Thursday, January 26, 2017

Harry’s telling story of his pal Al

Harry and his friend Al Skolnik in 1962, in Greenbelt, MD, News Review clippings

I remember my parents dear friends Al and Elaine Skolnik, in our hometown Greenbelt, MD, always smiling and friendly. My dad and the Skolniks were tireless volunteers for the city newspaper, the News Review. Al died suddenly in 1977. Recently I found Harrys typewritten tribute and read it for the first time. I saw that its never too late to appreciate this story of his pal Al – and another snapshot of my dad’s life. 

The news spread like wildfire last Thursday afternoon, not only in Greenbelt but throughout the metropolitan area. Al Skolnik was gone. It was unthinkable, unacceptable. Everyone I spoke to had the same reaction – shocked silence, a sense of profound sadness, a feeling of deep and irrevocable personal loss.

It is a symptom of mankind’s shortsightedness that we seldom recognize the true stature of and worth of the giants among us until they are gone. So it is with Al Skolnik. Though he received some measure of recognition while he was here, it was not nearly so much as he deserved. The high regard in which he was held found some expression in the community’s mass attendance at his funeral Sunday morning, and in the moving eulogy so eloquently voiced by Rabbi Berger. But much remains to be said. We are not finished with Al Skolnik; more to the point, he is not finished with us. His presence, his influence, will continue to touch all of us, felt not only by those who were close to him, but by the entire community he loved and served so well.

Of course, he never realized the impact of his presence on the community. I remember the overwhelming support the people showed him when he and the News Review were sued for libel by a land developer whose name has faded into obscurity. Yet, with characteristic modesty, he preferred to believe that we were fighting solely for a principle – freedom of the press. He would not accept the fact that we were just as deeply committed to supporting him personally. Yet, he was the catalyst around whom the support was rallied and upon whose courage steadfastness that most precious of American freedoms was extended and strengthened. I can see him now, in the aftermath of that oh-so-sweet Supreme Court decision, declaring that it was a victory for principle.

“But, Al,” I said, “It was as much a victory for you personally.”

“Me?” he said, a look of genuine bewilderment on his face. “But I didn’t have anything to do with it, I was just incidental.”

When we held that grand banquet a year or two afterwards, it was billed as a tribute to Roger Clark, the defense attorney who had carried the case all the way to the Supreme Court and ultimate victory. In reality, though, it was a tribute to Al and Elaine, who had carried the heavy weight of responsibility during the years of trial and trouble. It represented a massive outpouring of warmth, good will and gratitude for their total commitment to the service of their community. We tried to persuade Al, beforehand, that he should get double billing with the attorney as the guests of honor, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

“I don’t want anything to detract from the tribute we’re paying Roger,” he declared flatly. “This should be his night.”

“But Al,” I argued, “everyone wants to pay tribute to you, too.”

“What for?” he asked, and he was really puzzled.

“For the sacrifices you’ve made,” I replied. “For the contribution you’ve made to the community.”

“That’s not a good enough reason,” he was adamant.

“Al,” I sighed, “you are stubborn and incorrigible.”

Of course, he won. But despite his protestations, the community paid tribute to him that night anyway. And he enjoyed it. I have never seen him grin so broadly or so continuously. He positively beamed. He was jovial. And when the staff of the News Review presented him with an electric typewriter, he accepted it gracefully and cheerfully. But afterwards, just to keep his record intact, he said: “You shouldn’t have done it.”

Like I said, incorrigible!

I never could understand why the plaintiff in that case insisted on including Al personally as a party to that law suit. Perhaps he, and his attorney, as well, perceived Al as a threat. Well, if objectivity and dispassionate honesty can be perceived as a threat, they were right. No one else was or could be as rigorously objective or as dispassionately honest as Al. He used to drive me up the walls with his insistence on knowing and presenting both sides of every controversial issue. He was forever trying to be “fair” to everyone; he even leaned over backwards to be fair to those with whom he disagreed.

I felt some sense of responsibility for Al, since I had recruited him to work on the News Review. At least, I persuaded Elaine to charm him into joining the staff and, as everyone knows, Elaine has the talent to do just that. Of course, we had to wait a few years, until he completed the requirements for his PhD, but he finally joined the staff and the rest is history. I wish I could take some credit for the enormous contribution he and the newspaper subsequently made to the community, but he did it on his own. Anyway, when Al joined the staff, I felt obligated to pass my wisdom and experience along.

“Al,” I would say, “a newspaper is not obligated to be fair or objective. It is obligated only to present the facts in its news columns, but it can be as unfair or as prejudiced as it wishes in its editorials.”

“Everybody and every side deserves equal consideration,” he would stubbornly insist.

“Not in editorials,” I would say. “Editorials can and do take clear, unequivocal positions, either for or against any given proposition, without regard to the opposing views held by others.”

“Greenbelt deserves better than that,” he declared. “We ought to show the merits of all opposing viewpoints so that people can make up their own minds.”

“Al,” I said, defeated, “you are exasperating.”

With such an attitude, he often appeared to be straddling the fence rather than expressing or taking clear-cut positions. To those of us who hold strong opinions without regard to facts, this insistence on an objective appraisal seemed irrational. Looking back on it, I am reminded of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, who viewed all events in the light of cold logic. Thus, when something occurred that defied all the rules of sensible behavior, he was neither horrified nor offended. Instead, he would find such occurrences “interesting” and, some things, even “fascinating,” and would proceed to analyze them in meticulous detail in order to understand them and explain them.

