Michael Uhlmann died on October 8, 2019, aged 79. In addition to a distinguished career in government, private legal practice, and philanthropy, he taught at Claremont Graduate University since 2002, and was a senior fellow and faculty member of the Claremont Institute and a frequent contributor to the Claremont Review of Books. He made his debut in our second issue, Winter 2001, with two articles, one on constitutional theory and one defending the electoral college—under attack again by liberals in the wake of an election that didn’t go their way. He wrote his last article for our Summer 2019 issue just a few months ago, on the extent to which the federal courts can be counted on to re-constitutionalize our government. In all, his essays and reviews appeared 28 times in our pages.
CRB readers delighted in Mike’s ruminative mind, graceful pen, and unfailing sense of humor, which he brought to bear on almost any subject—presidential war powers, natural law, the administrative state, Brown v. Board of Education, eugenics, Catholic social teaching, his heroes (particularly John Marshall and William F. Buckley, Jr.), and teaching as a vocation. Readers who crave some examples of his writing are invited to visit our website.
We include here reflections from some friends and colleagues—Michael Anton, Hadley Arkes, James L. Buckley, D. Alan Heslop, Wilfred M. McClay, and Jean M. Yarbrough.
The first time I saw Mike was in graduate school. Charles Kesler, my principal teacher and then head of the Salvatori Center, told me “We’re having Mike Uhlmann come speak at the Athenaeum, and there’ll be a lunch; you’re invited.” The Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum on the campus of Claremont McKenna College is the premier speaking venue at the Claremont Colleges. Intended for high-minded intellectual discourse, it has more recently become better known—as Heather Mac Donald learned to her dismay—as a place to riot against unpopular speakers. But back in those innocent days of the mid-1990s, the “Ath” was more civilized and lived up to its name.
Impecunious graduate students are always up for a free lunch, so I readily agreed, but also asked: “Who’s Mike Uhlmann?”
Who’s Mike Uhlmann!
I eventually came to understand Mike as five things: a devoted father and grandfather, a serious Catholic, a kindly and knowledgeable teacher, a formidable corporate lawyer, and a political mover and shaker. It was the formidable corporate lawyer, with a little bit of the macher mixed in, who showed up at the Ath that day in 1996.
Those who first got to know Mike after he had left the practice of law and taken up full-time teaching may have never seen this side of him. From that point on, he was every bit the gentle teacher who would, however, tell amazing stories of being in the room with Goldwater, Nixon, Kissinger, Ford, Reagan, Meese, Buckley, Bork, Thomas, Will—every imaginable luminary of 20th-century Republicanism and conservatism—so that you knew here was no mere Mr.-Rogers-in-a-cardigan who happened to know something about the Constitution. You were in the presence of a serious player who had been at the center of things and moved the levers of power.
But he told those stories without any trace of the braggadocio that usually infuses Washington tales. I came to realize that the no-nonsense authority I had first observed in Mike was neither an affectation nor central to his character, but rather necessary armor to make his way and hold his own, to gain and keep respect, in a series of cutthroat environments. When among friends, he didn’t need it, and so didn’t use it. As Mike himself said, and everyone who knew him said of him, he loved teaching infinitely more than he loved the law or even politics. He was finally doing what he wanted to do, what he felt born to do. And he was happy.
Not to suggest that he was unhappy in 1996, but he was not kindly or gentle. At least that wasn’t the impression he gave.
I learned from Charles and from Harry Jaffa the basic story of how Mike, already a budding lawyer, got to know Jaffa on the Goldwater campaign, and how Jaffa persuaded him to drop everything and come to Claremont to study political philosophy and the American Founding. Which, a few years later, Mike did. And then took that knowledge back to Washington to save the electoral college, help establish the Federalist Society, transform the federal judiciary—among other things—and practice law while out of power.
* * *
The Mike Uhlmann of 1996 did not look anything like an academic. His suit was too somber and perfectly fitted, his posture too erect, his manners too polished. He spoke that day on the budget. Despite the leadenness of the topic, I was mesmerized—by his command of the issue, his humor, his ability to structure and deliver a talk with apparent effortless ease, hiding all the work that must have gone into it.
I was—then as now, but more then—interested in clothes. Unique (I think) among grad students, I possessed a small wardrobe of custom-made suits. I naturally wore one to the event. Charles, as ever, had arranged to have his grad students sit with Mike at the lunch. Mike was next to me. As we spoke about politics, philosophy, and other things, the glint in his half-shut right eye said, “I’m not yet impressed, but I want to be, so keep trying.”
