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A smart word, an attentive ear, and the quick gift of a book can change a person…

little boy reading bookmanI have had the wonderful fortune of writing a weekly essay for The Imaginative Conservative since its founding in the summer of 2010. A lot of words and a lot of ideas. Most of them, I hope, were good ones. Certainly, a weekly essay over nearly seven years has taught me quite a bit. A very hasty calculation reveals that I’ve written somewhere in the ballpark of 360,000 words for this journal.

I am also very blessed to have a mother who introduced me to reading and the love of reading and writing at a very young age. Not only did I teach myself typing on an old manual while in grade school, but I also decided very earlier on in life—sometime around fourth or fifth grade—that no matter what else I did in life, I wanted to be a writer. At that point, though I loved fiction of every kind (and especially science fiction), I wanted to write essays and books that promoted the ideas of what I would’ve then simply have labeled as “goodness” and “meaning.” My first major research paper was a comparison of the U.S. operations in World War II against Japan and against Germany and Italy. I had to beg my fifth-grade teacher to assign it to me as extra credit. Why he hesitated, I have no idea. Maybe—and understandably—he didn’t want to read the thing! Though I didn’t keep a copy of it, I am certain it probably was bad. In sixth grade, I actually got assigned (no begging on my part) a research paper on whether or not the United States should return the Panama Canal. This served as an important realization for me. I loved writing on history, but I wasn’t so keen on writing on current affairs. Okay, I should say, I wasn’t AS keen writing on current affairs. For whatever reason, I was more taken with my powers of hindsight than current sight.

While in eighth grade, I read a number of books that radically shaped my views on the world—books written by Stephen King, Leon Uris, and, most importantly for me, Robert J. Ringer. At the time I read it, I thought his Restoring the American Dream the model of what I wanted to spend my life writing.

Then, in the fall of my freshman year of high school, 1982, I met Greg Rehmke in Wichita, Kansas. Except for my mother, no one up that point in my life had introduced me to as much great reading and new ideas as did Mr. Rehmke. He gave me essays and books by Henry Hazlitt, Friedrich Hayek, Frederic Bastiat, Friedrich Hayek, and a number of others. To state that this geeky, debate-obsessed, sci-fi-obsessed, comic-book-obsessed, and Dungeons and Dragons-obsessed fourteen-year-old was smitten would be an absolute understatement. Hazlitt, Hayek, and Friedman, especially, seemed the equivalent of the academic world to Neil Peart and Jon Anderson and Steve Howe in the rock world. I loved them all, and I loved them equally.

Reading these great libertarians and thinkers also promoted me to consider how America fit into their schemes and ideas. After all, Ringer had come first, and he had wanted us all to restore “The American Dream.” Could it be done? Were Hayek and Friedman capable of addressing American problems while remaining true to her spirit as expressed in the various documents of the American Founding? I had no idea, but I became quite determined to find out.

At this point, I must mention my ninth-grade Civics and Social Science teacher, Mr. Thompson. I adored that man. If he’s still wandering the world, I have no idea. Mr. Thompson, if you’re out there and if you happen to read this, thank you! Mr. Thompson only taught in our Kansas public school system for a bit. He was also a full-time preacher and a part-time missionary to Africa. Tall, handsome, brilliant, and with a deep voice, Mr. Thompson knew how to make his students feel smart and important, even when, most likely, we were neither.

After and before classes, and after and before school each day, Mr. Thompson let me argue with him constantly about the ideas Rehmke had introduced to me. Amazingly, he listened to everything I had to say, and he always gave me his opinion. I remember very well giving him the Hazlitte and Ringer line that we needed free borders and a tiny military. Mr. Thompson smiled his wonderfully kind and knowing smile. “They convinced you of that, did they? Well, before you decide for sure, look at the world, look at the communists (he might have said “commies”—which was not uncommon for Kansans) and tell me you don’t think we don’t need a huge military. If it were up to me, I’d not only arm our military to the teeth, but I’d make sure every single American was heavily armed as well.”

Sadly, this greatest of teachers left our school almost as soon as he’d arrived. He was off to preach the Lord’s word at home and in Africa. What ever happened to him, I have no idea. But, I really do wish him well. I’m sure he had touched many lives, but he certainly and dramatically shaped mine. Hardly a day goes by in the classroom that I don’t think of his charity and his intelligence. I do my best to live up to his example—an example given in 1982 and 1983 in a public school in central Kansas.

Why, you might rightly ask, am I writing about all of this? Well, mostly I want to honor those who helped me. Secondly, I want to remind each of you just how important a smart word, an attentive ear, and the quick gift of a book can change a person.

But, I have a third reason. And, that is, to thank Gleaves Whitney, also an Imaginative Conservative.

Last week, I had the grand privilege of serving as a discussion leader for a Liberty Fund conference made up of business leaders. There were a couple of other academics there, but I was the only one actively involved in academia. The rest were truly major players in business. I found them and the entire conference fascinating as well as deeply inspiring. If these are the kind of folks that Indiana produces, we’re in good shape.

It was the setting, however, that sparked this essay. The Liberty Fund conference was held in Orlando, Florida. I’m simply not a Florida-kind of guy. I’m thrilled that my kids love Disney World, but flat, overly-lush vegetation, and humidity are three of my mortal enemies. Give me dry air, sparsely vegetated lands, and mountains any day! It was, however, in the Orlando airport that I had a Voegelinian anamnesis. I’d not been there since December 1991. It was then in that airport that I first read Decadence and Its Critics, an essay by Gleaves Whitney that opened my eyes, yet again, beyond what my mom, Greg Rehmke, and Mr. Thompson had already so graciously given me. Mr. Whitney opened my world to the meaning of culture and the depths of conservatism. That essay changed my life as much as anyone has in my life.

Thank you, mom, Mr. Rehmke, Mr. Thompson, and Mr. Whitney. A little bit of brilliance, kindness, and charity goes a very long way, even in this world of sorrows.

Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Dr. Birzer, thank you for this essay and referring us readers to Decacence and It’s Critics, by Gleaves Whitney. I have to reread them both.

    Quick thoughts from my first quick readings. Discernment and aptitude are two of the greatest gifts God gives, especially given to those who teach and council others. I once read the idea that one does not know what they believe until they hear themselves say it. I took that idea to heart and it has enabled me to love learning; questioning myself by further examining my own words that I said in a particular context. This has been one patient, sometimes turbulent, slow but rewarding, path I have been on for the past fifty years or so. And I have only begun, just a babe in the woods!

    Thanks again for the spark toward some great contemplation and research.

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