In the summer of 1998, I had a wonderful phone call, mostly by accident. The University of Texas-San Antonio needed a historian immediately. They actually called my wife to ask her, and we were in between our wedding and our honeymoon. Actually, it was the day—yes, I mean the actual day—immediately before we left for our ten-day exploration of Idaho. My wife told the committee that she wasn’t interested as she wanted to finish her dissertation. She handed the phone to me, and, lo and behold, the hiring committee interviewed me. I must’ve done okay as they offered me the position. There was one really important catch: though I would be given a full salary for the second semester with the possibility of the position becoming tenure-track, I would be paid only adjunct rate for the first semester. Prior to meeting my wife, I was outrageously frugal with my money. I not only lived on next to nothing, I even saved the very little money I made. Once Dedra and I met, all of that money went into flights to see one another and phone calls (back when long distance cost a lot). In other words, after our wedding, I was pretty near broke. In a different century, no father would have condoned me as a groom for his daughter! Moving to a teaching position—especially to a tenure-track one—was crucial. I just didn’t know how I would pay for my wife, me—and, as we quickly found out—a baby on the way.
“It’s a long shot, Dedra, but I think it’s worth it.”
During my graduate-school days, the Earhart Foundation had graciously supported me with money for research and travel. All of it, however, was indirect, channeled through one of my major professors. I had never applied for anything directly from Earhart.
That day between my wedding and my honeymoon—after a spontaneous interview with the history department of UTSA—I wrote to the head of Earhart, David Kennedy, explaining my situation. As quickly as humanly possible in the late 1990s, Mr. Kennedy not only got right back to me, he offered to make up for the salary that wouldn’t kick in until February 1, 1999. Naturally, I took the job, and it opened innumerable doors to me. The rest, as it were, was history.
Several months ago, I received a book from the now-defunct Earhart Foundation. It was a guide to its giving to graduate students over the life of the organization. I started on page one and started flipping through it. I was listed, of course, but I was only one of thousands. The names kept coming as the pages turned, and I will admit I finished that unreadable book with a sigh. How could anyone ever calculate the good that such an institution did? The good was incalculable, personal, and, in many ways, untraceable. There’s a huge amount of faith accompanying every single name listed in that book.
In an act of faith, back in 1998, Earhart took a chance on me. Really, a huge chance. I’m biased, of course, but I think it was a good decision.
After David Kennedy stepped down, Ingrid Gregg took over. I must interject a purely personal note here, but I think it’s essential to the claims of this essay. I’ve had the privilege of knowing Dr. Gregg since the early 1990s when she worked at the Institute for Humane Studies in between her years as an undergraduate and a year as a graduate student. I still remember vividly the day I met her. I was instantly taken with her. Not just her mind, but her very unassuming kindness. Indeed, after knowing her fairly well over a quarter-century, I can state that she is one of the single finest persons I have ever met. I have never come away from a meeting—whether business or personal—with her without being the better for it. Whether we’re talking about the current state of conservatism, eighteenth-century Scotland, or kids, I always learn when I’m with her.
When I applied for Earhart support for a conference I sponsored at Hillsdale College, Earhart supported me. When I applied for my first sabbatical, Earhart supported me. When I applied for my second sabbatical, Earhart supported me. In other words, I could never have written my book on Christopher Dawson, my book on Charles Carroll of Carrollton, or my book on Russell Kirk without the essential support given to me by Earhart. At every step of my career, Earhart provided indispensable support.
And, of course, I am not alone. That book listing thousands of students helped from 1952 to 2015 arrived several months ago from Earhart. I have no idea how many seasoned scholars Earhart has supported. I suspect we’ll never be able to quantify what the foundation did. We can only know that it did good.
Christian teaching argues two critical things when it comes to civic life: First, we must develop our own talents for the good of the community. The ear has one function, the hand another, and each are members of the body of Christ. Second, as Saints Luke and James remind us, wealth is a gift, like any other gift, meant to be shared. It is material. Stuff. Nothing more, but also nothing less.
The Earhart Foundation not only understood the teachings of Luke and James, it lived them from 1929 to 2015. The Earhart Foundation is now gone. Long live the Earhart Foundation. And, may we conservatives never lose our sense of wonder or gratitude for what was given us, and may we always use what was given us to leaven those after us.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.