Saturday, February 6, 2016

Remembering Sydney Spiegel

If Wyoming ever builds monuments to those who committed their lives to working people and their families, there will be a statue of Sydney Spiegel.  Sydney was a Wyoming hero who died last month quietly and without the notice his well-lived life deserves.

He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in history and education at the University of Minnesota and a Master’s Degree in history at the University of Wyoming. At one time or another, Sydney worked as a ship fitter, a newspaper proofreader, and as a railroad bill clerk. He was active in politics, running for state school superintendent and was the founder of the Wyoming Labor Party. His book “All Empires Die” creatively gathered the great revolutionary figures from all time. They engaged one another and the reader in a fascinating, hypothetical dialogue.

For all he accomplished in his life, Sydney Spiegel would most likely hope to be remembered as a teacher. He taught high school history classes in Cheyenne for many years. He was one of those teachers we all hope our children or grandchildren encounter in a classroom. Sydney was creative and challenging, unafraid of the truth and fearless in telling it to the youngsters he was charged with teaching.

That didn’t always sit well with conservative school board members.

Theologian Kathleen Norris wrote “Dakota,” a poetic study of small town contrasts between “open hearts and closed minds.” That contrast was apparent when, in the early 1970s, the nation’s social unrest found its way to Wyoming.

Some students and a few educators saw the battles for civil rights and to end the Vietnam War and decided they wanted to be a part of it. Most school administrators and school board members saw the same events and said, “It won’t happen here.” Sydney Spiegel was a victim of the latter.

The bottom line was that conservative board members didn’t like Sydney’s politics. When most teachers belonged to the Wyoming Education Association, he was an outspoken leader in the aggressive American Federation of Teachers.

As a part of his union activities Spiegel published statements, the Wyoming Supreme Court later said were “sharply critical of administrators in education for the reason that the techniques employed by them in the administration of the schools had the effect of harming instead of aiding the educational processes.”

Sydney rebelled against the principal’s office routine of interrupting classes with messages. He used a rope to bar the messengers’ entrance into his classroom while he was teaching. Sydney sided with students who protested racial bias during a high school assembly honoring Dr. Martin Luther King.

He’d taught for 19 years when he was fired in the early 1970s. Sydney sued not for his job alone, but for the rights of his fellow teachers. The Wyoming Supreme Court reinstated Sydney in a ruling that provided Constitutional protections for all public employees seeking to exercise First Amendment rights in schools and the community.

Writing for the Court, Justice Robert Rose said, “The board of trustees of the school district versus Sydney Spiegel, the teacher, is a contest about liberty.” Justice Rose defined liberty quoting the words of the great American jurist Learned Hand.

“The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it’s right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of others; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own; the spirit of liberty remembers that not a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard side by side with the greatest.”

Sydney Spiegel, God rest his soul, was the “spirit of liberty.” In Wyoming, where too few are willing to fight for their own much less your liberty, Sydney Spiegel’s intellect and courage earned him the right to be remembered.


  1. Thank you,Roger. Sydney was living here in Casper, when I moved here. I have a very fond memory of Christmas Eve at Jim and Lita Fagan's house.Sydney was there, my sons and friends. My violin, a guitar. We all sang Christmas caroles, including Sydney! We also sang and played Klezmer music. We loved Sydney

  2. Thanks Sandy. He was a special eccentric! We were lucky to have known him.