A funeral can sometimes seem like a going out of business sale, an occasion for taking stock, not so much of the deceased as of your friendship with him. It is strange that, presented with such an opportunity, pastors and friends usually do so poor a job of evoking the life of the departed. One of the finest eulogies I ever heard was John Howard’s tribute to Leopold Tyrmand at the Philadelphia Society, in which John struck just the right note of objective admiration and personal friendship.
Perhaps the task of summing up is difficult because most of us lead such muddled lives that the memory of our misdeeds is likely to outlast whatever good we might have done. “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” There was nothing muddled or unclear about John Howard, and the eulogists at his memorial service all paid touching tribute to his kindness, his integrity, and his selfless patriotism. Allan Carlson did so fine a job that he left little for me to offer except a few reminiscences.
When people, over the years, have asked me what John was like, I have always begun with the same sentence: John is the last American Boy Scout, a man who believed in his country and its traditions, who always said what he believed and believed what he said. He was the best boss anyone could have, as kind as he was fair. When he asked me, 31 years ago, what I thought I needed to live on in Rockford, I gave him a figure. That may be enough for rural South Carolina, he told me, but not enough to bring up a family in Rockford. That first year was a bit rocky, as I began to transform the magazine and get on people’s nerves. John came to me privately to reassure me. He appreciated the efforts we were making and would stand by me, no matter what opposition we aroused. Small wonder that we were all so loyal to him. He was an inspiring example of leadership that none of his successors—me, in particular—could entirely live up to.
I fear I must have been a terrible trial to John. Our temperaments and interests were as opposite as could be. Both of us studied French, but while I talked of Baudelaire and Proust, he stuck to Montesquieu and Tocqueville. As we assembled that gang of talented troublemakers known as the magazine’s editorial board, John must have been longing for something more like The American Scholar, but he never let on. He read the magazine assiduously and would frequently come over, within a day or two of the new issue, to tell me, “Say, that’s a crackerjack article by Jacob Neusner.”
Like most good Midwesterners, John was not long on irony. He was so straightforward that, when he was confronted by anything indirect or clever for its own sake, he sniffed subversion. I cannot imagine him appreciating Oscar Wilde or even H.L. Mencken. On the other hand, he had a delightful sense of humor and an infinite fund of amusing stories. One aesthetic subject on which we agreed was Gilbert and Sullivan. He seemed to know the more popular operas by heart and had even invited Martyn Green—the great patter-song performer—to lecture at Rockford College. When a group of D’Oyly Carte Opera alumni were touring for several years, John would take us to Woodstock for dinner and a performance. He was always the best of hosts, never allowing the conversation to flag but never attempting to dominate it. In conversation, we often dropped Gilbertian allusions, and at the Institute’s retreats at his cabin in Minocqua, the two of us would occasionally croak out a number, much to the annoyance of colleagues with less developed musical and literary tastes.
John was, as any of his friends will say, an old-fashioned party animal. Instead of turning on the television or playing recorded music, he had dozens of ways of amusing guests: playing charades, singing old hymns, or teaching us one of the hundreds of games he knew how to devise with pencil and paper. To spend an evening with John Howard was to step back in time to happier days, when (as he said frequently) you did not have to lock your car.
For all his attachment to the past, John lived in the present, alive to the injustices of our time and determined to do something about them. A high-minded idealist, he maintained a practical interest in the problems of educating inner-city children and in maintaining the decencies of family life. He sometimes seemed blind to the imperfections and vices of people he had to deal with, but he was nobody’s fool. In recognizing the wickedness of the human heart, he did not feel compelled to give voice to his judgments. In John’s world, which is dwindling by the day, such things were simply not done.
With the death of John Howard, America has lost one of her best friends.