Most of the people whose lives Melvin Waskin touched likely never knew his name, and that was ok.
A longtime writer and producer for Coronet Instructional Media, the educational films whose scripts he penned taught students about everything from the solar system to how to date. If you recently identified a planet correctly, or chose a date based on qualities meaningful to you, you might well have learned that from Waskin.
(The latter film, it’s worth noting, is from a past time; a woman’s value, it turns out, is not attached to the extent to which they make a boy “feel he’s appreciated.”)
Waskin, a near-lifelong Chicagoland resident, passed away on March 10. He possessed an energetic mind. As the Chicago Tribune’s Joan Giangrasse Kates wrote, eulogizing him, “He wanted to be a writer, but wanted his writing to have shelf life.” Newspaper and radio were short-lived mediums, he thought, but educational films would live forever.
His time at Coronet, where he wrote more than 1,000 scripts over the course of a long career, validated his bet. Even if the film presents a too-retro version of teenage romance, we can still watch “Dating: Do’s and Dont’s” for a reason.
Waskin wasn’t content, though, to pursue the course of already-confirmed knowledge. His passion came in the form of “catastrophism,” a phenomenon he learned about through his work. There were abrupt, inexplicable changes that took place in the universe; if he couldn’t explain them, he wanted to at least explore their effects.
That pursuit found a focus close to home: the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Conventional knowledge had it that the fire began when a Mrs. Catherine O’Leary’s cow knocked over a lantern in her barn.
Not so fast, Waskin thought. Perusing old newspaper accounts of the fire, as well as official documents, he learned that the night of the Great Chicago Fire brought similarly-sized fires to Peshtigo, Wisconsin and Manistee, Michigan. Eyewitness reports from each city, he learned, reported illuminated skies and terrible roars.
What, he wondered, if a comet was the culprit — and not a cow? He proposed that the comet Biela II had fallen on the city, sparking the blaze, making his case in the book “Mrs. O’Leary’s Comet!”, published in 1985.
“He spent months and months gathering information and doing interviews, but it took him only about a week to finish the book,” his wife, Tamara, told Kates. “He was a fast writer.”
Waskin, who is survived by his daughter Laurie, sons Alan and David, three grandchildren, and sister Myrna, in addition to his wife, wasn’t the theory’s only adherent. It was first proposed by Congressman, amateur scientist, and student of Catastrophism Ignatius L. Donnelly, a dubious ally whose other great interests included the lost continent of Atlantis, and the argument that Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s play.
Alas for Waskin and Donnelly: The only scientific support yet to emerge for their argument is in an unpublished paper from 2004, not the most resounding of recommendations.
Yet perhaps the result was less the point than the potential posed by the question. And how to sum up the lessons of a life in which lessons reigned paramount?
Perhaps a return to that outdated film on dating will do. When its protagonist calls the girl he likes to ask her on a date, the narrator takes him through three scenarios. In one, he’s too shy; in the next, he’s too bold; in the last, and most successful, he’s confident, warm, and deferential.
Waskin, with more color, might distill the moral such: It’s best to be polite and kind, and aware of the potential for catastrophe. So on, with Waskin’s wisdom, we go.