In Memoriam: Jack Barisonzi, 1933-2003

Posted December 31, 2003

JACK BARISONZI, LIFELONG socialist and activist and for many years a member of Solidarity, died in an auto accident twenty miles west of Madison, Wisconsin on November 8, 2003, his 70th birthday.

Jack was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on November 8, 1933.  He joined the Socialist Workers Party as a teenager in the Twin Cities.  In 1950 as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota he was expelled from the University for being a “Trotskyist.”  During the pernicious McCarthy era other students were expelled from universities for being “Communists,” but Jack was the only one expelled for being a “Trotskyist.”

He spent the next twelve years working in the Armour meat packing plant in South St. Paul and being an active member of the SWP. In 1965 Jack and four other members, including two of the key activists in the legendary 1934 Minneapolis Teamster Strike, Hank and Dorothy Schultz, were expelled from the SWP for “reopening preconvention discussion” by protesting the earlier expulsion from the SWP of the tendency that later became the Workers League and the Spartacist League.

Hank, Dorothy and Jack moved to Madison, Wisconsin in the summer of 1965 where I first encountered them. Jack was an expert sailor with a lifelong passion for sailing.  He frequently took me sailing on Lake Mendota in Madison where he would invariably “talk socialism” with me at a pace as frenetic as the boat’s racing over the waves.

Jack enrolled at the University of Wisconsin where he completed a BS degree in history and education and an MS in library science, but his “real life” throughout this period, as it was during his entire adult life, was politics and activism.

Jack was a tireless activist in building the movement against the war in Vietnam and an irrepressible advocate for socialism.  He and I founded the labor support subcommittee of the Madison Committee to End the War in Vietnam, which organized support for the Madison firefighters, then on strike, an activity which was instrumental in persuading the firefighters union to come out against the war in Vietnam, one of the first unions to do so in Wisconsin.

During the 1960s Jack was in the forefront as a leading activist in every movement for civil rights, social justice, women’s rights and worker’s rights in Madison.

For several years in the mid-1960s, Jack was a supporter of Tim Wohlforth’s Workers League and then with Dorothy Schultz and her three sons, joined the International Socialists (IS).  In 1974 Jack moved to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where he became a school librarian at Goodrich High School and an activist in his union, raised three children with his then wife Judy, and continued to participate in struggles for social justice whenever they arose.

In 1986 shortly after its founding, Jack joined Solidarity.  In 1996 upon retiring he moved back to Madison where he immediately became immersed in struggles there for economic, social and political justice.

Given his gregarious, outgoing personality, his enthusiasm, and his high level of activism and commitment, it is small wonder that Jack quickly became a well-known member of the Left in Madison.  He was a catalyst in the regular Madison gathering of radicals, “the Socialist Potluck,” a founding leader of the Madison Area Peace Council, and a supporter of the Rainbow Bookstore.

Perhaps indicative of Jack’s stature in the Madison community and the high regard in which he was held was the lead editorial in Madison’s afternoon daily newspaper, The Capital Times, following his death whose headline read “A Crusader for Peace.”

Upon retirement in 1996, Barisonzi moved to Madison.  He said he wanted to be in the thick of the political struggles in which he believed so passionately.  He quickly gravitated toward peace activism, opposing the U.S. bombings of Iraq and Kosovo in the late 1990s.  When the Madison Area Peace Council formed on September 24, 2001, Barisonzi was an early and constant stalwart, pouring his energy into opposing the U.S. invasions of distant lands.  He marched, picketed, spoke at churches, wrote letters to the editor and, ever the librarian, distributed articles he had searched out in international newspapers and on the Web. And when this war is finally finished, it will be right to remember Jack Barisonzi as one who raised the banner of sanity—and true patriotism—in a time of madness.

All those who met, knew, and worked with Jack became immediately aware of what a special human being he was—a self-aware eccentric, a passionate advocate of socialism and justice, a champion of oppressed humanity, a possessor of an inspired vision of a better world.

Jack was an exemplar of the very best of his generation.  His credo, in his own words, perhaps best sums up his life: “I believe that true spirituality can best be expressed and achieved in the struggle for social brotherhood, and for the social conditions that lay the basis for a just and caring society.”

Jack Barisonzi will be sorely missed by all of his friends and comrades in Madison and elsewhere.  His death is an irredeemable loss for “our side.”  Jack is survived by his three children, Joe, Jeanette and Laura.  He leaves us with a legacy truly worthy of emulation.