For Neall, handwriting is personal

March 22, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Former state Sen. Robert R. Neall created a big stir with a recent letter to the governor. It predicted disaster for the city's plan to bail out Baltimore schools.

But here's the real shocker: the 2 1/2 -page letter was handwritten.

People who didn't like what Neall had to say were quick to note that the letter was longhand, as if that discredited the message. Asked about the letter, the first words out of Mayor Martin O'Malley's mouth were that this kind of correspondence "used to be typewritten." More blunt were members of O'Malley's senior staff, who compared the mail to a missive from the Unabomber.

In the computer era, when kindergartners are taught touch typing, it has come to this: Writing anything longer than a thank-you note by hand is not just unusual, but to some, downright weird.

"I think it's a very sad state of affairs when something as important as handwriting is considered kooky," says Glen Bowen, publisher of Pen World International, a magazine for devotees of high-end writing implements and the dying art of longhand.

Neall, who volunteered as a financial adviser to the school system before resigning in frustration last month, was surprised and angry that political foes were poking fun at his decision to write by hand.

"The folks at the mayor's office will stop at nothing to ridicule and demean what I try to contribute," he said. "The fact that I wrote it in my own hand makes me some sort of a weirdo? They want to belittle what I said because it was handwritten? My record of public service speaks for itself."

It was no accident that Neall, widely regarded as one of the state's sharpest fiscal minds, put pen to paper instead of fingertips to keyboard. His computer wasn't on the fritz. The steno pool wasn't on strike.

A competent two-finger typist who sends his share of e-mail, Neall still writes his most heartfelt and personal letters by hand. He turns out 10 to 15 a week, to his four children, to former General Assembly associates and friends. Most are shorter than his letter to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and two other top state officials, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

"I guess I'm a throwback to a different generation," says Neall, 55. "I am a letter writer, and I take pen in hand when I write personal letters.

Neall felt his message to Ehrlich, Miller and Busch fell into that category, even though the topic was public policy, because he has known the three leaders for many years.

"This was my communication with three friends I have a high regard for on a matter that I felt was of paramount importance," he says. "It was not intended to be a public document. If it had been a press release, clearly it would not have been handwritten."

Neall is hardly longhand's last fan. Never mind that commercially successful typewriters have been around since 1873 and, more recently, computers and e-mail have made typing even easier. Whole industries have sprung up in the last decade around the notion that schools are neglecting penmanship in favor of keyboarding. Some educational researchers contend handwriting is vital to helping children recognize letters and become good readers.

"Handwriting is not going out of style. That's the bottom line," says Brynda Pappas, a spokeswoman for Handwriting Without Tears, a company based in Cabin John that markets a handwriting curriculum. "There may be an assumption, particularly in official circles, that it must be typed."

Judith Martin, the etiquette guru better known as Miss Manners, says that official correspondence may be handwritten - and that letters professing love or expressing condolences, thanks or apology must be.

"Even without tear stains, there is just something earnest-looking about those wandering lines and shadings of ink," she wrote in a 1997 column. " ... Business letters may properly be written on keyboards, of course, although it is not improper - just shocking - to handwrite them."

Neall says he wasn't out to shock state leaders, but to warn them that O'Malley's plan to lend city schools $42 million might do more harm than good, because most of the money will have to be paid back in 90 days. A state bailout abandoned in favor of O'Malley's plan would have lent $42 million for two years. The mayor contends his plan is better, in part because it protects the teachers' contract, which could have been torn up under the state deal.

In the wee hours of March 9, shortly after O'Malley stunned Annapolis by spurning state aid in favor of his own plan, Neall pulled out a pen and started to write.

Neall is not a Mont Blanc kind of guy, though many people, aware of his letter-writing habit, have given him fine pens as gifts over the years. A lefty, he finds fountain pens smear as his hand drags across the fresh letters. He uses a ballpoint, even when the recipient is the governor.

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