. Two months before she turned 99, she fell again, breaking her leg. Her bones were too soft to properly heal, and so she was confined to a wheelchair. Though she did well in rehab for a few weeks, she started to decline. On the Monday after Thanksgiving, 2007, she died surrounded by family, peacefully in bed. When my dad called to tell me she was gone, I could not fathom it, even though I knew she was fading. It did not seem possible that the incredible vibrancy that had been my grandmother could possibly not be there anymore.

A Wonderful Life

Anne Sopko was not famous. She did not change the world with inventions, wield great power, or make millions of dollars – things often associated with an extraordinary life. Rather, Anne’s life was extraordinary in how she faced the challenges she was given. For most of her life, women were not encouraged to be independent, outspoken, or educated. Anne always made her own way, said what she thought, and as a single mother made sure her daughters had the education she could not have. Anne also chose to make her way alone rather than compromise herself or what she had earned.

Maya Angelou once wrote “We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.” Grandma was never defeated. She was a powerful example of an independent woman, and raised her daughters to be confident, accomplished women. Her spirit lives on in the achievements of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as she set a shining example of how to live life on one’s own terms no matter what happens along the way.