Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Life Celebration: Frank Zindler

Voices that are stilled still sing
  Of never-fading beauty,
  Of never-dying love.
—Frank Zindler, “Victrola Rolls”
Frank Zindler (1939—)

We often celebrate the lives of people whom we love and respect after they die. Friends, family, and colleagues gather around the mortal remains of the departed to share kind words and fond memories about him or her. It’s an old ritual, and a worthy one. But, unfortunately, it always comes just a few days too late to make much of an impression on the person being honored.

Frank Zindler is one of the individuals I’ve had the privilege of meeting—if only by correspondence and telephone—who will be widely eulogized when his long and remarkable life finally ends. That day is hopefully still a couple of decades away, but the approach of his 75th year seems occasion enough to offer a tribute to this amazing man.

I asked Frank what he thought about the idea of offering him a “pre-bituary” on this blog, fearing it might seem a bit ghoulish. He was, it turned out, quite grateful and enthusiastic:

This is wonderful. I am deeply touched. I can’t help but think of Franz Schubert, who, by the time he was my age had been dead for 44 years and who, in his thirty-one-year life, was virtually unknown except to a small coterie of close friends and admirers. I don’t deserve to be so lucky. I almost feel guilty.

Frank is a vocal and firm atheist who discarded any hope (or fear!) of an afterlife fifty years ago. He isn’t concerned about where he will be when his heart finally squeezes off its last beat, when the billions of neurons in his prodigious brain flicker into darkness. As with all of us, wherever we now stand on our separate unmarked roads heading for that same destination, there simply will be no Frank at that point.

So let’s talk a little bit about Frank Zindler while he’s here to appreciate what’s being said.

Origins

Frank R. Zindler was born on May 23, 1939 in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Thirteen years later, he graduated the eighth grade at a two-room country school. He received a scholarship to Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for high school and seminary, but was unable to accept it due to the recent death of his father. The following year, after giving a qualifying lecture “The Carbon-Nitrogen Cycle and Energy Production in the Sun,” he was admitted to the Berrien County Astronomical Society. He was fourteen years old.

The tragedy of his father’s death had turned young Frank into “the most religious person in [his] family.” But it was a temporary transition. Once in high school, he read through the Bible on his own in an effort to parallel the curriculum he imagined would have been offered to him at the seminary. This was no casual effort; in addition to Latin, Frank studied Greek and Hebrew to better understand the biblical languages.

Many of us who have undertaken similar Bible reading projects, even without Frank’s level of diligence and linguistic skill, might guess how this turned out. It was, he says, a “disaster” sowing seeds of doubt, which

would grow into the tree of skepticism that would ultimately blossom into Atheism. By the time I reached the book of Exodus (the second book of the Christian Bible) I was troubled. After reading through the books of Numbers, Joshua, and Ezra I was horrified by the morally outrageous behavior of Jehovah (Yahweh), who commanded the Israelites to commit genocide over and over again. I went to my Lutheran minister in distress over the relevant passages in the Bible, and he rather disingenuously tried to explain things away.

By his sophomore year in high school, Frank had quit going to church except for special occasions. That, he says, “was very distressing because I had been assistant organist and I loved to play the pipe organ.” Churches are about the only places you can find the things, after all.1 

But he had been “morally repulsed” by the Old Testament, and was beginning to have second thoughts about the New. How could the death of an innocent person justify the “sins” of someone else? The whole thing came back to the idea of sacrifice. Why, Frank asked, would a good God even require sacrifice?

Adding to these concerns was one that had come early on in his high school education: the devil of Darwin. When his biology classes introduced him to evolution, the troubled and still-pious Frank asked his mother what to do. She suggested reading what the man actually had to say:

Surely, I would be able for myself to see what was wrong with Darwin and explain it to my teacher when he started to teach about evolution. So, I had an aunt who lived in town who sponsored me to get a library card at the public library. I checked out Darwin and began to read. To my astonishment, Darwin made his case so thoroughly that I became an evolutionist.2

Looking back, Frank thinks he was an atheist “in all but self-recognition” when he graduated high school. (At age sixteen!) But when he arrived at Kalamazoo College, he was horrified to find “that everyone was an atheist, including the dean of chapel.” Frank found himself practically the last defender of the faith on campus, though his own had become an anemic one.3

Chapel at Kalamazoo College
Photo: Jeff Daly, CC-NC-SA licensed.

