My most influential mentor died suddenly at 85 one Sunday a month ago, as he sat reading his newspaper at the nursing home.
None of us chooses the hour or setting of this unwelcome summons, yet his had an uncanny fitness about it.
There was, in the first place, the mastery of a stubborn, often willful spirit over physical frailty. Merely to read the morning paper, as he always did, cost great effort. He would be wheeled to a dining-room table, where the journal would be spread before him. A nurse would return periodically to turn the pages his once powerful farm boy's hands had become too arthritic to handle.
This careful, observant scrutiny of a world he could no longer affect, even barely, suggested, too, his unquenchable curiosity.
Early on the day of his funeral, I watched a long freight train crawl through the small North Carolina town whose schools he had run for 40 years. I thought: He was the only man I knew who could have told you (for instance) what those odd-shaped cars were built to carry, whether they still did and, if so, where the cargoes were mined and made. For good measure he could have named the founders of the rail lines (rascals, most probably) and told by what imposture against the public interest they had prospered.
His information was, in short, vast and seemed especially so to a boy. It pained him that I could never identify the cover crops that whizzed past the car windows as we pursued vacation routes through the southern countryside. "What is that, sonny?" I would look up blankly from my book. "Oats?" "No, clover."
A few summers ago he sat patiently listening as a babbling mob of newsless children and grandchildren on vacation idly guessed where the United States had down two Libyan planes. The Gulf of . . . of . . . ? Persian Gulf?
"Sidra," he finally said. Others guessed; he knew.
That he was stricken over his newspaper suggests, also, another great fact about him: that as to public matters he was never neutral. Perhaps it is not impious to wonder, in fact, what public folly in the papers of July 7 stirred the fatal agitation.
Until I was no longer a young man, his views weighed with me because they were his, rarely unemphatic, and usually wise.
In mid-1964, as the mess in Southeast Asia worsened, he followed my editorial errors in pained silence, as was his custom, until one day he brought himself to say in the kindliest way that I surely must realize that Vietnam would be our ruin, as it had been of the French. Even Douglas MacArthur, of all people, could see that.
No, I assured him; his worries were misplaced. We would gently bomb these people for a while, and they would come to terms. The Bundy brothers had it all worked out. No small peasant society could long endure the benevolent displeasure of the world's strongest power. Wait and see, he said; and read your Walter Lippmann.
There seems to have been something genetic in his lavish investment of feeling in public issues. His father before him had been a militant Populist leader until, as he put it, "the Democrats caught up" by nominating William Jennings Bryan.
One day during the crazy presidential campaign of 1972, I tried calmly to tell him that, while of course there could be no question of my voting -- ever -- for Nixon, McGovern seemed to me to be saying such silly things that I might just not vote.
"If I ever become so indifferent," he all but roared, "just bury me." (I voted.)
Oddly, these gusty political passions were a sort of hobby, incidental to his consuming interest in the nurturing and education of the young. Incredibly, his farmer/school sent 10 children through college. Education was so central to his family's vision of the world that to be without it, or to treat it lightly, was unimaginable. And by the way, to know was to know exactly. He conceded little turf to the twilight.
His funeral services were, as he had wished, unadorned and ecumenical, with a few psalms and prayers and the last lines from Bryant's "Thanatopsis," expressing the rational faith and hope of a public man. Quite without his leave, we ventured to add Luther's great hymn, "A Mighty Fortress," as seemed appropriate for a seven-generation Carolina Lutheran.
The death of fathers is an old theme and, regrettably, some weeks of fond reflection yield no striking variations for me. But rising above the pain and indignity of his long decline, there is a fresh sense of the great honor -- and luck -- of having had such a man as my teacher and friend.