Wilfred M. McClay.
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.