With Thanks to Michael Novak
Michael Novak, who died this week of cancer, was most frequently described as a Catholic theologian, a brilliant and influential one, needless to say. But his scholarly interests, intellectual devotions, and contributions to public service were miles wider and deeper than that. As wide and deep as his friendships.
My colleagues and I were long honored that he was a terrific friend of Center of the American Experiment. More personally, he was a very good friend of mine and Kathy Kersten.
I just learned of his death by watching a short video of Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute announcing it. One of the things Father Sirico said was that Michael was remarkably generous with his time, especially with students. He certainly was generous with his time to me over the last thirty-plus years. And when it came to students, I got to see his enveloping commitment to them on two occasions in recent years. I’ll return in a moment to those, at Ave Maria University in Florida, but first a wonderful story about how we first connected in the early 1980s.
I was a recently minted Ph.D., meaning I could be a pain. I was working for Gov. Al Quie then and I had just read Michael’s recently published masterwork, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which I thought was a seminal breakthrough in regards to economic freedom, as did multitudes of others. Being a newly credentialed recommender of fine scholarly works, I gave my copiously marked up copy of the book to the governor, suggesting he should read it too.
What I didn’t know at the time was that the two men were good friends and that they would be seeing each other shortly. When they did get together, the governor showed him my copy of his book, and Michael – who had never met me – wrote the best inscription I’ve ever received, “To Mitch Pearlstein, With the admiration of a writer to a writer.” Not bad.
I believe I saw him speak at the University of Minnesota not long after that, being his brave self. Which was followed (I think I have the sequencing right) by my asking him to review a proposal for a book I was thinking of writing. The outline, he wrote back, was kind of “breezy.” If what he wrote in my copy of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism was the best inscription I’ve ever received, “breezy” was the classiest one-word rejection letter I’ve ever gotten.
Once American Experiment opened in 1990, he came to grace our podium three times, including as keynoter for our 1993 Annual Dinner. A number of years later, in either late 1989 or early 1990, Kathy and I asked that he write the Foreword for an anthology we were putting together, fifty of her favorite columns over the previous decade and fifty of mine. This was no small ask, but unsurprisingly, he agreed. And not only did he write a detailed and complimentary Foreword, but he captured, as keenly as anyone ever has, not just how Kathy and I share same pages, but how, in our very approach to writing we often don’t. This suggested to me that he actually read most, maybe even all of column. Not an everyday event in the book-endorsing world.
Jumping ahead to more recent years, Michael wrote a much appreciated blurb for something else of mine, but more telling was who he invited to lunch or dinner when I visited him twice at Ave Maria: students. On each occasion he invited several of his students, of whom, it was clear, he was very fond. Just as it was clear they revered him as a once-in-a-lifetime teacher and a lifelong friend.
I was one of his older students at the end, but same with me, Michael. Same with me.
Mitch Pearlstein is Founder of Center of the American Experiment.