Remembering activist Thomas Wilson: ‘He lived his principles’

  • The late Thomas Wilson with his Solar Roller bike. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Published: 5/13/2019 6:22:25 AM

SHELBURNE FALLS — Like his grandfather and his father before him, Thomas Wilson wanted to become a dentist, from the time he was 9.

Starting off in Baltimore, where like his father he’d graduated from the nation’s first dental college, Tom Wilson left a short-lived “big-money practice” there for Franklin County.

The 1955 Amherst College graduate and his wife at the time, Joan, who’d gone to nursing school with Joan Olson of Colrain, took the advice of Olson’s physician father that a dentist was needed in the area.

The couple bought a 120-year-old house on Main Street in Shelburne Falls in December 1960 — one month after the startup of the Yankee Atomic reactor at Rowe. He set up a practice in the village the following year—one that would last nearly 50 years, 21 of them without a license.

As time went on, Wilson would become a vocal opponent of nuclear power as well as nuclear weapons, with a “No Nukes” bumper sticker affixed to the bicycle he’d ride to anti-nuclear and disarmament protests as a founding member of the Solar Rollers.

Wilson, who died last Dec. 22 at age 85, will be remembered at a May 18 potluck celebration at Shelburne-Buckland Community Center, from 4 to 7 p.m.

Wilson, active in mid-1960s Civil Rights protests and then in anti-Vietnam War protests as part of the Greenfield Community Peace Cen ter, recalled in 1979, “I felt I had an awareness of who I was in relation to other people, to the future. If someday my children ask me where I was I didn’t want to be caught not being able to give them an answer that I could feel good about.”

Wilson’s life changed in 1977, when he attended a non-violence training workshop at Woolman Hill in preparation for an anti-nuclear demonstration at Seabrook, N.H. There he met Wally Nelson, 26 years older than himself, a Deerfield conscientious objector who’d become a war tax resister in 1948.

Nelson “asked me a question that messed up my whole life, and put me on the right track,” he would later remember. If Wilson opposed nuclear power, why was he paying taxes that helped support the nuclear industry?

“Why are you paying for what you don’t want?” asked Nelson.

“That was the spark for me,” recalled Wilson, who with Nelson and others helped form Pioneer Valley War Tax Refusers. “That question shook me to the heart.”

In 1978, when nearly three dozen anti-nuclear activists pedaled from the Pioneer Valley to Seabrook to demonstrate not only against nuclear power but also for alternative energy sources, Wilson joined them as the oldest of the “Solar Rollers,” accompanied by his two 12-year-old twins, Tom. Jr. and Rebecca. (All were arrested at the demonstration, although only the children’s father was imprisoned for 13 days in the Manchester Armory.

“Tom Wilson was as constant as the North Star,” recalls David Detmold, another of the “Solar Rollers,” who would also join the activist dentist on a 1978 bicycling pilgrimage to protest at the Rocky Flats, Colo. nuclear munitions factory. “He lived his principles.”

Wilson’s son, Tom, now 54 and living in Manhattan, still recalls a memory from that trip, when some of the Solar Rollers began feeling the need to return home to get back to their jobs.

“Dad sensed the cohesion was starting to fall apart, and he called a little meeting in a meadow, with everyone sitting in a circle,” he said. “He just knelt down and held hands with everyone. He didn’t really say anything, but he knelt silently until everyone was looking around at each other and at him. He kind of single-handedly bonded this group together with just his spirit. I remember that to this day.”

Wilson continued to cycle for years, to Greenfield and back, to reunions at Amherst and Baltimore, and even in 2008 as part of a five-week Solar Rollers contingent tour of Vermont to lobby against relicensing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

“He was a constant Solar Roller. Even when he was physically challenged, in his advanced years, he continued to ride,” recalls Detmold.

Wilson, whose obstructive pulmonary disease ultimately necessitated his use of oxygen therapy, even symbolically joined Detmold on his ride from Plymouth Rock to Standing Rock two summers ago – pedaling from Shelburne to Buckland within the village.

The outspoken dentist maintained a weekly vigil every Sunday for 20 years on the Arms Library steps in Shelburne Falls, in vocal opposition to nuclear power and for nuclear disarmament.

Randee Laikind, who became Wilson’s long-term partner after they met at the tax-resistance action at the Colrain home of Randy Kehler and Betsy Corner in the late 1980s, said it was ultimately years of his working with chemicals while doing his own lab work to make dentures for patients that was believed to be responsible for his lung condition.

“He loved being a dentist,” she says. ”He was passionate about it, and he loved his patients,” some of whom – like Yankee Atomic Superintendent Herbert Autio worked at the same plant where he took part in protests before its 1992 shutdown.

Wilson even made house calls and cared for nursing home patients, Franklin County Jail inmates, Leverett Peace Pagoda monks and migrant farm workers without accepting pay — in part to limit his income to avoid paying taxes.

The dentist also bartered to serve patients, and part of next week’s memorial, where Wilson’s old T-shirts and protest buttons will be offered as “party favors,” will include a wall of sticky notes for recalling the items they bartered: eggs, chickens, maple syrup, and even marijuana and half a pig.

Wilson’s dental practice was suspended in 1987 by the state Board of Registration in Dentistry for failure to pay income taxes. An inspection of his dental office “found numerous serious deficiencies,” according to a state Department of Public Health spokesperson, including failure to comply with infection-control requirements and OSHA standards and failure to properly dispose of hazardous medical waste.

Wilson declared that he intended to continue working, and he did. In 2008, he was served a cease-and-desist order following a complaint from another dentist who learned from one of Wilson’s patients who couldn’t get a prescription for an antibiotic from the unlicensed dentist.

“I don’t want to push any further,” he announced at the time. “I couldn’t continue with my patients and face immediate arrest. I don’t want to put myself or anybody else through the arrest process.”

Wilson, whose children helped make a coffin for their father last Christmas eve from local wood before he received a “green burial” in Leyden, may have been unconventional as a medical professional, and some may have disagreed with his stances. But as someone dedicated to his patients and living by his principles, he was steadfast in making a difference and adding to the specialness of this place.

Recently retired, Richie Davis was a writer and editor for more than 40 years at the Greenfield Recorder. His email is


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Greenfield Recorder, keeping Franklin County informed since 1792.

Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261


Copyright © 2021 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy