Book Introduction

For an art historian to delve into writing about historic preservation is one thing, but leaping to such topics of the environment, local politics and parenting, what was I thinking?  Well it was just that.  I was thinking, and writing as well – writing about such disparate topics in the form of letters to newspaper editors.

What grew out of a passion for writing letters to local and national newspapers from the early 1980’s to 2006  – a pursuit aptly labeled as old school – evolved by 2009 into longer discussions and opinion pieces that were published by such newspapers as the Stamford Advocate and The Berkshire Eagle.

While the practice itself of writing letters to news editors has substantially diminished, reduced in quantity and a loss of readership in the past ten years; reader commentary on news webs sites has seen explosive growth.   Sweeping changes to the news industry, precipitated by the transformation from print media to digital journalism changed every aspect of the business.

One can argue that reader commentary on social media and digital news sites rarely rises to the level of a carefully crafted letter to the editor intended for print publication.  A letter that was chosen for print was distinct; earning recognition for its genuinely well expressed viewpoint, caught by an editor’s eye.  Editors traditionally set high standards for those selected, in grammar, tone and style; with other considerations simply logistical, such as available space.  Accordingly, letter writers have regarded publication in print as a mini achievement.  Today these traditional letters to the editor are becoming somewhat of a lost art.

For me, the hobby of letter writing is firmly rooted in my father Charles Villency’s career; a career which spanned sixty years as a newspaper reporter for the Endicott Bulletin, The Binghamton Press, Syracuse Herald Journal, Stars & Stripes newspaper, the United State Office of War Information, the United States Air Force, United States Army, and as a public relations and advertising executive for the United States Treasury Department promoting Savings Bonds.  And many of these career positions were held long before I was born.

My father interviewed and wrote innumerable stories about many fascinating personalities throughout his news career; from Scottish singer Sir Harry Lauder, famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, gangster Dutch Schultz, actor Jackie Coogan, explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins, to actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine.  He served for over two years in England, France and Germany as an overseas correspondent for the United States Army reporting on the servicemen – the wounded, the fatalities, and the survivors.  He interviewed hundreds of hospitalized soldiers for stories to send to their hometown newspapers.

In 1951 he was appointed a deputy director of public information for United States Savings Bonds program.  There he worked with magazines and trade associations such as Esquire, Business Week and the Advertising Council.  His work brought him into contact with actors who promoted Savings Bonds such as Tony Randall, Jack Klugman and Meredith Baxter Birney.

My Dad was an adventurous storyteller, a man whose years of getting a story right and drawing his readers in to the topic at hand was his fondest chapter.  With his retirement in 1974, he continued to use his experience as a freelance writer and public relations specialist, writing avidly on topics ranging from the Vietnam War to environmental concerns.  And during this time, he developed a hobby of writing letters to the editor to our hometown newspaper the Great Neck Record, as well as Newsday and The New York Times.  Hence the connection.

Long after our parents are gone, we remember them perhaps by a single memory or image.  Mine is of my Dad seated in his upstairs office of our Great Neck home, behind his Danish deigned desk by Maurice Villency (his brother), briskly typing letters in between his freelance writing and publicity jobs.  The circulating pipe smoke and the sound of the pushed typewriter lever of a finished sentence resonates to this day.

As for my writing, it can be traced back to the early 1980’s when as a young art history graduate student I wrote art reviews for the local hometown newspaper, the Great Neck Record.  Along with reviewing and critiquing art exhibits primarily at the Nassau County Art Museum in Roslyn, New York, I was also exploring my voice by writing letters to The New York Times, offering what I thought were insightful comments on news stories covering the arts.  Typing on my Dad’s typewriter I would send a number of letters to The New York Times, many of which never saw the light of day.  But I was developing the art of letter writing, for which two decades later would became something of a well honed practice when living in Stamford, Connecticut.

My opinion pieces like my letters express a position on present day issues that are not just based in the communities where I live or where the problem has arisen. 

These are actually topics that are part of our national dialogue during the past decade:  the ever evolving city with new buildings and neighborhoods; pressing environmental issues in our cities, suburbs and rural communities; discussions of ethics in museum management; reflections about historic preservation of homes and buildings, and how their safeguarding can enrich our lives and subsequent generations.  Whether you live in Stamford, New Haven, Stockbridge, Williamstown, Albany or Syracuse, these are topics you may be pondering.

There are also musings on competitive helicopter parenting, and on local Stamford, Connecticut politics. And at their core, the letters and opinion pieces are not just a personal anthology, but also an historical record, chronicling the news and issues of the time.  My outlook is skeptical and wry at times, but pragmatic and hopeful.   Behind an irritated and sardonic tone is a voice of heartfelt opinions on issues I care about.  

I have often thought that opinion writers have an unfair advantage.  They can voice a position from a protected place and hide behind the written word, in a kind of one sided dialogue with their readers.  Nonetheless many opinion writers fundamentally share their viewpoints to encourage sincere reflection and healthy, open discussion among their readers.

Writing opinion pieces for local, relatively small newspapers, I have looked forward to feedback from readers; anticipating that a piece would trigger an intelligent and respectful response, and that has indeed happened.  A writer, after all – even one of letters – enjoys being read.