In Memoriam: Dr. S. Wojciech Sokolowski

By on May 12, 2020

Dear Friends and Colleagues,
 
It is with great sadness that I write to announce the passing on Saturday, May 3, of our dear friend and colleague, Wojciech Sokolowski.
 
As you may be aware, Wojciech had been suffering for the past 10 years or more from a rare disease called Inclusion Body Myositis that progressively eats away at the body’s muscular structure. This has significantly limited Wojciech’s mobility in the past and reduced him to getting around on a motorized wheelchair in recent years.
 
Over the past months, however, this condition worsened significantly, landing him in the hospital several months ago when he lost the ability to swallow whole food, and in recent weeks, had largely confined him to bed. Death came silently to him in his sleep, for which we can all be thankful.
 
Wojciech joined our Center in 1992 and has been a stalwart and brilliant collaborator with me across a broad front of activities for nearly 30 years, from the early days of the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project, through our work with the United Nations and International Labor Organization to put the third sector on the economic map of the world, and to our work on nonprofit employment in the U.S. He was an incredibly skillful researcher and methodologist with an ability to find innovative solutions to virtually any research dilemma. He effectively mastered the arcane details of national income accounting and has effectively brought that to bear in our work with the United Nations to devise methodologies to assess the scale and character of the nonprofit sector. Indeed, with his voracious reading and academic curiosity, there are few topics on which Wojciech did not have an informed opinion.
 
Wojciech’s contribution to our field has been monumental and we are all in his debt. This is a loss to our entire field, to which he contributed enormously in so many crucial ways. Ours was an enormously fruitful collaboration and his involvement was pivotal at every step. I am sure you will share my sense of loss at his passing.
 
Johns Hopkins has published a notice with additional details about Wojciech’s work, which you can view and share here.
 
In the event you may want to express your loss by a contribution in Wojciech’s name, Andrea has asked that contributions be directed to the Johns Hopkins Myositis Center, one of the few groups focusing on this malady, and the one that helped Wojciech navigate the past decade. You might note that your contribution to this Center is in honor of the memory of S. Wojciech Sokolowski.
 
Below, I have included a number of reflections from Wojciech’s family and colleagues that capture his profound impact as a mentor and researcher, as well as his extraordinarily unique personality, boundless curiosity, and commitment to social and economic justice. We will be collecting additional reminiscences of Wojciech in the days ahead to share with Andrea and on this blog post. If you care to offer any thoughts or remembrances, please convey them to Chelsea Newhouse at our Center.
 
Hoping you and yours are staying safe and healthy in these trying COVID-19 times,
 

Lester Salamon
Baltimore, MD, U.S.A., May 12, 2020
 
 
Reflections

“In his last years as reaching out globally became increasingly difficult, Wojtek threw himself into being the president of our community association. I admired how Wojtek could be so committed to his professional work, as well as maintaining the balance of having strong commitments closer to home. He was very capable and very humble at the same time…and generous. Wojtek worked right up until the end, as was his nature; projects with Lester and issues in the community. It is sad, I will miss him dearly, but he was able to go the way he wanted to—contributing until the very end.” ~ Wojciech’s wife, Andrea Schneider

“My father was an accomplished scholar, professor, statistician, activist, world traveler, crazy cat guy, indoor fountain maker, and model train enthusiast. He spent his last moments with his loving and amazing wife, Andrea Schneider, who became a bright shining light that could warm through his most cynical moments. He approached life the same way he dealt with his health problems, stubbornly and pragmatically, without losing his key sense of intellect, work ethic, and heart. One of my fondest memories of him is during the late stages of his condition, barely being able to grip things with his hands, somehow using a blow torch to put a large battery on a three-wheeled bicycle he planned on using to get around as he started losing the ability to walk. He was a huge inspiration to me, and was loved greatly by his circle of family and friends. He embraced the randomness of what life could throw at you, which took him to spend his high school years in Shanghai during the cultural revolution, escape authoritarianism in Poland, work his way from a janitor to a highly regarded expert in statistical analysis, as well as a stint as an election monitor in Uzbekistan. He was principled and caring, with an immense sense of empathy to others in the world. I’m going to miss him for the rest of my life, the talks we had, the games of chess I always lost, and his unending passion for learning that he took with him to the end. The world lost a great one, Tato, I know you’re stubbornly plowing full speed ahead through wherever in the Universe you are right now.” ~ Wojciech’s son, Sebastian Sokolowski

