Among the many milestones in Don Zirkel’s life — serving in the Army Army, editing The Tablet, the Diocese of Brooklyn’s newspaper, and working in the state Division of Human Rights under Gov. Mario Cuomo — perhaps the most famous will now be his arrest at the food court in Smith Haven Mall.
“Eighty years, and I have never been arrested before for fighting injustice,” Zirkel, of Bethpage, said yesterday.
On Saturday, Zirkel, 80, was at an anti-war rally outside the mall in Lake Grove, wearing a white T-shirt splotched with red and emblazoned with a simple message about the fatalities of the Iraq war: “4,000 troops, 1 million Iraqis dead. Enough.”
Zirkel said he was at the rally to support the anti-war protesters. “I was an encourager. I was an affirmer,” he said.
During the rally, Zirkel and his wife went into the mall’s food court for coffee and French fries. After he declined mall security’s request to either turn the T-shirt inside out or leave, he said police put him in a wheelchair and escorted him from the mall. Suffolk police charged him with criminal trespassing and resisting arrest. He was released on bail and is due to be arraigned May 22in Central Islip.
Police also said Zirkel was passing out leaflets at the mall, a charge he disputes. Mall officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.
“I’m being punished for six words that spoke the truth. That’s insanity. War is insanity,” said Zirkel, who said his nephew recently returned from active duty in Iraq.
“I’m wearing the T-shirt again,” he added.
Though Zirkel says this is his first brush with the law, he has led a life of what he calls “social action,” most notably through his involvement with the Roman Catholic church.
Born in Ozone Park, Queens, to a perfumer and a homemaker, Zirkel attended a Bay Shore seminary but decided that he did not want to become a priest; instead, he married his childhood sweetheart.
Zirkel said he served in the Army during the Korean War as a corporal and chaplain’s assistant, though he was not deployed. After he was discharged, Zirkel attended St. John’s University, earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and theology.
Zirkel began reporting for The Tablet before he was drafted, and after he graduated from St. John’s, the job turned into a journalism career. As editor of the paper, he covered some of Catholicism’s biggest shifts and challenges in the era of Vatican II.
He left the newspaper after 37 years in 1985, ready for a change, but not for retirement.
During his years covering local Catholic events, Zirkel befriended a Queens lawyer, Mario Cuomo, who by then had become governor. Zirkel sent his resume to Cuomo, who hired him as spokesman for the state Division of Human Rights. “It was right up my alley,” Zirkel said.
He worked there for seven years, followed by a stint as a speechwriter and public relations representative for the Center for Developmental Disabilities in Woodbury, before retiring for good in 1992.
Zirkel also served as deacon for Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church in Wyandanch, which last year suffered a fire that destroyed its rectory.
He began protesting the Iraq war “when the pope sent a cardinal to see President Bush and tell him it’s an immoral war, which I 100 percent agree with,” Zirkel said.
“There are people my age getting killed over there,” he said, referring to Iraqi civilians.
* BY SOPHIA CHANG (Newsday, March 30, 2008)