Up From Mediocrity

Today in New York City a memorial service is being held to honor one of my heroes: William F. Buckley Jr.  In remembrance of this occasion I wanted to try and put down some of my thoughts about how this great man impacted my life.

WFB – to use the shorthand – and I had little in common on the surface.  He was a wealthy, Ivy League educated, world traveler with roots in the South and East Coast.  I was born and raised in the Midwest in a Middle Class family, attended a small liberal arts college, and my only foreign travel was a trip to France in grad school. 

He loved classical music and I barely know the difference between Bach and Beethoven.  He loved to sail and sailed around the world.  I have been a on a sail boat probably twice in my whole life.  He was a master of the English language.   I struggled with dyslexia as a child and still struggle with spelling and grammar.  He was a lifelong Catholic and I am an evangelical protestant who grew up in small Bible churches.

In short, he was a sophisticated, highly intelligent, famous, and impactful person.  I am not.

But it was his greatness – his goodness, his fundamental rightness – that called me to strive to be better, to know more, to communicate better, to make an impact.

For more keep reading.

My conservatism growing up was amorphous and undeveloped.  It was instinctual rather than intellectual.  But like so many others, that changed when I started reading National Review in high school.  It was through the magazine that Buckley founded and led for so many years that I first began to wrestle with the intellectual and political challenges of the day.

It was through NR that I realized that I cared about politics and that it had an impact on our lives.  It was through NR that I began to understand the philosophical and intellectual underpinnings – the reasons why – of my in many ways innate conservatism.

I was soon engaging anyone who would listen with my newfound knowledge.  I tried to bring the wit and wisdom of WFB to these engagements but I am sure I never came close. 

Nevertheless, I must have made some impression because my history teacher started calling me a “Buckleyite.”  I am sure he meant it in a slightly derogatory way, but I wore the label with honor.

In college and graduate school I deepened these roots.  I started my Buckley book collection and soon had read every stand alone book he had written (not counting the collections of his columns).  I discovered other great conservative writes like Russell Kirk, Whitaker Chambers, Frank Meyer, and more.  I wrote my graduate thesis on a man who had a great impact on Buckley himself: James Burnham.  

I even corresponded with Buckley for a short time.  To me he was the symbol of what it meant to be a conservative.  I wanted to be like Bill.

But it wasn’t just in the area of ideas and arguments that Buckley inspired.  What amazed me about the man was his determination and ability to succeed at whatever task he set for himself. 

Whether writing a bestselling book, founding a magazine, building the institutions of the conservative movement or sailing across the oceans, playing the harpsichord, or hosting a public affairs TV show.  If he did something then he did it with all of his considerable skills.

And it wasn’t just worldly success that mattered to Buckley.  He was a man of deep faith.  If there was a constant in his life it was his Catholic faith.  And he lived out this faith in countless ways throughout his life (as many can attest).  To have a man of such accomplishment, intelligence, wit, and drive remain devoted and unashamed of his faith meant a lot to me.

And his passing has taught me that he was also a great friend.  Nearly everyone who knew him noted that friendship was his great gift.  Those who agreed with him politically and those that were on opposite sides all found him to be a man who took friendship seriously; who reached out and touched his friends in a myriad of ways.

I count myself lucky to consider some of the folks who work for National Review friends.  It was a dream come true for me to be able to write for National Review Online.  When I had a book review published in the magazine itself, I felt like I had finally crossed something off my “Things to do before I die” list.  It meant in some small way I was connected with Buckley and his legacy.

The one time I met Bill I was nearly speechless and I am sure I stumbled and stuttered as I attempted to communicate the impact he had on my life.  But he was gracious and kind.  He remembered the books I had sent him and thanked me again for the gift.  The contrast seemed embarrassing to me.  He had changed the world and I had sent him a set of famous speeches.  But perhaps he grasped the thoughts that motivated the gift and was truly grateful.

Prior to today I have tried to write about Buckley and his passing on many occasions, but I never felt like my words matched the feelings; the reality of his impact.  But today I felt I could no longer be silent; that I need to say something no matter how inadequate or unoriginal.

William F. Buckley was a hero of mine.  He taught me to strive for great things; to fight passionately for what we love; to not take myself too seriously; to hold steadfastly to my faith; to cherish my friendships and be quick to make new ones.

It seems to me that accepting mediocrity is in many ways the danger of American life.  Buckley taught me to rise above this temptation.  To the degree that I have done so, he deserves much of the credit.

R.I.P.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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