Frederick Wilhelmsen (1923-1996) is still revered in Catholic circles of the Hispanic world, where he is praised as a friend and a scholar and a kind of honorary Spaniard, and to crown it all, an incarnation of Don Quixote. The latter title has been awarded to him in a noble sense: fighting impossible battles, following his own road, assuming that people are better than they appear. One of the times we met (1958) was in his temporary home while teaching in Spain. No question that it was his natural environment: Avila, a walled city of marvelous beauty which was in harmony with Fritz Wilhelmsen’s own inner world. I understood why Avila was his chosen habitat: traces of St. Teresa, but also the good wine, the strong sun, the central stage of Castille, the heart of Spain.

It was not our first encounter. Three years before, we had met at the University of Santa Clara, in California. I was teaching at Sacred Heart in San Francisco. These were times just before the ingathering of conservatives around National Review, Modern Age, Triumph; controversy and reaction to liberalism were in the air; it was natural that Fritz and I should meet, and it may have been the idea of Mother Casey, who was my unforgettable dean at Lone Mountain. She knew that we were two nonconformist souls, somewhat lost on our respective campuses. Indeed, after half an hour we knew we thought alike on most essential issues. Soon after, Erik von Kuchnelt-Leddihn came to lecture to Sacred Heart, and confided to me his secret hope concerning the imminent career of “four young men.” They were Russell Kirk, Wilhelmsen, John Lukacs, and me. We were to have “outstanding careers,” not in competition but under the common Catholic spiritual stimulus. Young Turks of sorts.

Wilhelmsen and I were to see each other a good number of times, especially considering our co-editorship of Triumph. The two of us formed at the Washington editorial meetings a kind of “radical” section. Example: before launching the journal (still under the name Future, agreed on in a nearby bar), Fritz and I favored a tough editorial policy, a demanding tone vis-à-vis the bishops. When I sent back from Brazil the text of my explosive interview with Dom Helder Camara, bishop of Recife/Olinda, Brent Bozell as boss decided against publishing it. Fritz and I voted for it.

Other meetings were occasioned by lectures and conferences, from Malibu to Philadelphia, where Fritz would warmly embrace me, rather like an accomplice, as if he and I possessed a special secret, not to be shared with others. Part of the secret was that our group of two represented the European branch of Catholic conservatism in America, although we diverged on several matters: Fritz “represented” Spain; I, France. He believed in the restoration of right-wing monarchy; I saw its futility. He believed in marches, uniforms, and other spectaculars; I favored the slow rhythm of intellectual advance.

These were, however, externals. More important was our moderate admiration for Eric Voegelin’s magnum opus, pointing out (in Modern Age) its basic Hegelian derailment. Our articles (no conspiracy!) criticized this great thinker for not finding a sufficient ontology under the “symbolizations” of religious thought. I think Wilhelmsen, too, saw Voegelin as a German philosopher in the line of Mister Eekhart, not as a restorer of ontology. And we agreed that, whatever Voegelin’s merits, he was by no means a “conservative.” Not that this mattered with us; I do not reveal much of a secret if I confess that both Fritz and I became over the years “men of the right” rather than conservatives with the correct DNA. In fact, this may have been the “secret” that we harbored: our differently nuanced but firmly held conviction that conservatism was an ideology of the status quo, and, in the American context, too pragmatic and libertarian to fire the imagination. Hence Wilhelmsen’s spiritual and aesthetic relocation.

Fritz was also called a man of the Renaissance, but I go one step further and see him as a late-Medieval man, trying to be a Thomist at the Medici court in Florence. I believe he would have loved that role: the surrounding beauty and the great intellectual adventure. It is an open question whether he would have chosen Savonarola as a “role model,” something out of the question on an American campus. Hence his choice of Spain as a spiritual point of arrival. Hence also, not the Medici court, but severe and dry Castille, and not sensuous Michelangelo, but El Greco. And Don Quixote and Goya. Not a bad solution for Frederick Wilhelmsen’s irrepressible romanticism, a romanticism tempered, however, by Thomist discipline. He may have wanted to rebuild Avila in Texas and combine McLuhan’s technology with a new and lively Christendom. At times, unrealized dreams are the best a man can leave behind.