Hungry for Wordsby Karen Pearlman May 30, 2010
Life is good — very good — for Richard Lederer. A partial list shows just how good:
Three grown children giving him nachas with their incredible individual success? Check.
Five grandchildren to spoil? Check.
A beautiful, talented and devoted wife? Check.
Two adopted rescue dogs — Bart and Mike — who are crazy about him? Check.
A beautiful home in the Scripps Ranch area, which he calls “the perfect climate for my work in language” and “the city that’s been a great partnership with me”? Check.
Thirty-five published books — including the best-selling language humor book in American history, “Anguished English,” the bestseller, “Crazy English: The Ultimate Joy Ride Through Our Language” and the cheeky fun “The Cunning Linguist”? Check.
Travel around the country to speak on topics he loves? Check.
A regular gig playing (and winning) tennis as half of a doubles team at his local club? Check.
Checkmarks notwithstanding, at age 72, the man who started and co-hosted from 1998-2006 the well-received KPBS radio show “A Way with Words” keeps adding to his life resume, with no end in sight.
“He loves what he does,” says his wife, Simone van Egeren, who met Lederer at a Mensa gathering in New Hampshire in 1991, married him a year later and moved with him to San Diego 13 years ago. “It’s a great privilege to be with someone who loves what he does. He can’t wait to get up in the morning and start working.”
Last year, his two latest books were published by Simon & Schuster, “A Treasury for Dog Lovers: Wit and Wisdom, Information and Inspiration About Man’s Best Friend” and “A Treasury for Cat Lovers: Wit and Wisdom, Information and Inspiration About Our Feline Friends.”
Both 122-page tomes have been met with rave reviews by everyone from San Diego Humane Society and SPCA president Dr. Mark Goldstein to Francis Parker fourth grader Rachel Gordon, who chats with Lederer several times a week at the Scripps Ranch-area dog park where she and her mother, Elizabeth, take their Golden retriever Roxy to play with Bart, Mike and dozens of other canines.
“In his fun-to-read treasuries, Richard Lederer documents the history of dogs (and cats) over the centuries and captures the very essence of what they do to light up our lives,” Goldstein writes.
Rachel Gordon’s review is a bit less sophisticated, but no less praiseful.
“I love all of his books,” 10-year-old Gordon says. “‘Pun and Games’ and the dog and cat books especially.”
Adds Elizabeth, “I love the way he is so engaging with the kids, how he asks them ‘How’s school?’ and listens to their answers, and how he speaks so fondly of his own kids and grandkids.
“I remember hearing ‘A Way With Words’ on NPR when I was living in Washington, D.C., and I almost fell over when I met him here at the dog park a couple of years ago!”
Often at the dog park with Mike and Bart, Lederer will regale the masses with stories of his very famous daughter Annie Duke, who lives with her four children in Los Angeles, and equally famous son Howard Lederer, who lives in Las Vegas and is married with one child. Both Annie and Howard are professional poker players who have earned millions of dollars in tournament winnings over the years.
“They do what they were put on this planet to do,” says their very proud father, who plays a mean game of poker himself and is always up for an opportunity to teach the game to others. He is quick to note that the game of poker has made him a “fuller person.”
He adds: “Our lives are a continuous process of being born, and it is a great tragedy that most of us die before we are fully born.”
The immediate past president of the local Mensa chapter, Lederer still writes a syndicated column, “Looking at Language.” A recent column took a look at whether to call 2010 “two thousand ten,” “two thousand and ten” or “twenty ten.” (Lederer prefers the latter.)
Every month he’s booked as a guest speaker at Rotary Club meetings, schools and libraries. Lederer gives up to 100 talks every year where, he says, “I get to meet the best people at their best who are eager to hear me do my thing…They seem to like a guy from back East who enjoys anagrams, palindromes and etymology.”
He also holds charity poker tournaments at area synagogues and other houses of worship and outreach groups.
He helps plan and attends fundraisers for animal-assisting groups like the Escondido Humane Society and Baja Animal Sanctuary.
Yet somehow he found the time earlier this year to finish another book, “A Treasury for Seniors: Wit and Wisdom, Information and Inspiration for the Chronologically Endowed.” Is it any surprise he is already hard at work on his next book?
“I am so lucky,” he says. “I have a career in which there’s no distance between who I am and what I do.”
The last of five children born to a Jewish mother from Poland and a Jewish father from Bavaria (and the only one in his family to become bar mitzvah), Lederer was raised in west Philadelphia and schooled at Haverford (Pa.) College. He earned his master’s degree at Harvard and at age 42, he earned a Ph.D in linguistics from the University of New Hampshire.
He says he knew he was destined to work with the English language when as a pre-med student at Harvard, “I started reading the chemistry formulas for their literary value.”
Lederer became an English teacher and ended up at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., where he says he was the first Jewish head of a department at the private prep academy. He taught there for 27 years, until 1989.
Teaching was, is and always will be his passion, notes van Egeren, who had several successful careers of her own before she married Richard when she was 45. Once a nurse, a graphic designer and a model, she now handles the bulk of her very busy husband’s business dealings, including running his Web site, verbivore.com.
Like her husband, who made several stunning paintings when he was a teenager, some of which are framed and displayed at their home, van Egeren is also a talented artist.
“I envy kids who had him as a teacher,” she says. “He still hears from his students all the time. He wasn’t the kind of teacher who would ever say to his students: ‘You did this wrong!’ He would say to them: ‘There’s another way to do this. Why don’t you try this instead?’”
Lederer’s youngest daughter, Katy, relates some of her father’s teaching exploits at home and at school as part of her wonderful childhood memoir, “Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers.” Katy Lederer, a fine poker player in her own right, according to her father, lives in New York and continues to publish poetry.
Duke is also a writer, having penned “Annie Duke” several years ago, leading Richard to remark: “My two daughters are engaged in a scribbling rivalry.”
His children were not raised Jewish, as Lederer’s first wife was not Jewish, nor is van Egeren. But he remains connected to his heritage in spirit as a proud member of the tribe and is still drawn to Judaism for many reasons.
“I consider myself a serving Jew with a Jewish identity,” he says. “The way we have respect for learning and knowledge; that is so important. Also, the love of language and the love of people we have as Jews. I’m not big on the afterlife. I’m more about what we can do here and now. That is what I am trying to do as a teacher. A rabbi is a teacher. And a teacher is a compulsive sharer, which is what I do.
“And you can call me the most happy kveller. I have the ultimate nachas with my children. All three are making their living with their wit.”