Then the subject changed to suits. I complimented his. He examined mine—a glen plaid with a red overcheck—and then said the following, as best as I can remember:
When I was a junior associate at—[he named a bigtime firm so famous even I had heard of it]—I had a suit very much like that. Very tasteful, so I thought. One day I was in the elevator and a senior partner got on; it was just the two of us. He looked me up and down and said, “Nice suit.” Relieved—this was an intimidating guy—I said, “Thanks!” To which he replied, “Off to the track after you get your hours billed?”
I never wore it again.
I wore mine again, but never again without a tremor of trepidation, and never in front of Mike.
Some years later, I began teaching in the Claremont Institute’s summer fellowship programs. Mike was always there, exuding kind, grandfatherly patience and good humor. And he was now something else to me, too: a colleague. At Mike’s funeral, his brother said that Mike’s ultimate goal as a teacher was to make all his students, eventually, colleagues—to teach them what he knew so that they could one day converse as equals. I do not believe I ever became Mike’s equal, but he nonetheless—after that first encounter—always treated me as if I were.
* * *
We had one major disagreement. As the Trump phenomenon gained steam in 2015, I asked Charles—by then and since, editor of the CRB—if I could make the case for Trump in its pages. He gave me a tentative yes, but then rejected the piece. I later learned that I had divided the house: many were passionately for publishing it, others passionately against. Nothing personal against me, I understand, but passions were running high then, especially about Trump. Mike was against.
About eight months later, Charles asked me to write something fresh on the same topic. I initially said no, but then wrote it anyway and sent it in. Once again, I divided the house.
Labor Day weekend, 2016, I arrived in Philadelphia for the American Political Science Association. At the time a non-formidable corporate flak, I was in town to give a paper on Machiavelli, a scholarly interest I maintained more or less as a hobby (or obsession). The fate of my CRB article had been decided—it would be published, under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus—but I didn’t know that as I entered the hotel. Way down a very long hallway, I saw a familiar figure walking toward me. It was Mike. Now, I knew he had opposed the first piece and so assumed he opposed the second. I wondered to myself, “How’s this going to go?”
Mike had a small entourage following him; he was holding court. But it didn’t take him long to spot me. Here goes nothing! He broke out into a wide grin as our paths converged. He extended his arms, walked right up to me, took my face in his palms, kissed me on each cheek like a mafia don, and drawled out one word: “Deciuuuuuuussssss.” And then he walked on down the hall.
I spoke to Mike frankly and freely before the conference was over. I made my pro-Trump arguments; he stated his objections and reservations. It would be inaccurate to characterize Mike as “NeverTrump”; he had certainly been anti-Trump in the primaries and remained, at best, Trump-skeptical—though certainly not pro-Hillary! I think that, like many (or even most), he expected Trump to lose and worried what his candidacy and loss would do to the Republican Party and to conservatism. And Mike was simply too much of a gentleman, too deeply religious, too old-school in every sense not to be put off by much of what we all saw. Those of us who supported Trump through everything, thick and thin, need to understand that this reaction can arise from a deep well of decency.
Trump’s actions, our blandishments, as well as circumstance and events wore down Mike’s skepticism, at least partially. So much of his public life was devoted to setting aright the federal judiciary that he could not help noticing that Trump had done and was doing more for this cause than anyone in a generation, and perhaps in Mike’s lifetime. Encouraged by this—especially by the selection and swift confirmation of Neil Gorsuch—Mike began to say that, should Trump confirm a second Supreme Court Justice meeting his approval, he would “personally lead the Second Inaugural parade.”
At my daughter’s confirmation, I noticed a tall, white-haired gentleman escorting a young lady toward the altar. It was Mike, who was there as sponsor for one of his granddaughters. We chatted afterward; this was just before the Christine Blasey Ford hit job, when it looked like Brett Kavanaugh was cruising toward easy confirmation. “If this goes through, Mike, you know what that means,” I said. He didn’t hesitate: “I will lead the parade!” Nor did he backtrack when the hit job failed.
I join many others in feeling the same way about Michael Uhlmann: whenever and wherever deserved tribute is paid to this noble and good man, I will lead the parade.
Michael Anton is a lecturer in politics and research fellow of Hillsdale College, and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute.