The last vestiges of theism fell away from Frank’s worldview around Halloween of his 18th year. He was attending an “all-night bull session” with five or so friends, and one of them asked a form of the age-old question about an omnipotent God: “Can he build a wall so sturdy he can’t tear it down?” His friend had posed the question more in jest than seriously, and it would have run off Frank “like water off a duck’s back” a year earlier. But Frank’s recent efforts to develop a propositional calculus, had given him the habit of looking at every word in detail.

When his friend hit him with the omnipotence paradox, Frank immediately saw the incoherence of the whole idea. They spent another hour or two coming up with corollaries. If God is infinite, he is everywhere. Then he cannot not be in a particular place, and so God is in the devil, indeed was present in Frank’s friend as he questioned God.

I told Frank my favorite form of the paradox, which I recall seeing somewhere on reddit.com: “Can God microwave a burrito so hot he can’t eat it?” That got a good laugh, long and sparkling with light notes. This was a powerful voice on the other end of the phone, almost overwhelming in all the wisdom it conveyed with every word uttered during our conversations. But it’s one that rings out with humanity and the joy of living, too, ready to laugh and grow heavy with emotion about loved ones and memories.

Atheism

Just as religious faith is a cherished aspect of many people’s lives, the decisive rejection of religion is an important part of Frank’s identity. The atheism he adopted all those years ago is not the shoulder-shrugging “I just don’t buy it, next topic” kind of unbelief quietly practiced by many millions of people. It is a loud, emphatic harrumph, a clearing of the throat that is heard, if not around the world, then at least around skeptical circles—via his lectures, work in atheist and secular organizations, involvement with various books published by American Atheist Press, and more than 400 commercial radio and television interviews and debates.

His four volumes (thus far) of articles collected in Through Atheist Eyes are full of wit and wisdom. The breadth of Frank’s knowledge is simply astounding, and these articles show it. They are, of course, from an atheist magazine, and thus share the theme of criticizing religion in its myriad forms. Frank’s express wish in his Preface to the collection is that it “will help at least a bit to break the mental chains that purveyors of the supernatural have thrown around the minds of men and women for as long as we have record.” The many hundreds of pages that follow pose tough questions for seemingly everyone and everything religious, from Jesus to Joseph Smith. Reading through them, it’s all too easy to forget how much more there is to Frank—his love of music, languages, literature, logic, history, science, and people, to hit on some of the highlights.

Frank and Ann Zindler (from left) with Madalyn Murray O’Hair (seated), her grand-daughter and adopted daughter (Robin Murray-O’Hair, the daughter of Bill Murray), and her son Jon Garth Murray, at that time president of American Atheists.

He did his first public lecture on the origins of life in 1959, and was vocal as an atheist from that point on. But things really took off in 1977, when he saw an advertisement in the Schenectady Gazette from a woman who had become famous—infamous as far as the religious were concerned—as an outspoken atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. She’d founded American Atheists fourteen years earlier (then under the name Society of Separationists) and in 1963 had won a Supreme Court ruling against state-mandated prayer and Bible readings in public schools.4

Frank drove a hundred miles to New York City so he could see O’Hair speak. When he returned home, he started the Schenectady chapter of American Atheists. Frank and his wife Ann learned how to do cable access TV programming, and became friends and allies with O’Hair. Most famously, Frank joined her 1977 suit to get “In God We Trust” removed from U.S. money. He “made the rounds of radio and television talk-shows in the New York State Capital District,” which “infuriated the right-wing politicians who controlled the purse strings of the college” at which he was teaching.

These included the Fulton County Board of Supervisors, which introduced a “Resolution Protesting Remarks of Frank R. Zindler to Delete the Words ‘In God We Trust’ from American Currency.” By Frank’s account, they were difficult people to have as enemies.

