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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Irving Like slew dragons

The activist lawyer loved Long Island and fought for causes big and small.

Irving Like speaks at a hearing in Jamesport

Irving Like speaks at a hearing in Jamesport on Nov. 28, 1979. Photo Credit: Newsday File / Bob Luckey

Correction: This column has been updated to include the correct date of Irving Like’s death. An earlier version had the wrong date.

My first email from Irving Like landed in my inbox last year.

I wondered: That Irving Like?

The guy whose legal strategies helped stop the Shoreham nuclear power plant?

The guy who was the legal brains behind the effort to stop master builder Robert Moses from paving a highway across Fire Island and then get the area named a national seashore?

The guy who was part of the legal team that sued the makers of Agent Orange and won a $180 million settlement for Vietnam veterans and their families harmed by the toxin used in the war?

The chief dragon slayer, as fellow thorn and former Suffolk County legislative counsel Paul Sabatino put it, a guy who was thinking outside the box before that phrase existed?

Yep, that Irving Like.

I was delighted.

Irving was 92 at the time, and he was writing about his latest quixotic quest — getting the United Nations to name Fire Island National Seashore a World Heritage Site. I called him a couple days later at his home in Bay Shore. He was sharp, witty and still dreaming. In other words, he was vintage Irving.

“I’m not going to live to see this happen,” he conceded. But that wasn’t stopping him from trying.

In the ensuing months, he showered me with dozens of emails. Some provided new rationales for the world heritage designation (the threat of rising seas, the prospect of drilling for oil off the coast, the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. had visited Fire Island in 1967). Others were insights into sewer politics, Jerry Wolkoff’s Heartland project, Republican Party megadonor Robert Mercer, a state constitutional convention, the Federal Reserve, local school districts amassing millions in unrestricted reserves, a cross-Long Island Sound bridge/tunnel.

I asked him once for a reference for one of his contentions. He responded with nine.

His intelligence was restless. His work ethic was that of someone decades younger. His humor was self-deprecating. Irving’s response to queries about how he was doing was impish: “I don’t buy green bananas anymore.”

I wish we’d struck up a correspondence earlier. I wish I’d gotten to meet him. I wish I’d seen one of his Venn diagrams. He used the sets of interlocking circles to analyze his cases and causes.

“Every issue appears to a person to be simple, straightforward, but all issues have complexities,” Irving told John Tanacredi, a Molloy College earth and environmental sciences professor who is working on the Fire Island project.

“When he’d give presentations, he’d say he doesn’t have to bring notes, he’d bring his diagrams,” said Tanacredi, who pronounced them “amazing.”

Sabatino, who worked on several cases with Irving, remembers telling Irving that he saw no legal solution for one case or another. “And he used to say, ‘Paul, with every grievance you can always come up with a remedy, there’s always a way,’ ” Sabatino said.

That’s how you plant your seeds.

Irving took up one case at age 91. It was a challenge to Suffolk over title to some valuable property in the pine barrens. Irving argued the case, then waited. The judgment took 19 months.

“He got a favorable complete slam-dunk victory the Tuesday before he passed away,” Sabatino said. “He died with the happiness of knowing he was successful in the last case he tried.”

My last email from Irving arrived on Aug. 27. It was about his beloved Fire Island, and the last part of the subject line read:

“It is more than what it seems.”

Nice epitaph.

Irving Like died on Oct. 3 at age 93, one of the giants of Long Island.

Here’s to quixotic quests and slaying dragons.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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