Portrait of an Activist
December 01, 2009, 04:47 PM
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Here are an excerpts from an article about some activist in the rich suburbs of Philadelphia whom the New York Times thought was worthy of 1200 words, as he relentlessly wages an endless war that was already won decades ago, using arguments that are as unanswerable under the reigning mindset as they are pointless. Even the poor NYT reporter seems to have picked up on how funny this story is, in an unmentionable kind of way.
Advocating for Girls` Sports With a Sharp Tongue by Katie Thomas

HAVERFORD, Pa. — Few girls who play sports in suburban Philadelphia would recognize Robert H. Landau, but many coaches and athletic directors know that spotting him in the bleachers could spell trouble.

With a sharp tongue, a refusal to compromise and a well-honed sense of injustice, Landau is that familiar breed of community activist with a knack for pushing public officials over the edge. His specialty is girls’ sports, and his targets are usually wealthy public schools from the Main Line suburbs that pride themselves on being progressive and fair in offering a rich array of opportunities.

No slight to girls is too small for Landau to take on. His victories range from the momentous to the less obvious, like forcing his daughters’ school district to provide more athletic choices, pressuring leagues to showcase their title games and getting a school mascot to perform at their games.

Landau’s complaint against Haverford High School — over issues like publicity for and scheduling of boys’ and girls’ basketball games — has upset even those who would otherwise support him.

�I am like: �Buddy, you know what? You just threw the wrong punch,’ � said Bobbi Morgan, the women’s basketball coach at Haverford College, who used to coach the girls’ team at Haverford High School. �I never worked anywhere where it was better.� ...

�Quite frankly, I shouldn’t have to do this,� Landau said. �But it’s there. What possible argument is there that I’m wrong?�

Landau estimated he had filed at least 30 complaints, most contending unfair treatment of girls, with the Office for Civil Rights, the division of the federal Education Department that enforces the gender-equity law known as Title IX. His work has led to a change in practices at the school and district level in suburban Philadelphia.

Landau, who owns a lighting business, started as a parent activist and never stopped. Now 63, he has two daughters who have been out of school about 20 years and four grandchildren. ...

Landau is a rabid fan of Cheltenham High School girls’ basketball, and his commentary during games often turns heads. The coach, Bob Schaefer, said, �He’s yelling things that you might be thinking, but he just belts it out.�When it comes to speaking out about unfairness, Landau can be just as passionate. He boasts that athletic directors regularly hang up on him, and relishes the time he made a cheerleading coach cry.

... Landau’s activism began in 1989, when his daughter started playing field hockey at Cheltenham. �Karen kept coming home saying she had a different coach every day,� he recalled. ...Soon, parents at other schools enlisted his help, and Landau continued to spot unfair treatment.

Girls typically played basketball in the afternoons, and the boys in the evenings. Cheerleaders performed only at boys’ games. Boys played their title games at arenas like the Palestra at theUniversity of Pennsylvania, and girls were relegated to school gyms. His complainted have helped eliminate those inequities.

Landau’s interests have never been limited to girls’ sports. Early in his advocacy, he sued his daughters’ school district in federal court, contending that it did not provide adequate help to Karen, who has a learning disability. Although he lost the case, he said the district later expanded its offerings to students with learning disabilities. In the 1990s, Landau also successfully pressured the district to increase its hiring of minority teachers.

Landau said he was happy to bear the brunt of criticism to protect parents who do not want their complaints to reflect poorly on their children.

�A lot of people would complain about him, but if there was a problem, of any kind — sports, or if it grew into other things — they called him,� his wife, Jane Landau, said.

Landau has never been paid for his advocacy, but it worked in his favor in 1996, when he faced federal charges of defrauding a commercial loan company as the owner of a janitorial supply business. Landau repaid the $120,000 he owed the loan company, and later pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud. Although Landau was facing prison, the judge, citing his local involvement, sentenced him to time in a halfway house and under house arrest, according to news reports.

�I made a business mistake, I got snagged, and that was that,� Landau said. �I have no excuse. It makes me human. More human than most.�

That reminds me of when I was in the passport office waiting room back in May. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an elegantly dressed elderly man sit down two chairs away. While I read my book, a younger man sat down between us, and started talking to the older man, calling him "Marty" and wheedling him to put in an appearance at his workshop, requests which Marty graciously sidestepped. The man then asked Marty what he was up to. In a cultured voice, Marty explained that he had to get his passport renewed so he could pick up a Lifetime Achievement Award at a film festival, and then he was hoping to make a small movie about an elderly couple, with Ellen Burstyn playing his wife.

I hadn`t yet looked directly at Marty, but I had it figured out by now: Marty wasn`t Martin Scorsese, as I`d first wondered, but Martin Landau, the master character actor. Then it occurred to me that about a decade ago, I had decided that Landau`s portrayal of washed-up Dracula actor Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton`s Ed Wood (with Johnny Depp as the world`s worst movie director), was the best supporting performance I`d ever seen for comedy and pathos combined. Perhaps I can`t fully justify that opinion, but it`s not implausible: for that role, Landau finally won the Oscar at age 66.

How often, I asked myself, do you run into a person you`ve previously decided was Best.Whatever.Ever?

So, when my number was called, I stood up and said, "Mr. Landau, I just wanted to say that I`ve long thought your portrayal of Bela Lugosi" — for about a quarter of a second he seemed uncertain as he mentally sorted through all the roles he`s had (IMDB.com lists 158 different movies and television shows since 1956), then he smiled; yes, he remembered thatrole — "was the best supporting performance I`ve ever seen." He thanked me very nicely, and I went and got my passport.

That reminded me that of the several dozen celebrities I`ve run into over the years, I can`t think of anything I`ve observed more scandalous than that forty-something actresses aren`t as glamorous-looking when they rush out to the store without their makeup on than when you see them in movies. It would be fun to have outrageous gossip to retail, but, in fact, most celebrities I`ve accidentally met have been superior in manners and comportment.

Most of the celebrities I`ve run into fall into that oxymoronic category of "famous supporting actors," so they are, almost by definition, good at acting gracious to civilians who, like I try to do, acknowledge them respectfully and unpresumptuously formally ... and then leave. But, it`s also that to become a celebrity character actor like Martin Landau, somebody with a career distinguished enough that I`ll finally attach a name to your face, you have to be a consummate professional over decades. To have Martin Landau`s 53-year career, you can`t be a mess like Bela Lugosi.

In summary, now that I think about it, Martin Landau isn`t much like Robert H. Landau at all.

But, that`s the point of having a blog, isn`t it — to be able to careen drunkenly from topic to topic without having to gin up a Deep Think justification tying together your randomness?