Friday, April 27, 2018

Obituary of David Marshall Billikopf (Annotated)

I knew from the very beginning that my friendship with David was once-in-a-lifetime extraordinary and I treasured every minute of it. I wanted it to last forever but that ended up not happening. In South America, or at least in Chile, obituaries are not biographical but merely funeral notices so I'm going to try and write for David a North American-style obituary, with my comments/anecdotes in the footnotes.

David Marshall Billikopf, 91, passed away peacefully on March 25, 2018 at his home in Santiago, Chile, surrounded by family and others who cared about him. He was the son of the late Jacob and Ruth (Marshall) Billikopf [1], grandson of Louis Marshall, and nephew of wilderness activist Bob Marshall.

David was born on June 9, 1926, in Philadelphia, PA. He grew up in Philadelphia, spending summers in the Marshall family cottage at the Knollwood Club in the Upper Adirondacks of New York. He attended the Oak Lane Country Day School [2] and the Germantown Friends School [3] in Philadelphia before graduating with honors from Harvard University in 1947. He served in the United States Army from 1945 to 1946.

After college David hitchhiked across the United States and then sailed to Europe, spending a year traveling through France and Italy. [4]

In 1952 David married María Encina of San Javier, Chile. [5] During the 1950s and 1960s David played an integral role in managing the Encina family's vineyard. In 1955 David built a home for his family in the Las Condes section of Santiago, Chile. This home, where he passed away, is designated as a National Monument by the Chilean government.

In 1970, during a time of political turmoil in Chile, David brought his wife and five children to New Canaan, Connecticut, where they lived until returning to South America in 1975. [6] It was during this time that David wrote the book, "The Exercise of Judicial Power, 1789-1864," an extensive study of the beginnings of the U.S. Federal Court system and Supreme Court decisions during that period.

After returning to Chile David spent his years writing and traveling. He wrote several novels, novellas, short stories, and poems in both English and Spanish.

Besides his parents, David was preceded in death by his sister, Mrs. Florence Schweitzer, and a grandson, David Marsing Billikopf.

David is survived by three sons, Gregorio, Nicolás, and Yahia Billikopf; two daughters, Philippa Anderson and Stephanie Billikopf; 25 grandchildren, and 15 great-grandchidren (with two more on the way). He is also survived by his Godson, Monsignor Carlos Encina of the Vatican, as well as a host of family, friends, and caretakers.

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Footnotes:

[1]  When David was ten  years old his mother, Ruth Marshall Billikopf, died from breast cancer at the family's Knollwood cottage in the Adirondacks. Though it may have seemed to outsiders that David had everything a kid could want except for his mother, he never considered this to be the case. He said she was always  with him, until the end of his life.


[2]  The Oak Lane Country Day School was an experimental "Deweyite" educational preschool/elementary school where students were encouraged to follow their own instincts and learn at their own pace. Political philosopher Noam Chomsky also attended this school, a year behind David. In David's Second Grade progress reports (I read all of his progress reports from that school -- he called them his "Laundry Sheets") it was mentioned that although David was a brilliant student, he was "inclined to boss first graders," one of whom would have been Chomsky. I offered the theory that perhaps Noam Chomsky's strong anti-authoritarian leanings may have had their roots in being bossed around in the First Grade by young David B.  Mr. Billikopf insisted that despite what it said in his "Laundry Sheets" he never bossed around any First Graders, so I let it go. I still think it's an amusing and very slightly plausible theory.

[3]  Germantown Friends was a Quaker School and David was one of four Jewish students in a class of fifty. It was here that David was introduced to the New Testament of the Bible. At the end of his Tenth Grade year a term paper contest was held. David wrote about the history of the Catholic Church and his paper and the term paper of another Jewish student were chosen as the winners of the contest. David's prize was a copy of Bullfinch's Mythology. He never ceased to be amused that a Jewish kid at a Quaker school won a book about mythology for writing about the Catholic Church :)


[4] On September 20, 1949 David sailed to Europe on the SS Excalibur.
November 14, 1949 was a rainy night in the southern Italian region of Apulia and it was here on this night in the province of Foggia that David first experienced the Spirit of God, which was never to leave him. Though David descended from a thousand years of Rabbis he generally considered his form of Judaism as an ethnic identity more than a religion until the time of this experience in Italy.  David and María Billikopf's children were raised in the Roman Catholic religion, and David himself embraced Catholicism though he considered himself a Theological Jew.  Among his descendants today are Mormons, Muslims, Catholics, and other Christians. To my knowledge not a single descendant of David identifies theologically as Jewish.

[5] On December 31, 1950, David was sailing back to the United States on the SS Liberté when he received a cable informing him that his father had died that day in Philadelphia. It was at dinner on this same night that David met his future wife, María. He arrived in New York and made it to Philadelphia in time for his father's funeral on January 2, 1951. The next month he flew to Chile to see María and the courtship was on.

