Written after learning at the age of 57 — and only two weeks after learning he would soon become a first-time father — that he had only a 70 percent chance of seeing the child born, the book recorded for his son all he'd want him to know, just in case he wasn't around to tell him in person.
It proved to be a book with universal appeal, reflecting the concerns of any loving parent who's ever pondered what they should write down, just in case …
Radiating what actress and producer Marlo Thomas called "the sheer magic of his indomitable spirit," Siegel's "Lessons for Dylan" tells of a vital life — and literally makes "his life an open book," telling even of his first wife, Jane, who died of brain cancer after six years of marriage, and of his sometimes complicated marriage to Dylan's mother, Ena Swansea.
He tells of traveling, when he was a college student at UCLA, to Georgia to help out with voter registration and joining the marches of Martin Luther King — whom he met: "I was a civil rights worker … I'm really proud of that. I knew martin Luther King."
He worked for the campaign of RFK, even wrote jokes for him, and was there at the assassination: "I was there that night, 20 feet from the entrance to the kitchen at L.A.'s old Ambassador Hotel. I heard the gunshots. I can still hear them."
He also talks of his careers in advertising and radio, even as a Broadway playwright — during which he became the only drama critic ever to be nominated for a Tony — before settling into the critic's role he so obviously reveled in.
Siegel delighted in sharing his own delight — notably in getting to know all the characters of Hollywood and virtually every Oscar winner for more than a quarter century.
Born on July 7, 1943, in Los Angeles and raised there, he was literally at home as he shared moments with stars from Orson Welles to Halle Berry, all four Beatles to Morgan Freeman.
In 1991, along with actor Gene Wilder whose wife, comedienne Gilda Radner, had also died of cancer, Siegel founded Gilda's Club, a not-for-profit group that runs centers offering emotional and social support for cancer patients and their families and friends in a number of cities.
Siegel's honors include five New York Emmy Awards and the Public Service Award from B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League for "distinguished news reporting and commitment to freedom of the press."
Knowing his time could be short, he also wrote in "Lessons for Dylan" of his deep pride in his Jewish heritage. With the warm humor his friends and colleagues counted on, and his audience always intuited, he then laid out "A History of the Jews in Four Jokes." (Chapter 15).
In explicating for his son the meaning of Joke Number One, Siegel ponders the possible differences between Jews, Christians and Muslims: "They communicate with God through an intermediary who might get it wrong. We get it wrong right from the source."
Eyes sparkling, smile bursting to get out and pull you in whether encountered in the hallway or on the TV news set, Joel Siegel's wisdom and humor reached across all the boundaries with a proven and heartfelt humanity that kept reminding us we can all enjoy the passing parade together.