Diplomat, author Novak's next work to feature Johnstown, 1889 flood (with Video)

By Dave Sutor in The Tribune-Democrat on May 19, 2016

Jennifer Drummey
Jennifer Drummey

The Johnstown native is working on a fictional book that is, in part, set against the backdrop of the May 31, 1889 flood. It tells the story of a young Slovak immigrant – a character based on his grandfather – who lived in the area at the time of the disaster. The plot then moves forward to the character's granddaughter working as a reporter in Europe, covering the fall of the Berlin Wall.

He hopes to have the book, which he describes as “a debt to my family,” finished by this summer.

“It's going to be a story of the flood, not as a historian tells it, but how a participant tells it,” said Novak, the author or editor of more than 45 books since 1961.

Reading about the 1889 Flood at a young age provided him two important life lessons.

“It showed how brave a town could be to be wiped out and come back without bitterness,” said Novak, who was born in Johnstown in 1933.

The Acton Institute's annual Acton University conference kicked off on June 12, 2012 with an evening plenary session featuring a conversation with public intellectual, author, and former US Ambassador Michael Novak. Novak was the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and is currently Visiting Professor and Trustee at Ave Maria University in Florida.

Also, learning about how the city's citizens immediately mobilized a rebuilding effort “was a great lesson to me with how much self-governance people can employ when there's no government to rely on,” as he explained.

Supported by those core beliefs, Novak has gone on to work with and influence some of the most prominent leaders of his lifetime: Pope John Paul II, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, presidential candidates Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern, and developer of the Peace Corps Sargent Shriver.

“It was like a dream come true,” Novak said. “I didn't seek them out. They came to me for help. I was delighted. I loved every minute of it.”

Professor Novak discusses his most famous book.

Novak's political beliefs started off left-leaning, but gradually moved to the right until he became a early leader of the modern neoconservative movement, which emphasizes free-market capitalism and an interventionist foreign policy. Throughout all his years of political evolution, Novak has worked with individuals of divergent opinions and backgrounds because “you get the firepower of ideas together with people coming together from different areas.”

His work not only includes being an author, but also a journalist, philosopher, advocate and teacher.

Michael Novak thinks the church should modernize. Novak: Well, it's the fastest growing church in the world. It's growing in the new part of the world mostly.

Novak covered the Second Vatican Council for multiple publications, including Time magazine, and wrote speeches for Shriver when he was McGovern's running mate in 1972. He served in several positions with the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C.-based think-thank that works to strengthen free enterprise.

A graduate of Stonehill College (1956, bachelor's) and Harvard University (1966, master's), Novak has taught at Harvard, Stanford, SUNY Old Westbury, Syracuse, and Notre Dame. He has received 26 honorary degrees.

Presidents of the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia presented him with the highest honors they bestow upon foreign citizens. He earned his well-respected reputation in those nations by working as a human rights ambassador under President Ronald Reagan, serving 11 years on the boards of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, and authoring “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” a book that was translated and distributed by underground presses behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s.

Thirty years ago, America was gripped by a severe, ongoing recession. Much of Europe faced persistently high unemployment and Syria's ruler unleashed a bloody crackdown on its own people. This troubled atmosphere, which has significant echoes in today's society, set the stage for Michael Novak's 1982 treatise, "The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism."

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

Michael Novak

Born: Sept. 9, 1933, in Johnstown.

Lives: Ave Maria, Florida.

Occupation/profession: philosopher, journalist, novelist, teacher, diplomat.

Education: Stonehill College (1956, bachelor's), Harvard University (1966, master's).

On the web: michaelnovak.net


  • Three different nations – the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia – awarded him their highest honors given to foreign citizens.
  • Authored or edited more than 45 books since 1961.
  • Credited with influencing the argument of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus.
  • Covered the Second Vatican Council for various publications, including Time magazine.
  • Served as a speechwriter for Sargent Shriver, the vice presidential running mate of Democratic Party presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972.
  • Held multiple positions with the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
  • Considered a pioneer of the neoconservative movement
  • Received 26 honorary degrees and many other recognitions, including the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.
  • Taught at Harvard, Stanford, SUNY Old Westbury, Syracuse and Notre Dame.

“The Lord God, the creator of Judaism and the God of Judaism and Christianity, empowered our minds and gave us the ability to question.”

                    -- Michael Novak