The Board realized that even though I was Chairman of the Division of Science, Nursing, and Technology at Fulton-Montgomery Community College (SUNY), technically I was still a professor, not an administrator. I had tenure. I could not be fired except for professional incompetence or criminal acts, and the only “crime” of which I was guilty in the view of the supervisors was my defense of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States. Unlike the SUNY four-year colleges and university centers, the community colleges drew finding from three sources: the State of New York, tuition, and—you guessed it—the sponsoring county or counties. Funding from the state and tuition were automatic. The County Board of Supervisors controlled the purse strings of the school. The Board refused to approve a budget for the college “until that atheist is eliminated.”5

An even darker side of religious America rewarded him with “dozens of death threats over the years.” Perhaps the most worrisome was from

a man who could disguise his voice in multiple ways and then, after engaging me in conversation, would revert to what I suppose was his real voice and snarl, “The same thing that happened to Madalyn and Robin is going to happen to you and your wife.”6

What happened to Madalyn and Robin, and Madalyn’s son Jon, was a kidnapping and brutal murder in 1995. About a year after that horrible event, having accepted Robin’s former position of editor at American Atheist Press, Frank wrote an impassioned eulogy at Atheists.org:

We struggle to comprehend how lives so filled with promise and achievement should be snuffed out like candles in a sudden draft, how persons who have done so much to liberate the minds and elevate the aspirations of their fellows should come so startlingly and senselessly to naught. The incomprehensible injustice of these deaths shall haunt the innermost reaches and recesses of our minds like a ghost no exorcist can expel.7

The Diary of Ann (and) Frank

Frank married Ann Elizabeth Hunt in 1964. The Zindlers had a daughter Catherine, who gave them three grandchildren: Michael, Steven, and Laura.8 On their first anniversary, Ann received this from Frank:

Twelve million breaths of air have passed

Our lips since passed the breath

That said you’d be my wedded wife

And scared me half to death.

Fifty-eight billion miles and more—

One trip around the sun—

A dizzy race it is we’ve run,

But hasn’t it been fun?

And after giving birth to Catherine, she got a poem that began as follows:

Our love is now the pulse of life:

Syncarnate in one common flesh

And beating single, full with life,

Our separate hearts are One.

Ann Zindler (1935-2013)

His love for Ann was touchingly evident during our conversations. She finally and painfully succumbed to cancer in January 2013, after five years in and out of hospitals, and the loss is still raw for him. Yet he takes comfort in his memories of her—accompanying her bird watching and seeing her do glass work until a few weeks before her death—and the impact she had. Her life, he wrote in a tribute published two days after it ended, “has been transformed from a material being into a torrent of cascading memories, but the world of reason is the better for her having lived.”

They worked together on a cause they shared: Theirs was “a philosophical, activist, and loving partnership that never faltered until it was dissolved by death.” Ann was a lifelong non-believer, “someone who simply cannot believe in things without evidence.” At age five, she had balked at putting her nickel in the collection plate because she didn’t see why Jesus needed it. Being “sent off to get religion” at a Christian college did nothing to change her viewpoint. “There being around forty rules (‘commandments’) governing life in the dormitory, she and another ne’er-do-well systematically set out to break them all,” and she was asked not to return for a second year.9

The devotion of these two old lovers can be seen in what has become one of my favorite poems, written by Frank the year before Ann’s death. The inevitable end of her health struggles had become all too clear to both of them, and this is what “wrote itself” with Frank’s pen in the spring of 2012:

Let me go first into that night

Where all paths disappear

Into the silence of the stars

And naught remains to fear.

Go not before me to that void

Nor cast me back to grieve.

Stay with me ‘til the hour when I’m

Coerced at last to leave.

Beautiful as it is, Ann objected to the poem. She didn’t want to be the one left behind, any more than her husband did.

There is a type of immortality, Frank says. It is one of ideas, left for others in print and memories. Some people “enjoy” more of that than others after their deaths, in that they have changed the lives of other people. In a sense, our actions, and the results of our actions, survive us.

This book of yours, he counseled his decades-younger interviewer, will still be there when you are not. Your ideas will continue to influence other people after your physical body is gone. The way you have altered the lives of other people, whether it be your children, your friends, and your enemies if you have any. There are “unending consequences” to lives well lived.

I told Frank how much I think of his poem to Ann, how I have read it aloud to others on a couple of occasions. Here was one of the times when that light voice on the telephone cracked and halted. His tribute to a beloved wife lives on through that poem and my appreciation of it, he said, explaining how the same thing happened for a 13-year old girl through her father’s epitaph 2300 years ago. See my previous posting on this blog for that remarkable story.

