A few days ago I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of local prison inmates. The men were recent graduates of a program designed to help them make better and more informed life choices. This was my first shot at giving a commencement address. If Harvard’s Kennedy School needs someone for next spring, I’m all broken in now…
When first approached about giving the address, I was in a bit of a quandary as to appropriate remarks. I quietly hoped that I hadn’t previously met any of the individuals on a more professional basis. Going by the tried and true admonishment to “write what you know” I elected to “speak” what I know. My topic became “the perils of acting in anger.” I thought the class might relate. Assuming they weren’t just being polite, my bit seems to have been well received.
My talk centered on the fact that I was teased and bullied a lot as a child. This manifested as a lot of pent up anger on my part. Ironically the biggest bully of the lot was the hateful daughter of a local Baptist preacher, but that’s a tale for another day.
As a consequence of being a short, bookish kid who used “too many big words,” I caught just enough grief to deeply resent many of my peers. As I told the inmates, I did the only thing I knew to do: I retreated into books. Books gave me solace. They provided an escape from the realities of small-minded provincial bullies.
One of my favorite series of books were the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. My father always had a shopworn Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie on his bedside table. As such, I come by it honestly. I’d never really put it together, but that’s likely the place where matters of crime and punishment first struck a chord with me.
I mention Encyclopedia Brown because the author of the series, Donald J. Sobol, died last week at age 87. Just enough time has passed that a flood of tributes have been published. My favorite of the lot was one by Ethan Gilsdorf writing for Wired.com. Of Sobol’s books he observed, “Sobol … let youthful, aspiring detectives participate in solving each crime story. Those same bookish types who might have otherwise felt disempowered, ostracized or bullied … these books taught me to be curious, to investigate, to be entrepreneurial — and to fight the bullies like Bugs Meany, real or metaphorical, in my young life … He could defeat injustice and outsmart the brawny brutes of the world using his brains.”
Sobol’s books also contained another wonderful subversion: Encyclopedia’s best friend, protector and assistant was a girl, Sally Kimball. She was older, smarter and not afraid to mix it up. At a time in society when women had begun to make formal inroads into otherwise male-only domains, this was a good message for boys to hear.
Apparently, lots of folks thought Sobol’s stories were worth reading. They were translated into 12 languages and sold millions of copies. The author’s son, John Sobol, told the New York Times that his father didn’t get rich from the books. In 1979, Sobol sold the rights to the series for $25,000 to the producer Howard Deutsch. Sobol later contested the agreement, and the case was settled out of court, with Deutsch retaining the movie rights. HBO made an “Encyclopedia Brown” series in 1989.
Regardless of Sobol’s material gains, I hope he knows he died a very rich man. Having given a refuge and hope to nerds and bookish types for over four decades, he created wealth far beyond that held in banks. Godspeed, Donald J. Sobol, as you embark upon the greatest mystery.
Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at email@example.com