Truxon M. Sykes, 62, activist who helped the homeless

April 21, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

Truxon Morris Sykes, a social activist whose concerns included the homeless and the elderly, AIDS victims and the danger of asbestos exposure, died of lung cancer Saturday at Manor Care Skilled Nursing Facility in Towson. He was 62.

"He was a remarkable fellow and an unconventional grass-roots activist. He fought for us when he was in Vietnam, and when he returned home, he fought for the homeless and a good and fair housing policy. He appeared on the scene at the right moment," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who said he had been a friend since 1975.

"He was happy in his work and never complained," she said.

Mr. Sykes' activism began when he was 12, when he joined the Young Christian Workers in West Baltimore to warn children about the dangers of abusing cough syrup. In the nextfour decades, he worked tirelessly for the causes that came to define his life.

"He was one of those people who was always for the underdog and those who had no one to represent them. He was a solid advocate for oppressed and exploited peoples. There was no greater person than Truxon," said James Fite, an activist and friend of 25 years.

"The people he tried to help loved him but couldn't give him anything more than that. At least a lawyer gets a piece of a settlement and a doctor is paid by Medicare, but Truxon got nothing and barely could keep a roof over his own head," he said.

A. Robert Kaufman, a Baltimore activist who heads the Citywide Coalition, became acquainted with Mr. Sykes at the Crack of Doom Coffee House in Baltimore during the late 1950s.

"He was a bright and pretty opinionated guy, but I always enjoyed his company. He was always moved by the plight of people and was completely selfless in his work. The money he gave, and he didn't have much, came right out of his pockets. He had a heart of gold and was a real mensch," Mr. Kaufman said.

Mr. Sykes was born in Baltimore and raised on Federal Street. He attended city public schools, where he earned his General Educational Development diploma, and the Community College of Baltimore.

"In addition to asbestos, Truxon's working life exposed him to harsh chemicals used in rocket maintenance and chrome and steel production. He retired about 10 years ago on a medical disability," Mr. Fite said.

Mr. Sykes was no stranger to adversity and violence, and had fought a decade-long battle with drinking and homelessness. Later in life, he suffered from kidney disease, which required several transplants and continual dialysis treatments.

"I remember him telling me when he was a wino and footloose how the police would say the most terrible things about them and he would respond by saying, `They're still human beings, you know,'" Mr. Kaufman said.

He also recalled accompanying Mr. Sykes on an eerie walk through his old Federal Street neighborhood, during which he pointed to a rowhouse and explained that its former occupant had died in a shooting, and to another where someone had lost his life to drug addiction.

Mr. Sykes went through detoxification five times before overcoming alcoholism.

"I have control of my life. A lot of people don't," he told a reporter in 1994.

Mr. Sykes, who had been president and later executive director of the North East Community Association, was active in the Pentridge Community Association.

He was the founder of the Baltimore Homeless Union and became a strong opponent of the anti-panhandling ordinance that the City Council approved in 1993.

"These people want jobs. They're not asking for a handout; they're asking for a hand," Mr. Sykes said at a 1993 panhandling protest.

Mr. Sykes was an "important force in the development of drop-in shelters and permanent housing for the homeless in Baltimore and throughout Maryland," Mr. Fite said.

He was treasurer of the Baltimore chapter of the White Lung Association, a worldwide anti-asbestos group. Two years ago, he raised concerns about the Army's plan to process tons of asbestos at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

"Asbestos is a very dangerous material. It's a terrible death," Mr. Sykes told The Sun.

"He wanted to educate people as to the dangers of asbestos and the fact that it should be banned," said Michele O. Hax, a psychotherapist and White Lung Association board member.

Recently, Mr. Sykes represented the organization at conferences in Ottawa and Washington.

He wrote two self-published books, The Body Universe and A Guide to the Next Millennium.

"Truxon certainly found his life's work not in a church but on the streets of Baltimore," said his sister-in-law, Francis Sykes of Northwest Baltimore.

Services were yesterday.

Also surviving are several cousins.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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