Full Speed Ahead

Frank’s high school chemistry teacher had been a member of the American Chemical Society, and the journal Chemical Abstracts to which he subscribed had been young Frank’s source of information with which to design experiments isolating rubidium from beets. After having his administrative position eliminated, his funding starved, and his favorite courses cut, he began a new career at age 43: a linquist, “putting information into that same journal.”10 He mused that “some new student somewhere would be learning to do something equally exciting!” It was, Frank says, “like living in a dream that was being created by reactivation of memories.”

For most of his life, he “had been made to feel guilty for spending money on foreign language books and for ‘wasting time’ trying to learn Sanskrit, Egyptian, Mayan, or whatever.” But “it was my ability to decipher odd languages that was my main bargaining chip” for this new occupation.11 And thirty years later, he is still applying that ability, astoundingly so. He employs 12-16 languages in a typical week, 18-20 over the course of a typical month.

“This is just reading,” Frank hastened to tell me, lest I get the impression that he might be a language prodigy or something. “Major languages” he reads fairly well, he says, but with the obscure ones, it comes down to “deciphering” with a dictionary. He used to “do” Arabic and Japanese, but says those languages now have plenty of native speakers where he works.

But he could re-learn them quickly if he had to, he adds. Indeed, re-learning Arabic is on his bucket list. All told, Frank has been fluent in German, Spanish, Czeck, French, Italian, Arabic, and Japanese. He also spoke modern Greek fairly well at one time.

This lifetime of linguistic learning is still ongoing. Frank gave a lecture (“a smashing success!”) just this month for his Lithuanian historical linguistics seminar at Ohio State University:

My seminar professor, who is one of a half-dozen greatest authorities in the world on the evolution of the Greek language and also my professor in Intermediate Sanskrit, said he had learned a lot from me in the course of the course and led the class in applause! I was dumbfounded but held back my tears until I was safely outside. The course is the highest-numbered linguistics course offered at OSU as far as I can tell, just five doctoral candidates and me—plus the head of the Slavic department who joined us occasionally. I’ve never had even an introductory linguistics course in my life, being entirely an autodidact.

Did you catch the part about Intermediate Sanskrit? Frank is now taking his second semester of that course. I asked him what grade he got for the first semester. He laughed, hesitated, and then said it was an “A.”

———
Click on (most) images to enlarge. With the exception of the Kalamazoo chapel image by Jeff Daly, post-processed and reproduced under a Creative Commons license, all are post-processed versions of what was provided to me by Frank and are used with his permission. Also used with his permission are his poetry, along with material from “Eliminate that Atheist!” and his Curriculum Vitae.
See two other postings on this blog, “Endings” and “On Felines and Frenchmen,” for more of Frank’s fascinating stories. Another celebration I’ve done of a remarkable life is for my mother, Mary Suominen.

Notes


  1. TABEE3I website, “Interview with Frank Zindler” (February 2010). tabee3i.com/page/interviews/en/Frank-Zindler/ 

  2. Id

  3. Id.; personal communication. 

  4. Wikipedia, American Atheists 

  5. Frank Zindler, “Eliminate that Atheist!”, in Through Atheist Eyes, vol. 5 (forthcoming). 

  6. Frank Zindler, “Remembering Madalyn Murray O’Hair,
    the Founder of American Atheists.” Reprinted at the Friendly Atheist blog, patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/04/28/remembering-madalyn-murray-ohair-the-founder-of-american-atheists 

  7. Reprinted at nowscape.com/atheism/zindler_memoriam.htm

  8. Freethought Nation website, “Frank Zindler’s wife of 48 years, Ann, has died.” freethoughtnation.com/frank-zindlers-wife-of-48-years-ann-has-died/ 

  9. Frank Zindler, “Remembering Ann.” American Atheists website, news.atheists.org/2013/01/06/remembering-ann/ 

  10. In his “Eliminate that Atheist!” chapter, Frank tells a harrowing story of ill treatment at the community college following his public participation in the 1977 “In God We Trust” litigation. My summary in this sentence is based only on his account, and I haven’t investigated whether there is another side to the story. 

  11. Frank Zindler, “Eliminate that Atheist!”