From the “Acknowledgments and Dedication” of Natural Rights and the Right to Choose (Cambridge University Press, 2002)
The final word is for Michael Uhlmann. Man of letters, counsel without peer, raconteur with limitless range, sustainer of families, runner to the rescue, devoted son of the Church, maddeningly self-effacing. For matters of moral consequence, enduring alertness; for pretension, unremitting jest. And in friendship, untiring, with the touch of grace that lifts everything. I write here with a free hand, not holding back, because I fill in a story that the principal himself will ever be too modest to set down. He immersed himself in Elizabethan literature at Yale, then went back for a while to teach at his beloved Hill School. But then to the law, at the University of Virginia, with the same depth of engagement, this time in jurisprudence and philosophy. Following philosophy out of the clouds, he moved thence to political philosophy, to earn his doctorate, studying with Leo Strauss and Harry Jaffa in Claremont. His natural—or supernatural—gifts of teaching kept him for a while in the academy, until the academy turned upside down in the turmoil of the late 1960s. He had done a master work on the electoral college, and he was drawn away to Washington, to Senator Hruska, to save the electoral college, when it was subject again, in the 1970s, to another bootless campaign to end it. The recurring melodrama would play out once again: the affectation of shock that we should be governed in modern times by such an anachronistic device, followed by an awareness, slowly setting in, that every practical alternative was notably worse or unworkable. The passion for reform would usually exhaust itself before Michael could go on to show that this arrangement, devised by the likes of Gouverneur Morris, might actually have something to do with preserving constitutional government in a continental republic. Staying in Washington, Michael would join the staff of Senator James Buckley, where he wrote the first Human Life Amendment. He would be recruited to the Department of Justice under President Ford, where he would shepherd John Paul Stevens to confirmation at the Supreme Court, and eventually persuade a young Clarence Thomas that he could find his vocation in judging. With the advent of the Reagan Administration, Michael became counselor to the president, where he argued compellingly, and dealt deftly, on matters freighted with a moral significance. He took an active lead in propelling the administration into action, in dealing with the Baby Doe cases that arose in the 1980s. In those cases, parents sought to withhold medical care from newborn infants afflicted with Down’s syndrome and spina bifida. If there was a federal presence, casting up alarms, standing against the trends, it was there mainly as a function of his own art.
At one moment, he was persuaded by his friends to let himself be appointed to the federal court of appeals in the District of Columbia. But that was also the moment when the rigors of teenage years began to be felt keenly in a family of five children, and he came to the judgment that his energies and wit had to be absorbed more fully in the family at that moment than in the courthouse. For his friends it has been a lasting source of disappointment that he did not take that appointment—as it has been a source of pride among the same friends that he made the decision he did. But in public office, or in private practice, returning to teaching, or to the life of a private foundation, his counsel has been sought by people at every level in the country, from Attorneys General and presidents to kids in the shipping room. He continues to be, at every turn, the sustainer of everyone else. I have pleaded with him never more to write an essay or speech with the willingness to put, in place of his own name, the name of a figure in public office. In the judgment of his friends, he has been too inclined to efface himself, with rationales too public-spirited: namely, that the byline of a public figure will draw more attention to the argument, and the argument may be far more important that the name attached to it. With the same temper, he is apt to spend Thanksgiving Day working at a kitchen in the parish or painting walls for nuns. And on Christmas morning, his friends are likely to find gifts laid at the doorstep, from a messenger evidently sweeping past in a Mercury station wagon rather than a sleigh. When he returned to teaching, with a stint back in Claremont, one of his students wrote in a review that “Professor Uhlmann could read the telephone book and make it compelling.” He could also, no doubt, lead the students into its deeper implications and find, somewhere in that prosaic thing, the lurking premises of modernity.
In the course of this book I describe the proposal I had shaped as the most modest first step of all on abortion: to preserve the life of the child who survived the abortion. When it appeared to be the moment to revive that proposal in 1998, Michael made the rounds with me on Capitol Hill, meeting with senators, congressmen, and their staffs. He would take himself out of any of his projects to join me, with a keen sense of what staffers on the Hill would find helpful. With the right blend of respect and familiarity, and with the authority of one who had been there before, he would make the case, and no one made it better. Along with Robert George, of Princeton, he knew the logic of that bill as well as the one who devised it. The sparest account of Michael, and the one most readily recognized, might well be that account, in All’s Well That Ends Well, of Bertram’s late father, a man legendary for his wisdom in council. Of him the poet writes that
Clock to itself, knew the true minute when
Exception bade him speak, and at this time
His tongue obeyed his hand.