[6]  The years David spent with his family in Connecticut were the only time he watched television. Living in Chile without a TV in the 1950s and '60s meant that he was completely unaware of  the classic television shows that people my age and older either grew up watching or learned to love in syndication. That changed when he moved back to the States. His favorite TV shows were All in the Family, Sanford & Son, Hogan's Heroes, Get Smart, Monday Night Football, and Masterpiece Theater. Upon returning to Chile the television served only one purpose in his life until the end -- World Cup Soccer.

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And there ends my footnoted obituary of the life of David Billikopf, a very brief summary with hundreds of interesting and amusing facts missing, along with one fact that is very much inconsequential -- that he was my friend, my sounding board, my trusted confidante.  It mattered not to me how old or far away he was or how completely different our lives and families were. The fantastic stories and histories were simply footnotes of his personality and not the basis of my admiration for this person that I'll spend the rest of my life missing. Being able to drop French, Spanish, and Latin phrases in the same email, sometimes the same paragraph -- having someone who lived next door to Albert Einstein telling me that I'm intelligent -- calling me from 6000 miles away because he hadn't heard from me and was worried -- chauffeuring me around New York City to all the best spots in Manhattan via Wi-Fi -- putting EVERYTHING into a perspective steeped in wisdom like no other person I've ever known -- no, I'll never have a friend like that again. And I'll never stop missing David.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

On Being a Snowflake

In the Age of Trump, people on the "right" have taken to calling people with liberal and progressive ideas "Snowflakes." Their reasoning is that snowflakes are fragile and sensitive. Every day on Facebook I see people being described as being Snowflakes if they complain about racism and xenophobia, rollbacks of environmental protections, or just disagree with anything Trump says in general.

If somebody calls you a Snowflake, just look at the source and then take it as a compliment. Not only are snowflakes infinitely unique, but we  human snowflakes can take pride in the fact that we are on the correct side of history and remind ourselves that there is strength in numbers:

Yes, take pride in being compared with the powerful force of one of nature's true miracles. Snowflakes are amazingly beautiful in and of themselves.


Who on earth would ever make that claim about their opposite?

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Dakota Pipeline: What Could Go Wrong?

Corporate Mercenary Ashley Nicole Welch
Sets an Attack Dog on Protesters
As the mainstream media ignores Native Americans and environmental activists braving attack dogs, mace, and mercenaries to stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline from being dug under the Missouri River and then run underground from North Dakota to Illinois, I ask myself, "What could go wrong?" After all, the company's website makes the claim that up to 575,000 barrels of "light sweet crude oil" can be transported every day in a safe and environmentally friendly fashion. So what could go wrong? Living close to the Missouri River, I think it's an important question to ask.

Let's look at some recent news headlines about oil pipelines:

September 5, 2016 - 5,000 Gallons of Crude Oil Spilled from Pipeline in Louisiana

August 20, 2016 - Pipeline Explosion Kills 10 Campers in New Mexico

July 21, 2016 - Water Poisoned After 1570 Barrels of Oil Spill into North Saskatchewan River

June 23, 2016 - 30,000+ Gallons of Crude Oil Spilled from Pipeline in Ventura County, California

April 2, 2016 - 16,800 Gallons Spilled from Pipeline in South Dakota

Those are just a few recent stories. Here are a dozen or so more pipeline accidents that have occurred in 2016 in the United States.

Also in pipeline news today Exxon Mobil is appealing a ruling that would force them to take new safety measures, along with a $2.6 million fine, resulting from the pipeline disaster in 2013 that spilled 134,000 gallons of heavy crude into the Little Rock suburb or Mayflower, Arkansas.

Since the year 2000 there have been hundreds of pipeline accidents in the United States alone, spilling millions of barrels of oil and gas, contaminating land and water all over the country, explosions killing many and lingering health effects killing and ruining countless more lives.

Yes, there's much that can go wrong so I'm glad that there are brave people willing to stand up and fight against Donald Trump's Energy Aide in his quest to frack North Dakota to bits and pump a half-million gallons of crude oil every day under our Missouri River and through farms, towns, streams, and lands that are sacred to Native Americans.


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Why Black Lives Matter Matters

I learned that black lives don't matter to a lot of people on February 17, 2003. Early that morning there had been a stampede after mace had been sprayed at a crowded Chicago nightclub and 21 people were trampled to death or suffocated trying to flee the building. I found the images disturbing and horrifying and I spoke about it with several people that day. Three of these people, whom I'd known forever and liked very much, said pretty much the same thing:  "Who cares? Just a bunch of n-----s" or "Just a bunch of stupid n-----s."

I couldn't believe the lack of compassion following this terrible event. I was enraged by the worst display of overt racism I had ever experienced, and I'd already seen plenty. But that day I realized for an absolute certainty that to many people black lives simply don't matter.

