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Published: Saturday, 8/9/2003

Two famous men of Michigan aren't household names

DETROIT - Michigan, like the rest of the world, has produced scads of people who are nationally famous. Some richly deserve to be household words: Madonna, James Hoffa, and both Henry and Gerald Ford.

But there are boatloads of others who are pseudo-famous, formerly famous, fame wannabees, or famous just for being famous. Make your own list, and while you're at it, think hard about where to place Eminem and Lee Iacocca.

Yet there is also a select group who are not well known - but who are more important, and often more interesting, than those who are. Internationally, the best example of someone hugely important whose name you probably don't know is Tim Berners-Lee, whose friends often call him TBL for short.

Mr. Berners-Lee is a quiet, self-effacing British computer whiz who invented something in 1989 that changed our world forever, something he at first called the “mesh,” and then, because he was afraid people would think it was “mess,” changed its name ... to the World Wide Web. That was the tool that made the Internet practical.

Today, most Americans use the Internet. Communications and commerce have been revolutionized by it. So how much money did Mr. Berners-Lee make from it? Not one euro. He gave up any patent rights because he wanted it to spread as fast as possible.

Michigan has, to my knowledge, no unknown heroes quite as important as TBL, though Stan Ovshinsky, inventor of the nickel-metal hydride battery, may be a contender if he ever succeeds in making the electric car fully practical.

Yet there are others who are more interesting than many of the famous, perhaps because their lives are so full they don't bother to seek publicity. Take Ralph Slovenko, for instance, perhaps the nation's foremost expert on law and psychiatry.

Polite, courtly, impeccably groomed, he travels the world lecturing on the insanity defense in criminal trials in French, Polish, Spanish, and Russian. He also is fluent in Yiddish, which he speaks with a deep native New Orleans drawl.

This renowned scholar was once a track star for Tulane. Later, he was an assistant prosecutor for Jim Garrison, back when the flamboyant New Orleans district attorney was trying to solve the Kennedy assassination, the basis for Oliver Stone's wacky movie JFK. Dr. Slovenko is the only known lawyer, a prominent New York psychiatrist observed, to have done “something equivalent to a residency in psychiatry without attending medical school.” He did, however, rack up a PhD in psychodynamics.

Ralph Slovenko knows no boundaries. Sure, he has won the American Psychiatric Association's highest award for contributions to his field. But he is also proud that he is the only - repeat only - professor quoted on the official Web site of the Ice Cream Sundae. His deathless words: “It may be said that ice cream is the best drug available for both mind and body. It is spiritually uplifting, nutritious, and wholesome.”

Though he has written some 20 highly praised scholarly works, including a brand-new two-volume textbook on psychiatry and law, he also has a thriving career as a popular essayist on subjects ranging from Marilyn Monroe to ... John Bobbitt. Yes, he did write a piece called “Bibbity Bobbitty Boo” in a journal he chose because “they let me illustrate the articles.” He has also written, in the Journal of Psychiatry and Law, the most definitive piece I've ever seen on filthy words.

He illustrated that, too. No, I won't quote it. His favorite subjects, however, are cars and the former Soviet Union. Though he's lived in downtown Detroit for decades, Dr. Ralph hates automobiles. “A plague has covered our land - mobilopathy,” he intones. He's written pieces for the Wall Street Journal decrying our “automobile dependency.”

And in a just-published memoir, he makes a persuasive case that despite the bad stuff, life was better for most people in the Soviet Union than now in Russia, a nation also being done in by cars. “I miss Pravda, and the quiet tree-lined streets,” he sighs.

Not everything has changed for the worse. Many years ago, he fell in love with a much younger Russian girl. But Soviet citizens couldn't leave then, and she married someone else. Time passed; the USSR disappeared, and Natasha's first husband died.

So he finally got the girl. So now the Slovenkos live on campus, where he is still, at 76, teaching, writing, making us think, and helping define national standards for the insanity defense in criminal trials. So ask yourself who really is more interesting: Ralph Slovenko, or some second-rate baseball player you read about this week. We'll talk about whether the media have their priorities straight another time.



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