Parpan Column: Our op/ed section will miss Mr. Meinke

09/27/2014 10:00 AM |
Howard Meinke (Credit: Meinke family courtesy)

Howard Meinke (Credit: Meinke family courtesy)

The voice on the other end of the phone spoke in a deliberate manner, demanding to be heard.

“My understaaaanding is that you are the person I now need to speeeaaaak to regarding letters to the editor,” he said slowly.

It took just that one introductory sentence for me to realize that Howard Meinke would be writing me frequently, as he had my predecessors at Times/Review, and that he would command my attention. 

The first time we met in person, he sat on the couch in my office for the better part of two hours on a Sunday afternoon, sharing his concerns about development in Southold Town and the impact any future building would have on the environment; in particular, how it might affect the water that surrounds us. He was also a staunch advocate for the need to address climate change at all levels of government.

What immediately struck me about Mr. Meinke that day was that he didn’t just want to share his thoughts on the environment with others, but he welcomed feedback. He wanted to know that other people agreed with him and, if they didn’t, he hoped to understand why. In my handful of meetings with him over the past year, I would watch as he stared deeply, seeming to process every single word of my response. Then he’d pause for a moment and offer his reply.

Commentary, particularly in this world of 24-hour cable and Internet news, is too often centered on one particular viewpoint. There’s very little give and take. People aren’t really listening. So it’s nice when, like Mr. Meinke, they actually do.

While I knew him only as a contributor to our opinion pages and occasional attendee at Southold Town meetings, I’m certain this ability to collaborate served Mr. Meinke well in his professional life and in his past role as president of the North Fork Environmental Council.

His letter and op/ed submissions weren’t hastily emailed. They included personal touches and notes that added context and perspective. He’d often follow emails up with a phone call or personal visit.

It was clear from our correspondences that much of Mr. Meinke’s concern for the North Fork’s environment came from firsthand observations he made while out on his boat. He wasn’t just conjuring opinions from the idea that Southold Town was changing; he was seeing the effects of change.

“Out in my boat I see the rust tide all over the place,” he wrote in an email that included an attached letter about water pollution. “It is not a human health problem, but it sure is ugly.”

“I do appreciate that you see my pollution issue as important as I do,” read another note. “We do need to wake up and smell the coffee ASAP … I hope I am not all by myself here.”

His musings on pollution and the environment were also based on his memories of how things once were here. His letters sometimes made reference to his days as a kid, paddling in the creeks of Cutchogue.

Mr. Meinke’s emails weren’t always letters to the editor. Sometimes he wanted to weigh in privately on an issue, or just say hello.

On Dec. 20, I received an email wishing me a Merry Christmas and explaining that he wouldn’t be writing for four months as he visited Florida to work on his terrible golf game. “The only downside is no oceanfront,” he said of the place where he stayed down there.

Of course, he still sent a letter three weeks later. And another one the week after that.

I was out of town visiting my family’s home in Asheville, N.C., this week when I received word that Mr. Meinke had been killed. Coincidentally, it was a trip that included lots of nature. We visited the French Broad River, one of the oldest rivers in the world, and the North Carolina Arboretum, with its fascinating collection of bonsai trees. I thought of Mr. Meinke a lot.

I did a double take Monday when, days after his death, I received, along with everyone else on his mailing list, a correspondence from his email account.

“Dear Friends, it is with deep regret that we must inform you of Howard’s untimely passing …” the email began.

If Heaven has a water pollution problem, God had better be prepared to hear about it.

The author is the executive editor of Times/Review Newsgroup. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-354-8046.