“I worked with Wojciech for the entire duration of my career, straight out of graduate school in 2004. We traveled together for our international projects to meet with government officials, civil society leaders, and our academic peers on five continents and spent hours in the office—and later in my car when he could no longer drive himself—discussing the finer points of a classification system, political theory, or research methodology. He had a brilliant mind that was able to transform our group’s collective ideas and theories into rational logic models and then build data systems around these ideas. Our creative process sometimes felt maddening as the discussion went around in circles, but eventually these marathon conversations would settle and Wojciech would emerge with a new idea he had had been piecing together that would solve the problem. He never seemed to tire of these discussions or this process. Though he was known to throw books at his computer and yell at his cell phone when the technology did not work the way he wanted it to, he was always patient with me and open to considering my point of view. I am grateful to have learned so much from him and I will miss him dearly.” ~ Megan Haddock, Center International Projects Manager

“Wojtek certainly had an impact on us all, and I’d say he was one of the most memorable personalities of our group. He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and what I especially appreciated about him was his willingness to always help out. Even after I left the Center and had questions about specific data, he was always willing to spend significant time running numbers to help me solve complex quantitative challenges. I learned so much from him and know I would not have achieved what I have in my career without his guidance, support, and brilliant insights.” ~ Stephanie Geller, former Center Listening Post and Nonprofit Economic Data Project Manager

“I had the pleasure of working with Wojciech at the Center over the past 12 years. He was one of—if not the—most interesting people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. While I’m sure his many other colleagues around the world will provide reflections regarding his remarkable impact on our field, my fondest memories of Wojciech will center around the always-animated and and sometimes challenging discussions we had when we were still based on campus. In fact, one of my major regrets when we moved to remote work was the prospect of missing out on those opportunities to learn from his experiences and share our frustrations with our current political moment—and, almost as regularly—stories about our crazy old cats. Fortunately, I was able to continue those discussions, albeit in a more limited capacity, via Facebook, where I always read his long screeds with a mixture of awe and amusement, and always looked forward to experiencing his travel stories vicariously through his sensitive photographer’s eye. I’ll miss his expertise and insight as a colleague, but moreso, I’ll miss him as a friend.” ~ Chelsea Newhouse, Center Communications Associate

“Wojtek has been my research partner since 1997 when I joined the CNP Project Team in Poland and then we cooperated in other major projects such as Volunteer Work Measurement, Third Sector Impact, and the UN Nonprofit Handbook. Although there was always 7000 km distance between us during this 22 years we became real friends.
 
Besides major international projects Wojtek always supported my work on the development of national nonprofit sector statistics in Poland, especially since 2008 when I started systemic development of nonprofit sector statistics in the Central Statistical Office of Poland. It was Wojtek who helped me so many times when there were the most difficult issues on the working definitions, tools designing and data analysis, but also with proper wordings of the reports, e.g. on the groundbreaking measurement of volunteer work carried out in 2011. I want to stress that very often his help was far beyond his official duties and represented his sincere devotion to the development of science, social progress, and civil society all over the world and of course especially in Poland—the motherland he always kept in his mind.
 
I will always remember the dozens of hours we spent on Skype or writing messages to each other on the statistical issues but also on hot political, historical, and sociological discussions we both liked so much. There is nobody and nothing to fill this gap.” ~ Dr. Slawomir Nalecz, a long-time Polish colleague and friend

“I shared this painful notice with my team in Santiago. We rapidly started to remember Wojtek´s intense last visit during 2015. Despite his illness and movement difficulties, he did not miss a meeting with us, and spared a lot of time sharing his insights and views beyond the scope of our research. He also managed to participate in a seminar with government authorities. I now regret that we might have asked him to put in so much effort, but he had the eagerness. After his visit, I phoned and emailed him a number of times to ask for his advice. Definitely, Wojtek was a very committed researcher, and was able to transmit a comprehensive understanding of civil society phenomena beyond data analysis.” ~ Dr. Ignacio Irarrazaval, a long-time colleague in Chile

“What sad news indeed, I do like Wojciech very much. He was always present in all of [Lester’s] ‘crazy ideas’ to give them roots and continuity. He had a large culture combining European and American authors, musicians…. Last time I met him it was in Brussels a few years ago and I saw how difficult it was for him to walk; it was the same for me before my hip replacement surgery and we walked together behind the group. We shared a good knowledge of national accounting and sometimes he wrote to me to know especially how private nonprofit hospitals are classified in ESA. And he was [treated] in one of the most famous ones. More recently we had a mail exchange on the only mistake of TSE Handbook, rapidly corrected. For me myositis sounds as myosotis in French, the flower you call ‘forget me not.’ I will not forget Wojciech.” ~ Prof. Edith Archambault, a French colleague and fellow National Accounts expert