I come from a fairly racist community. I come from a Sundown Town. In a Sundown Town, to this day you can hear old timers longing for the days when a big sign in in their town read, "N----R, DON'T LET THE SUN GO DOWN ON YOUR BACK." It was a warning that if you were a person of color who worked in or passed through that white community you would be subjected to violence if you weren't out by dark. I've heard people "brag" about that all my life.

Today the white people in this town and the places nearby are much more tolerant and much less racist than they were 50 years ago, of course.  More African Americans live in these towns, but you can still hear nostalgia for how it used to be spoken often. And oftentimes the "enlightened" white citizens will tell you they are NOT racist and immediately follow that statement up with an explanation of the "two types of black people. There are black people and then there are n-----s." They will often acknowledge that it's the same with white people, and sometimes generously offer that "white trash people can be just as bad as n-----s." I've heard this conversation in my life more times than I can count. And I've heard a dead African American referred to as "just a n----r" more times than I can count as well.

This is why Black Lives Matter matters to me. All lives matter to me very much. Blue lives matter to me very much. I deeply respect Law Enforcement Officers. How would you like to be the first person to show up at the scene of a gruesome, deadly car accident and have to do this on a regular basis? How would you like to be called to show up on a scene where a person was murdered or committed suicide? How would you like to knock on somebody's door and tell them that their child has just been killed? Oh, I respect law enforcement very much and appreciate them for awful things that they have to do. Oh yes, all lives matter to me.

But the Black Lives Matter movement matters to me, too. Because I know why it exists -- to make people aware that for too many people, millions of people, African American lives simply don't matter. THIS IS AN INDISPUTABLE FACT. And racism still lingers on in Sundown Towns, cities, and institutions all across America. And for decades our criminal justice system has incarcerated millions of (disproportionately black) Americans for non-violent substance abuse crimes, destroying families and futures, saddling young people with criminal records, creating more substance abuse and violent crime. And of course the way too often police shootings that are causing this issue to come to a head (could it be the result of this?).

On a recent visit to the grounds of Harvard University, I was happy to see all of the Black Lives Matter signs posted around the place, more than I'd seen on my whole New England excursion. I happily pointed this out to my traveling companion. Somebody close by spoke up to correct me. "All lives matter," they said in an annoyed tone. I was enjoying myself too much to argue the issue. I'm just glad it's finally an issue.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Basketball Coach

I was living in Oregon in March of 1998 when I heard about the middle school shootings in Arkansas. I felt hit by a bolt of lightning  when I heard the word "Jonesboro." My uncle was the Superintendent of the Westside Consolidated School District where the massacre happened, and I knew that he was just weeks away from retirement. What a horrid way for an illustrious career to come to a close. Sure enough, Uncle Grover made the national news, as he and the grief-stricken community tried to make sense of an absolutely senseless tragedy. All of his wins as a basketball coach, all of his years in front of classrooms, the decades spent at the head of several Arkansas school districts... none of that mattered. A lifetime of achievement in Arkansas schools, and it all came down to an awful, horrific tragedy.

Whatever celebration had been planned for Uncle Grover's retirement had been put aside as the community mourned and tried to heal from the loss of four young students and a 32-year-old teacher who was a dear friend of my uncle. In later years, I don't remember a single conversation with Uncle Grover that didn't turn back to this tragedy. Before that, he was best known as the uncle who always had a new joke. I've got an Inbox folder that's more than a decade old filled with "Uncle Grover Jokes" that he started sending out by email once he grasped the potential of technology to share his love of humor. Jokes by email all the time from Uncle Grover, but in person the conversation always recalled the tragedy.

Two months after the Jonesboro killings, my Uncle Grover attended a luncheon in honor of his retirement and his service to Arkansas schools. But even this well deserved event had to be marred by further tragedy. It was at this luncheon that he and the other attendees found out that there had been ANOTHER school shooting, this time in Oregon, where I was. There would be no escaping the tragedy that marked the end of his career, and every school shooting that followed took him back to the worst time of his life, a time that would never leave him.

Recently, over the past several months, my uncle and his sister-in-law started writing a book about his life. About a country boy who went to high school for one reason and one reason only: to play basketball. The tedium of going to school every day, that was the price he had to pay if he wanted to do what he really loved, and that was to play basketball. The book about his life will be a story about a basketball player who went on to become a teacher and a coach, who would lead his Hickory Ridge High School basketball team to the state championship. I know that's what he wanted to be remembered for, and he is remembered by thousands and thousands of former students and colleagues for this and so much else.

The book is sure to be a good one. I can't wait until it is published. I can't wait to read it and find out all the things I didn't know about my Uncle Grover and will never get a chance to ask. Uncle Grover passed away last night, and all across the country and likely places around the world he is being remembered today, not for the shootings in Jonesboro, but for his leadership and sense of humor and his devotion to his first love, basketball. Rest in peace, Coach Cooper.