"Chairman Mao" Joins the Supreme Court  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2013

"Chairman Mao" Joins the Supreme Court   

A retired copy editor's new mission: cleaning up the grammar of Rhode Island jurists.Thu., April 4, 2013.

By Sandra Muller
Sandra Muller (sandra.mueller1987@googlemail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


After 60 years on the job, the only thing many people wish for is retirement - most of them probably wished for it much earlier than that. But Len Levin is not one of those people. The former Providence Journal editor is not yet ready to slow down.

Levin, who turned 82 in March, recently accepted a new challenge: He's the grammarian at the Rhode Island Supreme Court, replacing Joel Sekeres, who died in January.

In this role, which he started March 25, the Pawtucket, Rhode Island native will on a part-time basis comb through the judges' opinions, searching for typos and errors in grammar.

"Basically, the same thing as copy editing," Levin says. "The goal is to make bad copy good and good copy better."

The grammarian position at the Rhode Island Supreme Court goes back to the early 1970s, Communications Director Craig Berke says. The five justices write about 100 opinions each term, so Levin will be scrutinizing about 600 pages a year. The position pays $18,200 annually.

"Of course, the grammarian needs to be careful not to change the meaning of the opinion," Berke says. Levin's mandate does not include checking the opinions for legal mistakes.

"Len is the right person for the job," says Martin Funke, Levin's former colleague at the Providence Journal and a friend of the newly minted grammarian for more than 40 years. "He can do this type of line editing in his sleep."

But why take on a new job at 82? "I don't want to just sit around the house," Levin says.

Says Scott MacKay, who worked with Levin at the Journal and is now with Rhode Island Public Radio, "For a guy of his age, he is still enthusiastic for so many things. He is keeping himself mentally young."

Levin's experience behind the copy desk goes back to the 1950s. With a bachelor's degree in history from Providence College and a master's degree in journalism from Boston University, he started out as a reporter at the Pawtucket Times, his hometown paper, at the age of 22.

The first story he wrote was about a mother whose son was named George and who had written numerous letters to famous Georges across the nation asking for a written answer to her child. "So she had this huge collection of letters from famous Georges," Levin recalls. "It was a nice little feature."

But Levin realized that he was not born to be a writer. One day, a copy editor called in sick, and Levin was recruited to fill in. "I realized that I liked editing more than writing, and I kind of gravitated into copy editing fulltime."

In 1963, he left the Pawtucket Times and started his decades-long career at the Providence Journal. He was copy desk chief when he left the paper in 1996.

Berke, who worked with Levin at the Journal before going into public relations at the Supreme Court, says Levin "was very thorough and had a keen eye for details."

"He always asked, 'If we can't get the small details, how are the readers going to believe us?' " Berke adds.

Levin's personality was just right for the desk, Funke says. "An editor's job is trying for clarity," he adds. "Len is like that in everyday conversations very to the point. He doesn't waste words."

However, he says, Levin's sense of humor always made it enjoyable to work with him. "Every newsroom should have a Len Levin."

Levin agrees that humor sometimes can help to avoid boredom on the job. "There once was a story about a train from New York to Providence that was delayed," he recalls. "Somebody called the paper and told us that the reason for the delay was a very fat woman trying to get on the train, but she couldn't."

Levin explains that it soon became clear that the reason for the delay was not a fat lady. But the joke was passed along in the newsroom, resulting in a mock headline that read: "Fat lady not part of the delay."

"Of course, I rejected this headline," Levin says. "But sometimes you might be looking for something that amuses you."

For many colleagues at the Providence Journal, Levin became the "in-house authority on grammar and spelling, and a guru on style," Funke says. "We called him Chairman Mao. We would refer to him with all our inquiries."

MacKay adds "Len even looked a little bit like Chairman Mao."

After Levin had left the Journal, he worked part time at the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Massachusetts, until 2008. Since then, he has spent much of his time editing and doing research pro bono for the Society for American Baseball Research. A lifelong Boston Red Sox fan, this work quickly became one of his passions.

"He is a great baseball fan," Funke confirms. "He knows everything about history, players and statistics."

Says MacKay, "He generally is a guy with a lot of intellectual curiosity. He has a room full of bookshelves in his house."

His wife of 46 years, Linda, who is also a journalist and a professor at the University of Rhode Island, wrote several books that her husband copy edited.

When Levin is not checking the jurists' grammar, doing baseball research or editing his wife's books, he likes to travel to Seattle and Washington, D.C., visiting his two grown-up daughters and his three-year-old granddaughter.

And while his new job will hardly make him rich, it offers other pleasures.

"I love working with words," Levin says. "I just want to enjoy myself, like I always enjoyed myself."

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