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  • In Memoriam, Donald M. Topping 1929-2003
  • Byron W. Bender and Priscilla Topping

Donald Medley Topping died peacefully at home, surrounded by a few family members and friends, on Sunday, June 29, 2003, thereby ending a sixteen-year bout with cancer. The field of Austronesian Linguistics is indebted to him for his pioneering dictionary and grammar of the Chamorro language, for recognizing early on the threat of language endangerment, and for mounting a campaign that attempted to forestall its onslaught in Micronesia. The University of Hawai'i (UH) benefited from his innovative work in the language training of Peace Corps volunteers, and from the programs he later established for the training of Micronesian teachers. In carrying out the latter, he was an entrepreneur who found support for basic linguistic research that produced orthographies, dictionaries, grammars, and other school materials. Our knowledge of the languages of the area has been greatly increased thereby. The heightened activity of research, writing, and training that resulted, involving primarily the languages and schools of Micronesia, extended over the better part of three decades, and its effect is still being felt-although Don was to conclude eventually, as we shall see, that even this effort fell short of its goal of ensuring language maintenance.

He was born November 1, 1929 on his grandfather's farm in Four-Pole Creek, West Virginia. His family, including his big sister Helen, soon moved to Ashland, Kentucky, where he would spend his youth. His love of music began early. Don's mother, Thelma, was a dynamic and extremely loving woman who doted on her fair-skinned, blue-eyed blond, calling him her "pertter boy." She said that by the age of three, Don had a beautiful singing voice and captured his first audience at a church revival where he sang "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know." The parishioners dubbed him the "Ivory Soap Baby." His mother once related a story about Don at the age of five conducting a children's toy band at a public recital. With baton in hand, and the band reaching a crescendo, the baton flew from Don's hand across the stage. He stepped down from his podium and continued to conduct with one hand as he crossed the stage to retrieve his baton. He never missed a beat.

Don lived an ideal childhood best illustrated by a Norman Rockwell painting: a time when children were safe to roam the town and surrounding countryside on their bicycles, sledding and ice-skating in winter, and swimming in the nearby river in summer. His mother said she couldn't recall him ever cracking a book, yet he was a straight-A student. His poor eyesight kept him out of most sports, but he was very musical, taking piano lessons until his pals stood outside his home taunting him. His first jobs included work as a paperboy, a shoeshine boy, later as a soda jerk, and even a short stint as a coal miner. One of his earliest bouts for social justice came at the [End Page 514] age of nine when he came upon a Jewish child being taunted by a gang of classmates. Instinctively, Don broke through the crowd and, standing between the boys, challenged them to fight him first. Of course, they backed down and Don walked the boy home to the great relief of his parents, who from then on treated Don to the culinary delights of knishes, halvah, baklava, and rugelach.

He said he first heard of Hawai'i at the age of 12 from a radio announcer detailing the military attack on Pearl Harbor. When he was 14 a friend's older brother returned home from the war with some jazz recordings. Don was hooked and would love jazz all his life. While attending Ashland High School, Don became an ROTC cadet as well as a talented swing dancer, dating and writing poetry for his girlfriends. During these years he became restless and rebellious, a handful for his mother who said "he got into many a scrape," staying out late with his pals, drinking, shooting dice, totaling his grandfather's car, as well as wrapping the family car around a tree. In...