In Memory of a Revolutionary Trade Unionist

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BOB WAHLFELDT DIED ON MARCH 26, 2008. He was an important
part of and an inspiration to much of the local activist
community. The following is excerpted from comments about
Bob made by Barbara Kessel and Gene Vanderport on October
2007 at the Solidarity Award Banquet.
BK: Solidarity is “an injury to one is an injury to all,”
and Bob was born into solidarity. He was born into a fairly
large family, and he was about 8 years-old when the
depression hit. His family was already poor, and they got
poorer. They took in other families, so there would be 15
or 16 people in their house that his Mom was cooking for.
They didn’t have enough money for food for all of those
people, but the farmers in the surrounding area would
drop off loads of produce and dairy—no name, free donations
on a regular basis. That’s how they got through.
Bob joined the union when he worked on the railroad
while in high school, the International Association of
Machinists. He joined the Navy in World War II and
became a rescue swimmer, returning after the war to
Danville. His second union was Mining Mill and Smelter
Workers, and his third union, and the one he was in for
the longest time, was the American Federation of Government
Employees. He was a maintenance electrician at the
Veteran’s Administration in Danville, which had the AFGE.
He discovered a really interesting young social worker
there who wasn’t real interested in unions, but Bob converted
him. And I think it worked. This guy’s name is Gene
Vanderport, and he is here today. Gene?
GV: First of all, the road to justice is not a straight road.
It’s a spiraling, rising road. I want to invite up two former
presidents of the VA local, Charles Quarles, come on up
Charles, and Neil Olson. We all came together around one
notion, that for the working class to get power it had to
overcome white supremacy, or we would never get there.
And that was our goal, we wrote about it, we talked about
it, we organized around it, and we made every manager in
the VA suffer if they did not meet the quotas that we were
setting for them. Because we just knew that before you
could make nine dollars an hour being a custodian, they
would instead have a whole bunch of black custodians.
And before women in nursing could make money, they
would instead have a whole bunch of black women being
nurses. And so something wasn’t quite right, and we came
together and made it work, for a brief shining moment.
But there was one guy I was worried about. He looked
very German to me. He had very, very short hair, and I swear
to God he had to take his engineering civies to a dry cleaner,
because you can’t possibly be so neat. He came up to me one
day and said, “I hear you’re a revolutionary.” I thought, “Aw
hell, I’m going to get it now.” I said, “Yes sir, I am.” And he
said, “Good, if you are for real I will love you forever.” That
admonition has been guiding my life ever since.
We’d go to meetings in underground places where
nobody could get us. It would usually be in a black neighborhood,
and one of our sisters said, “Quick, get in before
the neighbors see all of these white people here.” We did
such a good job the hospital director fired all of us. Honest
to God. Fired every one of us from the Equal Employment
Opportunity committee. So we knew what to do. We took
over the union and made the program work anyway. Bob
went on to be a community organizer and union leader. We
organized union coalitions that are still the benchmark.
When we moved the struggle against white supremacy
from the workplace into the community, there’s one man’s
name who will always be on that in Danville, who’s name
will always be on that in Champaign County, who is the
benchmark for freedom, solidarity, democracy. Thank you
fellow socialist Bob Wahlfeldt—we love you.
BK: Bob was appointed to the Human Relations Commission
by the mayor in Danville. This was right after Martin
Luther King’s march in Washington, and Danville
wanted to look like it was doing something, so they set up
this commission and put Bob on it. Fools! Because he was
dead serious. They went to Chicago and found this marvelous
man named Phil Smith, who agreed to take the job
of director, and they got busy. I want to tell you folks from
CUCPJ what they did. This is going to sound a little familiar.
They started following the police around, and they discovered
that the police did profiling, racial profiling.
They demanded and got a whole bunch of police
reports, they put together a report about the reports, and
they demanded and got a civilian police review board.
These were their glory days. They lasted about 6 months,
and then the mayor said, “We can’t have any more of this,”
and Judge Meyers in Danville put out an injunction saying
that these police reports would have to become closed and
that Bob had to turn them over.
Bob got wind of this. In the middle of the night, he
copied them all several times, and left them in the mail
boxes of all the people on the commission. The next morning,
when he was served the subpoena, he gave the mayor
his copies. But the mayor didn’t know they were all over
the place. So as punishment, the mayor tried to fire Phil
Smith. Well, the commission wouldn’t fire him, so then he
dissolved the entire commission. Bob set up a Commission
in Exile, and they published a newspaper every month for
two years about stories of injustices. The mayor tried to
stop them from doing that, but Bob said, “We don’t publish
it here, we publish it in Chicago, you can’t stop us.” That
was in the late 1970s. Here we are again.
Now I come to my last story. Brian Dolinar and Chris
Evans had a lot of interesting information about Sergeant
Myers and tasers. They wrote up a leaflet about this. They
wanted it to get to all the people who worked in the courthouse,
and they figured they were not in a very good position
themselves to pass this leaflet around. So they asked Bob
Wahlfeldt, thinking here is this guy who is a kind old gentleman,
so people aren’t going to give him a lot of trouble.
I was working in Books to Prisoners, and I was so glad to
be indoors, because it was raining sideways. All of a sudden
at the door there was this statue coated with rain. It was Bob,
and I realized he was smiling. Bob was not only smiling, he
was like a Christmas tree—a thousand watts. He was happy,
and I said “What’s going on,” and he said “I handed out all
those leaflets, and people gave me a hard time too!”
That’s Bob, that’s Bob! And all this time, he was just
been being himself. He tells other people, not just me,
“Remember to be yourself.” And I understood, finally, that
it means really what it says. It means bring your gifts to the
table, whatever they are, and put them out into the community,
because he’s for solidarity.

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