Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House remains one of the most sobering novels I have encountered in my life. The protagonist, Godfrey St. Peter, a native Kansan who has spent his career teaching history and culture at a small college on the Great Lakes, has more than a few similarities to your present author (me!). On the verge of retirement, St. Peter spends the book wondering just how much his life has meant. Did years of living in musty archives, breathing in the dust of manuscripts, and writing books about Spanish Empire in North America actually make a difference? More importantly, did his own teaching of this and other subjects affect even a single one of his students at any profound level? The one student he loved above all others, Tom Outland, met his death in the trenches of France in the First World War. St. Peter wonders, did he spend his life merely killing time in a way that fascinated and titillated him but offered no real gravitas in this world of sorrows? Perhaps he had just engaged in a kind of intricate and productive procrastination.
This week (I’m writing this on November 16, 2014), the overall wisdom of the world diminished greatly with the passing of two of my favorite teachers, Sister Patricia Martinez and Professor Anne M. Butler. Each died of natural causes–indeed, the most natural of all, age. And each had earned a good and happy death after years and years of service to the world.
Sister Patricia Martinez, a Dominican of the old school, served as the principal of my grade school, Holy Cross, in Hutchinson, Kansas. She was a tiny woman, at least in terms of height. She was sleight, too, yet she wielded one of the most dramatic and serious personalities I’ve ever known. I am sure she could stare down a criminal twice her height and four times her weight. Her eyes always flashed with a kind of divine heat. And smart. Sheesh. Frankly, she probably scared me as much as she inspired me. When we referred to her out of class, we called her the Grinch (for she did very much resemble Dr. Seuss’s Grinch), but this was meant as much in affection as anything else. I always got along with her–or, I should write, she always got along with me–as I think she determined her relationship with all those around her.
From Sister Patricia I learned many things. Too many to be recounted here. I learned all the things a six-grader must learn, but far more importantly, I learned how to respect my fellow students, especially the girls, at a time when sexuality and the newness of it all can be rather startling.
From Sister Patricia I also learned a serious amount about the meaning of culture, the virtues, and social justice. She was especially good with the sciences and math. Just behind Sister Patricia’s overwhelming desire for justice, sat a huge reservoir of love. By her example as well as by her teaching, I learned (as I had already learned from my mother, in word and deed) that the accidents of birth—gender, skin color, ethnicity—really do not matter in terms of the eternal. Each person is a new and true face of the Eternal Lord. No exceptions. Every single person counts.
I never loved Sister Patricia, but I did respect her, and I am honored to have been one of her students. I know that my life is immensely better for having had her as a teacher.
The next person who passed away I loved … and dearly.
Though not a nun and of rather serious Irish background, Professor Anne Butler actually had much in common with Sister Patricia. The two never met, but they were born of the same mold.
Raised in poverty, Anne’s mother gave her to another couple when Anne was still a little one. Nurtured by a foster couple as well as a number of nuns, Anne came to possess an eccentric, independent streak and was always deeply rooted in traditional morality and, especially, ethics. Indeed, Anne radiated integrity in everything she did. She was her own person, and I loved her all the more for it.
For a long part of her professional career, Anne served as a professor of history at Gallaudet University, the leading liberal arts college in the world for the hearing-impaired. Naturally, Anne was fluent in American Sign Language, having lectured in it for years.
I first met Anne in Logan, Utah, in the fall of 1990. I was immediately taken with her. She was essentially a stern Irish aunt–but only stern in terms of certain things. She was as loving and caring as she was stern. She always (I mean, ALWAYS) had a twinkle in her eye. She was certainly one of the most brilliant persons I have ever met, but she was also one of the most playful and mischievous. I realize this sounds strange and perhaps oxymoronic—stern and playful. But she was. When it came to things that mattered, Anne was a full-blown, old-fashioned nun. Not the dancing and singing kind we find in Sound of Music, but the kind that terrorized sixth graders who refused to do their work. Like a good Catholic, Anne took the world and her role in it very seriously. God gave her abilities for a reason, and she lived to fulfill her duties—to family, to community, to students, to the world.
I had never met anyone so passionate about scholarship, history, and, especially, writing. To teach us well, Anne spent hour after hour working on papers. A good sentence filled Anne with joy. A poor one shocked her into a lecture on grammar and style. The lectures could be painful, but I never failed to learn. And Anne delivered them with certainty but not permanent judgment. Once the lecture finished, it never resurfaced, unless the problem did again.
I disagreed with her about much. When she began her graduate seminar by noting that if we did not finish the semester as feminists, she had failed. I balked at this, and I told her so. She and I argued round and round about ideologies and scholarship and personality and objectivity. The time I studied with her (1990-1992), I was in my most hard-core libertarian phase. Not until December of 1991 had I encountered real conservatism (reading Gleaves Whitney) that mattered to me. I had already read Russell Kirk at that point, and I loved him, but he was merely one of a pantheon of good writers on the Right. At least to my mind. Back to the main point: Anne and I disagreed on much concerning our views of the world. Yet we always had our Catholicism and our love of ideas. And we respected and loved one another. Our arguments were always deeply felt, but they were never personal.
And, whatever Anne called herself—an Old/New Left feminist—she was always her own person. Certainly, an Anne Butler would never follow a party or an ideological line. She was too smart and too virtuous for such a thing. As a grand professor, she encouraged the rest of us to do the same, whatever her pronouncements in class.
From the moment I chose Anne (or did she choose me? I am honestly not sure) as my graduate advisor, she welcomed me into her life. Completely. Indeed, I could have been her son. Not only could I stop at her house whenever, but she and her equally incredible husband, Jay, welcomed me in to eat, drink, sing (mostly protest/folk songs), swim, and watch movies with them. They loved movies so much, they had a room in their house designed specially as a theater room. Anne herself had spent many of her early adult years as an actress in theater and children’s TV. She and Jay had a great sense of drama, and they shared their wisdom on this with me as they did everything else.
Anne’s own written work reflected a deep sense of social justice as well as excellence in all things. She wrote on prostitution, imprisoned black women, and nuns—all set in the nineteenth-century American West. Anne’s books reveal her passions as well as her penetrating (non-ideological and creative) intelligence. I’ll never forget reading her first book and (rather brazenly) telling her exactly what I thought of it. I explained the structure of the book, and why she made the arguments she did. For perhaps the only time in our friendship and innumerable conversations, she paused, shocked. “Brad, no one has understood the book as you just explained it to me. And, you are exactly right.” It was a truly meaningful moment for me, a life-altering moment, a moment that inspired an intellectual confidence of which I had been formerly ignorant.
Anne was like that. Everything and everyone she touched grew toward fulfillment. She made us all better.
Anne, I love you, and I will miss you dearly.
The 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.
The featured image is “Woman teaching a Child to Read” by Ida Silfverberg (1834–1899) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.