Weather Updates

Cornell Park no stranger to violence

Updated: November 1, 2013 6:13AM

Changing times, changing crimes, but guns still rule.

On the evening of Sept. 19, five alleged gang-bangers, aided by an AK-47-style rifle, were involved in an attack that sprayed bullets into a crowd at Cornell Square Park, according to charges filed last week by Cook County prosecutors.

They wounded 13 innocent people, including a three-year-old child, in retaliation for an earlier shooting.

That mass assault in Chicago garnered international headlines. It also triggered a life-changing memory for my friend, Donna Norkus.

Two days after the shooting, Donna sent me an email to let me know it wasn’t the first time brutal violence has visited Cornell Park. “By the way, the mass shooting at the basketball court was at my back-o-the-yards park,” she wrote. “I used to hang out there.”

And 42 years ago, in 1971, Robert Topolski, the older brother of her classmate, was shot there.

Since we met in college, Donna and I have swapped stories of growing up in working-class, gritty enclaves on Chicago’s South Side. I lived east of State Street, then the black/white dividing line in segregated Chicago. She, in white Chicago, the Back of the Yards.

Now, this eerily reminiscent tale.

“Word was that it was a stray bullet intended for his friend in retaliation for a fist fight,” she wrote.

Topolski and all the neighborhood kids hung out at Cornell Park, Donna told me later over drinks. Some details of those times are shrouded in her memory, but still fascinating.

“They were a few years older than I was. I went to school with his younger sister, who was a very good friend of mine.”

Donna wasn’t at the park on that cool, October evening, but heard how it went down through the neighborhood grapevine.

Topolski, she said, “was really a nice guy. Bobby was well thought of.” His friend Hank, a bit of a troublemaker. Word was that Hank had been in a fist fight days before.

“They were sitting in the park on their usual park bench, Bobby Topolski and Hank, and whoever else,” she recalled. “The way I remember it is a car pulled up, and somebody just put a gun out the window, and I know that he was shot in the head.”

He died. He was 18.

I found no news clippings of the event, but did locate Topolski’s death certificate from the county coroner’s office. It confirms much of her story.

Topolski’s murder was transformative. It was “a kind of innocence lost,” Donna said, and “it really shook our world.” Fistfights were common in the Back of the Yards, but until then, shootings were “unheard of.”

She added, “There’s no question, it was a rough neighborhood, yeah. But from what I witnessed in the 70s, where we are now, is like, light years away. And that’s a reflection on the society as a whole. Guns, and the kinds of guns that are out there.”

Forty-two-years later, guns rule. Automatic weapons are claiming more, and younger, innocent victims. Guns are everywhere; in Cornell Park, Chicago, and America.

The People of the Gun, the NRA and its ilk, wouldn’t have it any other way. Will that ever be unacceptable?


© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.