“Thank you for letting me know about Wojciech’s passing. I am very moved and sad that he left us. I had the fortune to meet him and share many activities in the context of our Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project. I share your thoughts on his remarkable capabilities as a researcher and methodologist. In every meeting he demonstrated his grace and generosity. He will be missed.” ~ Dr. Mario Roitter, Brazil CNP Local Associate

“I felt compelled to write when I received the tragic news about Wojciech. My memory of [him] is limited to the short time we worked together on JHU/UNV matters but I have to say I was always impressed by his intelligence, good nature and general sociability. His passing is no doubt tragic for family and friends and I imagine a big loss to the Centre.” ~ Robert Leigh, United Nations Volunteers

“So sorry to hear of Wojciech’s passing. I only met him a couple times, and both times appreciated his deep knowledge, understanding, and commitment. I know how important were his contributions to the work of the Center for Civil Society Studies. May he rest in peace.” ~ Nick Deychakiwsky, Mott Foundation Grants Officer

“Funny, smart, opinionated, irascible…Wojciech was all of those things and more. A thoughtful and interesting colleague who could stun you with his intellectual depth one moment, and then in the next share a joke about himself. A true personality who will be missed, a giant in voluntarism research whose work should be better known among civil society scholars and practitioners.” ~ Andrew Green, former Center colleague

It was a shock to hear about Wojciech Sokolowski. I met him once, almost two years ago, when he shared his knowledge with the Ukrainian team on how to establish and use the TSE sector satellite account. His patien[ce] and dedication to work was impressive. His smile was supportive and encouraging. We were grateful to learn a lot from him. He will be missed. ~ Lyubov Palyvoda, CCC Creative Center, Ukraine

It is so sad to hear that dear Wojciech died so young. I have read books and articles by him and met him several times. The last time was in Jan 2016 when I visited Johns Hopkins and had lunch with Chelsea and him. I was not surprised to read in the article your forwarded that he had spent time in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution as a teenager and escaped authoritarianism in Poland. ~ Yuanfeng Zheng, Philanthropy Fellow, 2013-2014

This is sad news indeed! I had not realized Wojciech had been sick, so this certainly comes as a shock. Wojciech was one you never forgot, not only for his research work, but for the sharpness of his socio-political analyses and commentary. I always looked forward to reading these analyses! I join Lester, and the entire CCSS family, to mourn and celebrate Wojciech. ~ Paul Opoku-Mensah, Philanthropy Fellow, 1997-1998

This is such sad news! I had the privilege of staying in touch and meeting him on a number of occasions after my fellowship period (97-98) until somewhat recently, and enjoyed his posts on current affairs and politics on social media for his perspectives, always far from the mainstream but provocative and insightful. I will miss him. ~ Andres Falconer, Philanthropy Fellow, 1997-1998

Oh, so sad! Wojciech was my advisor during my Philanthropy fellowship in Johns Hopkins, we had great collaboration and discussions. I worked very closely with Wojciech and not only in the framework of Johns Hopkins, but on the MacArthur Foundation project, which was very successful! It was wonderful to work with him! I learned a lot about how it is possible effectively to compare hardly comparable case studies from different Russian regions. He was a warm, nice, wonderful person, it was a pleasure to work with him. He visited St. Petersburg, Russia, I remember how nice it was to walk with him all around and to show my favorite beautiful places. When I was working [at] Dickinson College, Pennsylvania, he came with his family for a visit, we [spent] a very nice time together! I have wonderful memories about our in-depth discussions about social research and about life! He loved how the health care system is organized in Sweden, how in the UK it is accessible for all… He was pretty critical to the US health system as far as I remember. We were in touch on Facebook, warmly congratulating each other on our birthday days. I will be missing him a lot! ~ Maria Tysiachniouk, Philanthropy Fellow, 2000-2001

Wojciech was a brilliant nonprofit researcher, and a kind friend to us all. I so appreciated his patience, his many contributions to our [Nonprofit Data Project] meetings and his wonderful, generous spirit. He was always willing to help. His death is a real loss to us and the field at large. ~ Cinthia Schuman, Deputy Director for Philanthropy Programs, Aspen Institute

This is a huge loss for global nonprofit research, especially the struggle for improving the data situation, but even more so for those of us who knew Wojtek personally and worked with him closely. He was always ready to go against the grain in the best of the European intellectual tradition and I will dearly miss his argumentative takes on the state of the world. ~ Stefan Toepler, Long-time colleague and Philanthropy Fellow, 1993-1994

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Edited to include additional reflections, June 1, 2020

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