Governed by that hand, this account would have ended far earlier. But I plead again for a certain license when the principal figure in the story will never broadcast it himself. Lincoln, as a young politician, in his taut style, defended his course and said, “If I falsify in this you can convict me. The witnesses live, and can tell.” In this account, I would make the same claim, and the venture is even more warranted here because the chief witness would never tell, or speak of what he has done. His friends know, and so they must tell. Judy Arkes and Susannah Patton would no doubt skip the embellishment, but they would confirm the judgment, and they would join me, with deep affection, in dedicating this book to Michael Martin Uhlmann.
Hadley Arkes is the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College, and the founder and director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding. This excerpt is reprinted with permission of the licensor through PLSclear.
James L. Buckley
Mike Uhlmann came into my life at the beginning of 1971, a most critical time for me. The prior fall, I had managed to win election to the United States Senate as a third-party candidate who had little political experience and had never engaged in the in-depth analyses of public issues that my new job would require. And that is why having Mike as a key member of my Senate staff proved such a special blessing.
Mike was a soft-spoken man of deep intelligence, one who combined a lovely sense of humor with an iron adherence to thought-through principle. Although he was only 32 when he came to me, he had already acquired an understanding of the Constitution’s political and philosophical roots that was of a depth and breadth that would prove of the greatest importance to me. What’s more, his analytical skills and ability to formulate effective arguments were of the highest order, and hence of the greatest utility to a newly hatched legislator.
Mike was with me just three years before he was recruited for a more important position in the Nixon Administration. But the lessons he had taught me and his approach to his work served me well during the balance of my Senate term, as they would in later years in my role as a federal appellate judge.
James L. Buckley served as a U.S. senator (New York), undersecretary of state for international security affairs, and judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Grown men cried when they heard the news of Mike’s death, and on the internet many grieving friends shared wonderful stories of knowing him. Some friends recalled the help he gave to their careers, finding them jobs, opening doors, writing recommendations, and giving life counsel. They were the lucky members of the Uhlmann Network. Mike had made friends everywhere: at the Hill School, Yale, Virginia, the Goldwater campaign, National Review, the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Reagan campaigns and White House, New York and Jim Buckley’s office, the Department of Justice, a dozen Republican national conventions, presidential transitions, Claremont McKenna College and the Rose Institute, the Pepper Hamilton law firm, the Bradley Foundation, Claremont Graduate University, the Federalist Society, the Claremont Institute, the James Wilson Institute, Catholic congregations in several churches, and innumerable academic conferences. He gave enormous energy and great organizational skill to dozens of worthy conservative causes: their leaders owed him favors and he called them in—for others, often his students.
Many of Mike’s friends recounted the pleasures of his company. They and his students remembered the mischievous wit, the deft interruption, the telling anecdote, and the robust laughter of a man at ease with his world. His conversation, with or without whiskey or wine, always sparkled. He could tell of times spent with long-dead political and legal figures, some great, others very far from it; of struggles over the electoral college; and of countless political campaigns. He often spoke of his heroes in the law—John Marshall above all—and of his friends Bork, Scalia, and Thomas. He talked knowledgeably of music, especially Bach and Beethoven, and he delighted in evenings at the opera. But it was English literature, his first love, that lit up many conversations. Mike could quote from Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Metaphysical poets, T.S. Eliot, and Auden. In old age, he could still faultlessly recite lines from the Canterbury Tales (said in careful Middle English), Shakespeare (particularly Macbeth), and Wordsworth (the only Romantic he cared for).
There was a kind of sad pleasure, too, for friends who followed Mike’s mind as he surveyed the broken world of American government. He spoke brilliantly, persuasively, about threats to the Constitution: the fast-growing despotism of the administrative state, the decline of congressional oversight, and the underlying tendencies toward plebiscitary democracy. He would wax gloomily on threats to freedom of speech, the decline of the press, the hypocrisy of both parties, the mounting deficit, the evils of the primary system, the rise of lobbyists, the baneful influence of finance, and the base character of those in power. He saw patriotism as undermined by a kind of hysterical mass sentimentalism that faulted America for some of humanity’s oldest ills. Sometimes he would say bleakly, in his deepest voice, “We’re doomed!” But he didn’t really believe it for, at heart and in belief, he was an optimist.
