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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Gentlemen can disagree

A retired teacher has a lesson on how to argue views with respect and courtesy.

Richard Siegelman at his Plainview home in April

Richard Siegelman at his Plainview home in April 2018. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Sunday night, as I snuggled up with my twin nieces for their bedtime story, I got a shock.

The chosen book was “Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Carnival Crime.” I probably tipped the scales in favor of the boy detective I had loved in school, but the girls were willing. So I opened the book, glanced at the dedication and thought, “This cannot be.”

It read: “For Richard Siegelman, my Number One Fan among schoolteachers.”

“My Richard Siegelman?” I thought. “OUR Siegelman?”

Richard Siegelman may be the most prolific writer of letters, rants, quips, comments and emails in Newsday’s history.

As soon as I saw the dedication, I shot Siegelman an email to ask him how he managed such an august achievement. He responded with two emails and two calls in the space of two hours. Tenacity is the Siegelman way! And it hasn’t always earned him fans. His missives can be announced with a groan, partly because the flow is so constant. And up until eight or 10 years ago, that volume would have placed him high on my list of annoyances.

But not anymore. Because Siegelman, unlike many of our other current correspondents, doesn’t attack or threaten or insult. He is courteous, even when his submissions are biting. That was how letter writers were before the election of President Barack Obama and the extraordinary discourtesy that started with his tea party opponents and took us right on through to President Donald Trump’s most ardent fans.

“I started teaching in 1966,” Siegelman, 75, of Plainview, said in a phone interview, “and they had these paperback book clubs for the kids. When I encountered Encyclopedia Brown books, I immediately loved the format because I thought it helped kids with what I call the fourth ‘R’ . . . reasoning.”

Author Donald Sobol began publishing Encyclopedia Brown books in 1963. Each had 10 mysteries that the boy detective would solve by asking a question or two and turning up a key piece of data. And according to Siegelman, his initial interactions about the books weren’t so pleasant.

“I was photocopying the stories for my students, and his publisher ordered me to stop,” Siegelman said. But that led to a correspondence with Sobol, then a lunch. Then, around 2010, Sobol told Siegelman he wanted to dedicate a book to the teacher. It was Sobol’s next-to-last book. He died in 2012.

Siegelman has been writing to Newsday since his 2003 retirement. He has sent six letters to the editor in November. He submitted 2,500 quips for the sports section’s “Rants” feature in one year. And he has, when traveling, taken the time to send staffers reprints of their work from other newspapers.

He generally agrees with me about Trump and disagrees with me about New York State United Teachers, the union he has belonged to for five decades. He has an opinion about everything, often a fiery one.

But he has never questioned my decency, threatened me or said he hated me. He is a reasonable model of how to disagree without being disagreeable. And he must have shown that with Sobol.

How else do you explain coming to an author’s attention by improperly reproducing his work, then getting the author to dedicate a book to you?

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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