Now, after such careful appraisals, Al sometimes arrived at the same conclusion that I had reached intuitively, based on a “gut” feeling. Naturally, when someone agrees with me, I consider him a reasonable, even a wise man. But when he reaches a conclusion different from mine, that is a horse of another color. It is particularly frustrating when his conclusion is based on intellectual conviction. Have you ever tried to argue with someone whose opinion’s based on an examination of the facts, while yours is based on intuition? There is just no reasoning with such obstinate, opinionated people. Why, a man like that can change the world; on occasion, he even persuaded me to change my opinion. Exposure to logical thinking can sometimes do that.

In essence, Al was an observer and reporter, rather than a direct participant in the affairs of the city. I have no doubt at all that he could have been elected to any public office, had he so desired, but he preferred to remain in the background. He was a public person; indeed, he was basically shy and reserved, a man who felt more at ease behind the scenes. Yet, he has been as instrumental in shaping the nature and destiny of Greenbelt as any elected official in the history of the community. The many background discussions he had with community leaders, and the suggestions and quiet recommendations he made at countless social gatherings, had a way of emerging later on as officially sanctioned policies and programs.

He and Elaine were indefatigable campaigners, but always on behalf of others, never for themselves. Over the years, their efforts assured the election of a great many public-spirited citizens to office. Those of us who were beneficiaries of these efforts used to kid him about it sometimes. In another political environment he would have been known as the “Boss”; in still another milieu, he would have been the “godfather,” though he was too selfless and too gentle a man to deserve that title. In any case, he was really embarrassed by our attempts to credit his efforts for our victories.

“I only cast one vote,” he would say, “And besides,” he would add, with that sly chuckle and half grin, “I wasn’t working to help you so much as I was trying to prevent those other guys from getting elected. You just represented the lesser of two evils.”

He had such a fine mind, trained and disciplined by study and use. During that libel trial the attorney for the plaintiff mocked Al’s educational attainments, implying that a man with a PhD ought to at least understand the meaning of certain legal terms. Among other things, the Supreme Court’s decision proved that lawyers themselves, and even judges, do not agree on the meaning of some legal terms. In any event, by attempting to degrade Al Skolnik, that attorney succeeded only in diminishing himself. I could not then, nor can I today, forgive him for some of the things he said and some of the tactics he used in the courtroom. Al, however, was quite without rancor or malice at such treatment. When I expressed my feelings to him after the initial trial, he shrugged them off.

“He was only doing his job,” he said. Then lifting a hand expressively, he cut right to the heart of it. “After all,” he said, “he was playing to the jury, while our lawyer was addressing the law.” And then came the punchline. “You know,” he added judiciously, a hint of admiration in his voice, “all in all, I think he probably did it very neatly, very professionally. After all, he won, didn’t he?”

“Al,” I said, at a loss for words, “You are too good to be true. It’s infuriating.”

What can you do with a man like that?

The many social evenings we shared, say for dinner and a movie, were illuminating. Al’s orderly mind could not tolerate illogic, a quality that Hollywood’s movies seem to cherish. Invariably, as we emerged from a thrilling and entertaining whodunit film, Al would start dissecting it.

“I don’t understand it,” he would complain. “How did the hero know that the villain was going to confront the girl with an ultimatum, and arrange to intercept the bodyguard before the rendezvous?” or words to that effect. “It just doesn’t make sense,” he would add. “It lacks coherency. The characters didn’t behave logically.”

Over refreshments at the nearest Hot Shoppes afterwards, we would discuss it. It sometimes got hilarious as we tried to explain the plot, the motivation, the situation, the character development – all the classic elements that make a story hang together coherently.

In the process, we would uncover all the flaws and inconsistencies that mark any of today’s movies. So going to a movie with Al was not only an entertaining experience, but an intellectual exercise, as well. Al’s mind at work as he tore a movie to shreds was a delight to behold.

“Al,” I would say, “you are a born critic.”

“It’s easy to criticize,” he once said thoughtfully. “The problem is to create – to build instead of to tear down.”

And in a very real way, this is what Al’s life was all about. He brought a measure of order and humanitarian perspective to a sometimes chaotic public environment. He brought a measure of sanity and rational analysis to the scrutiny of public issues. But most of all, by virtue of the active role he played on the News Review, he made the newspaper the kind of all-pervasive, unifying influence that makes a community out of a development, and gives its people a sense of belonging and sharing and togetherness. He left his corner of the world a better place than he found it, and that’s not a bad epitaph for any man.

I can see him now, scanning these pages coming out of the typewriter, as on so many previous occasions, and frowning in concentration as he mentally rejects clause after clause.

“Sounds kind of pompous doesn’t it?” he would ask mildly.

Like I said, he was incorrigible, a challenging, exasperating, infuriating man, and – oh, dear God – how we loved and respected and admired him. The sense of loss will be with us always, but, for myself, I shall always be thankful for the years of friendship we experienced together and for the memories we accumulated. For Elaine and his family, no mere words can lessen their grief, but perhaps they can take some small solace in the knowledge that so many, many of us share it with them.

In his story above, Harry (far right in photo) refers to Al (seated center) accepting an award after the Greenbelt News Review won the 1970 Supreme Court case. I’m told the case became a landmark for freedom of the press.
Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

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