* * *
Mike’s closest friends believe in God. Sure and certain in his faith, he had no time for materialism or determinism or the schemes of “sophists, economists, and calculators.” He disdained Puritanism and all its companion depressants. For him, the Christian life meant battling “our ancient foe,” as the hymn has it, through the daily practice of loving kindness. He made friends, one by one, with a word of thoughtful praise or a small gift (carefully chosen, neatly wrapped), or a book inscribed in his beautiful penmanship with a perfectly apposite message—little tokens of caring and kind comfort. People grieved so deeply at his death because they had seen and felt the goodness in him.
Mike gave help quietly, almost secretly. Few knew the work he did for poor nuns at Thanksgiving, when he painted, cooked, and cleaned for them. Long ago at the Hill School, Mike sang George Herbert’s great hymn-poem and it stayed in his mind:
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee….
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.
All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—“for Thy sake”—
Will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.
God bless you, Mike, our dear friend, great teacher, and true Christian gentleman.
Alan Heslop is professor of government emeritus at Claremont McKenna College, former executive director of the California Republican Party, and founding director of CMC’s Rose Institute of State and Local Government.
Wilfred M. McClay
I first got to know Mike Uhlmann back in the mid-’90s, when he was a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He occupied the office next to that of my great friend the late Michael Cromartie, and I would sometimes pop in during my visits to the office to see how the other Mike—I would eventually call him “The Other,” which he liked very much—was doing.
He was always happy to be interrupted. He was then working on a compendious book about assisted suicide, which would eventually be published by Eerdmans as Last Rights?: Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia Debated (1998). It always seemed a marvel to me that a man who was spending all his working hours contemplating such a dismal subject could be so unfailingly cheerful and witty. But that was Mike.
As I gradually got to know him, I found out (mostly through his other, closer friends) that life had dealt him a very tough hand, with far more than the usual share of personal woes and disappointments. But you would never have guessed it from his radiant countenance, and he never, ever talked about such things, at least not to me. He carried the burdens of his life with an air of quiet but immense dignity, leavened by humor and undergirded by immense and visceral gratitude to God for the sheer privilege of existing—in this time, this place, this country.
He was consistently elegant in his dress and manner, and I imagine that he looked his dapper best for his recent appointment with Saint Peter, no doubt wearing one of his characteristic charcoal pinstripe suits with impeccable white button-down and beloved Hill School tie. He was always better dressed than the academics around him, and his courtly manners were always charming to women and ingratiating to men. But a big part of his charm came from a certain animal magnetism that they don’t teach at the Hill School. Underneath all the outward polish, Mike had the earthy directness and whole-souled humanity of an Irish pol (which he was, despite the Teutonic surname), always ready with a quip or a funny story about Pat Moynihan or some other character he knew from his years on that other (and lesser) Hill. He was a little like Reagan in that way.
* * *
I cannot say that I was a close friend in the usual sense. But Mike had an unmatched talent for a certain kind of intimacy. We did not keep up on the details of one another’s lives, but whenever we had lunch or drinks, after some pleasantries, he took things straight to the depths. “How goes it with your soul?” he once asked me, with astonishing and utterly sincere directness, those enormous eyes bearing down on me, as if to say, “you will answer with the truth.” Many of our conversations were like that. He was, of course, always trying to convert me to Roman Catholicism, and I loved him for that, even as I resisted his advances. But that wasn’t really what he was asking me.
His love and concern came from an even deeper place. I’m sure others had this experience of him, and indeed several of us called him Father Mikey, which seemed to please him, and certainly captures some part of his demeanor. He was, as they say in the church business, a very pastoral priest. Which is why, when he gave up the law and the Hill and all that to become a teacher, he really found his proper ministry.
In this respect, I have something important to thank Fr. Mikey for. About ten years ago, I had an opportunity to change the trajectory of my career dramatically—the details of it don’t matter, except that it would have involved leaving academia—and I sought Mike out for advice. We had a long, long conversation over many drinks at the Nassau Inn in Princeton, and at the culmination of it, after clearing away all the brush and all the preliminaries, Mike looked at me with one of those deep, penetrating, uncanny, summing-up gazes of his that came from somewhere not quite earthly, and declared, “You could do this. You’d be great. But you shouldn’t do this.” He then went on to say why I shouldn’t, entirely in terms of what I would be leaving behind, and I have never heard a more passionate encomium to the work of teaching. All the layers of sophistication and the occasional cynicism and understandable world-weariness that Mike often evinced melted away, and what I saw before me was a man afire with love, a higher love, an aging man who suddenly looked preternaturally young, his eyes gleaming with delight and gratitude and devotion for the privilege of doing the work he was doing with and for his students at Claremont. As far as he was concerned, it was the most important work in the world. I was out of my mind even to consider giving it up.
