Our friend Ralph has slipped behind the clouds, out where the Sun is brightest. He will still be with us. I can't think of any man in our time who accomplished more in one lifetime, in more different spheres, with a wider array of talents. He seemed to be laughing all the time. No one was so steady a gusher of puns, not least in the titles of his novels: On This Rockne, Frigor Mortis, The Emerald Aisle ... even in his introduction to the philosophy of St.Thomas Aquinas, his guide for “Peeping Thomists.”
A dinner with Ralph was a feast of stories. Also, probes by him to follow up on his curiosities. Also, seeking your opinions. Tales of the latest “progressive” outrages, followed by kind words for the particular persons being singled out. New projects he was thinking of, and what do you think of this? Puns, of course, and an endless appetite for new funny stories and the telling of the latest of his own.
One always left Ralph warmed by his love for the Church. That love may have been his most distinguishing characteristic. It surely fed his zest for the comedic sense of the Divine. It won his gratitude for the great intellectual patrimony it brought him.
He had great patience for me when I was swinging left, both politically and theologically. Nor did he gloat when experience brought me back toward love for orthodoxy (not passive, but inquisitive and pioneering) and political realism. He wryly smiled at the proposed title for my intellectual journey: Writing from Left to Right.
Ralph’s course was always steadier. He let people pass him by on left and right, and observed the wreckage as he later passed them by. He changed a lot himself, of course. But often he was just remaining constant as the world veered left and right, to extremes. He watched his hereditary Democratic Party adopt old Republican tendencies such as isolationism, while Republicans (mirabile dictu) became pro-life and rather more Catholic all the time. Ralph did not think social justice, the common good, and subsidiarity pointed to ever larger government. He had a mid-western habit of common sense and a steady observation of results, rather than self-admiring motives.
There is a largeness about the American Middle West, and the sky there is very tall above the silos, water tanks, and trees. What counts there is feet on the ground, and not getting too big for thine own britches. There is a contemplative spirit there, and the steadiness of the rich soil all around. There is a distinctive Catholic spirituality of the middle part of the United States. Ralph lived it.
He suffered a lot from his wife Connie’s death. She was always so matter-of-fact, down-to-earth, and a wifely puncturer of dreams too rosy to be true. He missed her terribly, although (so far as I could see) without complaint.
I loved and envied the boldness of Ralph’s writing travels: two months here or there to write another novel, eat well, and laugh a lot – in Sicily, on Capri, even in Sarasota, Florida.
Ralph lit my life, kept my compass true, ate well with me (mostly I with him), and made me laugh a lot. Not a few times I kept him from working at his desk, with long telephone calls.
I will never forget founding Crisis with him (at first it was Catholicism in Crisis). We each put in $2000 to get the first issue out, and trusted in Providence to bring us enough in the mail to let us put out another one, and another. It always came.
Ralph, dear friend, I cannot say that I will miss you, or grieve for you. I know you are with us, even closer than before. I know that you are laughing at our blunders. And pulling for us.
Thanks, good friend.
Published in The Catholic Thing February 1, 2010