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Sidney Topol, broadcasting visionary and beacon for peace, dies at 97

Mr. Topol, a visionary cable and satellite broadcasting executive, took a place among the world’s significant advocates for peace, through philanthropy and the example he set in his own life.

Already a college student at the age of 16, Sidney Topol was playing table tennis with a friend in his dorm on Dec. 7, 1941, when they paused to listen to the news on the radio: Pearl Harbor had been attacked.

“We all knew that we were destined to join the fight to preserve our country as we knew it,” he later wrote in a memoir. “With great clarity, I realized that I would be fighting a war along with my two brothers and all my classmates. It would be our generation’s world war.”

For Mr. Topol, World War II also would prove to be a stepping stone toward what he considered his greatest legacy — taking a place among the world’s significant advocates for peace, through philanthropy and the example he set in his own life.


Postwar, he served in Japan as part of the Army of Occupation. In retirement, some of the millions of dollars he donated to causes went to fund the Topol Research Fellowships, which support graduate students who study and promote nonviolence. “Wars have been notably disastrous failures,” he told Tufts Magazine in 2015.

A visionary cable and satellite broadcasting executive whose groundbreaking ideas helped create the industry viewers depend on today, Mr. Topol was 97 when he died March 30 in his Longboat Key, Fla., home.

“Sid Topol held a lifelong deep commitment to principles of nonviolence and justice,” Hilary Rantisi, associate director of the Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative at Harvard Divinity School’s Religion and Public Life program, said in a statement.

James Klutznick, board chair of Americans for Peace Now — an organization on whose board Mr. Topol had served — said in a statement that he was “both a hawk for peace and conflict resolution, and a down to earth good guy with a generous heart, a grin on his face, and a twinkle in his eye.”


No accolade, however, could fully capture a life as long and as full as Mr. Topol’s, which he recounted in his memoir, “A Boychik from Dorchester: My Life as a Veteran, Activist, Visionary, and Philanthropist.”

Mr. Topol, who as a boy sold “potatoes and spinach by the peck” from the back of his father’s produce truck, led the broadcasting industry into the future some four decades after enduring those chilly Boston mornings.

A successful design engineer and manager at Raytheon for more than 20 years, he headed south in 1971 to join Scientific Atlanta, which manufactured cable TV and telecommunications equipment. He spent about 19 years there, first as president, then as chief executive, then as board chairman, guiding the company’s annual sales from $16 million to $600 million.

A high point was persuading an HBO executive to begin broadcasting its programs via satellite, including what became known as the Thrilla in Manila, the legendary 1975 heavyweight championship bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the Philippines.

“It was really Sid who convinced me that we could put HBO up on the bird and that in fact there were earth stations that could receive this signal,” former HBO executive Gerald Levin said in an interview that is online, as part of Mr. Topol’s site with the Cable Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 2001. “And I really have to give Sid Topol the credit for that.”


HBO snagged some 500,000 pay-per-view customers from the estimated global audience of 1 billion viewers for the fight.

“Right after that it was clear that this thing made sense,” Mr. Topol said on the video.

“So HBO was followed by Showtime, was followed by Turner Broadcasting and then ESPN,” he said. “And, you know, the rest was history.”

The Cable Hall of Fame said that during Mr. Topol’s “tenure the company developed the concept of cable/satellite connection” as Scientific Atlanta “established satellite-delivered television for the cable industry.”

The youngest of four siblings, Sid Topol was born on Dec. 28, 1924, in his mother’s bedroom on the second floor of his family’s Dorchester home.

His parents, Israel Morris Topol and Dora Kalinsky Topol, were immigrants from the borderland of Russia and Poland. Before moving to Boston, they met and married in New York City, where she worked in the sweatshops at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, site of a historic 1911 fire that killed 146 people, mostly women and girls.

Mr. Topol wrote that he developed his “work ethic from watching and helping my blue-collar father work on his produce truck, and I applied those principles to my own workplace as I grew older.”

His mother, meanwhile, set in motion his future philanthropy. “My mother was always interested in helping others and was involved in a wide range of charitable activities,” he wrote.


A precocious student, Mr. Topol skipped grades as a youth and graduated from Boston Latin School at 16. He was a student at what became the University of Massachusetts Amherst when he left at 18 to join what is now the Air Force.

Trained for jobs that included being a radar officer for bombers, he eventually ended up being stationed in Japan after the war, “building microwave links around Tokyo and other parts of the country.”

Returning to Boston a few years later, he met Lillian Friedman, a Simmons College student known as Libby. Each was politically left of center, and though their opinions differed some, “over the years, I realized that many of Libby’s political opinions were eventually proven correct, and mine wrong,” he wrote.

“He always credited his mother with teaching him how important it was to think about other people,” their daughter Joanne of Pasadena, Calif., said in an interview.

While Mr. Topol and Libby were dating, he wrote, on the phone one day “out of the clear blue, Libby said to me: ‘Sidney, I think we ought to get married.’ My response was an immediate, ‘OK!’”

They married in 1951 and had three daughters — Deborah, who lives in Seekonk, Joanne, and Martha of Portsmouth, N.H.

“He had a desire to do something worthwhile, to make sure his life had meaning. I think that drove him,” Joanne said.

“His real faith is a faith that we will figure this out as a species, essentially,” she added. “He wanted to believe that humanity was fundamentally good and that we could rely on that to solve things. To him, there was no need ever for violence.”


A service has been held for Mr. Topol, who in addition to his wife and three daughters, leaves four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

“He was for me, as for so many other people, an exemplar of what it means to live an ethical, Jewish life,” said Peter Beinart, the writer and commentator, in a eulogy at the funeral service.

Mr. Topol, he said, “was humble, kind, decent, down-to-earth, and unceasingly enthusiastic about his mission of making the world a kinder and more decent place.”

The success Mr. Topol had promoting peace was measured in the honors he received, among them the Leonard Fein Justice Award.

He concluded his memoir by saying that for decades he had worked to create “a nonviolent planet based on love, peace and security for ALL people. My hope is that I have left this world a better place than when I entered it. That is the only legacy I desire.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at