And he convinced me at that moment. In fact, he did more than that. His little sermon in that dark, empty room on a chilly Princeton night was more than just good advice. It rekindled my own appreciation for the privilege of the work God had given me to do, and about which I was becoming half-hearted. He firmly rebuked that slackness in me, and made me remember how much of the joy and giftedness of my existence I was taking for granted, and squandering. That moment changed my life. I haven’t been the same since.
He had a gift for that sort of thing. Thank you so much, Fr. Mikey. I’ll see you later.
Wilfred McClay holds the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma.
Jean M. Yarbrough
I first met Mike Uhlmann in 1997 at a Liberty Fund event run by Jim Stoner and my late husband, Dick Morgan. Dick had wanted me to meet Mike, then at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Somehow, he got me invited to dinner on the last night—where we spent several hilarious hours, made all the merrier by the adult beverages freely flowing. By the end of that evening, I knew we would be friends for life.
To a few of us, he quickly became known by the slightly, but only slightly, irreverent sobriquet, Father Mikey. Yet that playful address, which he happily accepted and frequently used to sign off his emails, went to the heart of who he was: a light-hearted man of faith who brought uncommon joy and grace into our lives.
Whatever else his achievements, and they were many and impressive, Mike’s true vocation was teaching. For Mike, this was no ordinary 9 to 5 job. For several summers, I taught alongside him in the Claremont Institute Publius Fellowship Program, where he not only presided over masterly discussions, but also got to know his students personally, dispensing “fatherly” advice on the things that mattered. After his presentation, I would often find him in animated conversation with some student who had sought him out.
* * *
He lavished even greater attention and affection on his own students at the Claremont Graduate University—charming them with poetry, regaling them with stories, wowing them with his intellect, and showing them by his example the power of faith. He inspired in his students a rare devotion because he helped to shape not only their minds but their souls. An advocate of large families, Mike increased his own by folding his students into it. He celebrated their professional achievements, blessed their marriages, and rejoiced in their children. He understood what made for a good life and pointed the way, even or perhaps especially because he had known both happiness and heartache.
Mostly I knew him as a friend. It goes without saying—though I am not only saying it, but insisting upon it—that being with Mike was always great fun. Whether in La Jolla, Tucson, D.C., Pasadena, Maine, or some other fashionable watering hole where these conferences and lectures took place, he packed a bundle of amusing stories into his suitcase, perfect for each occasion. But these were merely accessories, the finishing touches on a perfectly outfitted mind.
To put it in Aristotelian terms (I hear him now protesting against such hifalutin’ ideas), he was not only a pleasant friend, but also a useful friend. He championed my scholarly work, praising it extravagantly and recommending it to his students and friends. To make sure that success did not go to my head, this master stylist would dash off emails reminding me, inter alia (as he would say) that I should be thankful for his ongoing criticisms of my writing. “Consider this, never again in your life, at least before you start drooling, will you write ‘circle around.’ So, let’s show a little gratitude. (s. Henry W. Fowler).”
* * *
Above all, Mike was the very best kind of friend, one who freely shared his wisdom and his worldly goods. His generosity of soul sprang from his old-school Catholic faith. Christmas figured prominently in Mike’s calendar as it gave him the excuse to practice generosity on a wide scale. Every year “Santa” showered his friends with gifts meant to mark the true meaning of that holy day. To us, he often sent books on foods of special interest (oysters, trout, game birds) or wines and spirits. Other years his selections included books on gardening and architecture. This is how we first discovered his favorite architect, Allan Greenberg, whose defense of “canonical classicism” appealed to Mike’s love of the beautiful and the good.
Christmas was not the only occasion for Mike’s goodness of soul. When my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Mike sent us a copy of Richard John Neuhaus’s As I Lay Dying to prepare us spiritually for the road ahead. In those last final days, he sent the following email, informing me that coming our way were several CDs of Gregorian chants. I shall let Mike’s own words speak to us now in our sorrow at his death: “It is the true music of the spheres, and I cannot think of anything more comforting as the bell tolls. Put on one of those CDs, pour yourself a drink, and let the prospect of eternity warm you. Be not afraid.”
Requiesce in pace, Fr. Mikey.
Jean M. Yarbrough is professor of government and the Gary M. Pendy, Sr., Professor of Social Sciences at Bowdoin College.