Mitchell Kalpakgian

Editor’s Note: Imaginative Conservative Senior Contributor Mitchell Kalpakgian passed away on August 28, 2018.

There are far more people who claim to scholarship than there are genuine scholars. And as for genuine gentlemen, they are a rare breed indeed. We live in very ungentle and ungenteel times characterized by cads, cowards and charlatans. It is all too rare in such a meretricious age to meet a genuine scholar who is also a genuine gentleman. To be able to count even a handful of such people among one’s friends is a real and all too rare blessing. Mitchell Kalpakgian, a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and a regular contributor at the St. Austin Review, was one such fellow, a genuine gentleman and scholar, whom I was honoured to call a friend.

The last time I saw Mitch was back in April, at a Catholic Literature Conference in New Hampshire. I was struck by how hale and hearty he looked, how glowing with health and good cheer. He looked indestructible and seemed imbued with an indomitability which denied his years. How shocking it was, therefore, to learn in late August of his sudden death after a short illness. It was all the more shocking because I had not even known that he was ill, the sense of shock accentuating the sense of loss. One can brace oneself for an expected loss but a sudden loss throws one completely off balance.

Upon hearing the news, memories of our time together flooded back to me. I recalled the many times I stayed with him and his son during my regular visits to their home during the two years I taught with Mitch at Thomas More College. During one semester he and I co-taught some classes at a local independent Catholic high school and I was struck by the deep love he had for his students and for his vocation as a teacher, and I was struck equally deeply by the love and respect he inspired in the students themselves. Quite clearly, many of these young people were having life-changing experiences as their gifted teacher brought the classic works of literature to life in their developing imaginations.

My most special memories are, however, away from the classroom when he and I would go for long walks through the countryside near his home. What was special was the nature of our conversation, which was usually literary but which covered just about every era of western civilization. Mitch was equally at home talking of Homer or of Robert Frost, the latter of whom was a particular favourite, or of just about any writer of any note in between. The seasons of the year passed in what seemed one continuous conversation, though in truth we got together only once a month. As we trudged through New England’s blanket of snow or sweated under the midsummer sun, Mitch would wax effusive and enthusiastic on whatever literary topic was our particular focus at that particular moment, and always with an eloquence which was delightful. And as with any good teacher, he was as happy to listen as he was to sound forth, taking an interest in the other’s perspective. The conversation would continue once we returned to his home as he prepared the evening meal, which was usually the best hearty old-world cooking, and as we sat at table in the conviviality which is the natural companion of a healthy slow-food culture. After dinner, we would sit in silence, or to the background accompaniment of the Baroque, especially of Johann Sebastian Bach, as we prepared our own classes for the following day. Such moments of silence in each other’s company are almost as special in my memory as the hours of conversation, such is the satisfied contentment that I felt in his company.

There was also another side to Mitch that constituted a depth of melancholy and tragedy beneath the convivial surface. This was the memory of his dearly beloved wife who had died many years earlier, leaving him to bring up their sons in a motherless home. He seldom spoke of her but when he did it was with a love that was undiminished and with a memory of her that had become a shrine of unfading devotion. As deep perhaps as his love for his wife was his devotion to his Armenian roots, both of his parents having been immigrants from Armenia and survivors of the Armenian holocaust. It was through my friendship with Mitch that my own interest in the plight of the Armenian people was enflamed, inspiring my reading of Skylark Farm, Antonio Arslan’s heartbreaking and devastating novel about the genocide, and Siobhan Nash-Marshall’s equally devastating historical study of this diabolical chapter in history, The Sins of the Fathers: Turkish Denialism and the Armenian Genocide, both of which I’ve reviewed for The Imaginative Conservative.

As for Mitch’s own books, I will only mention two, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, in which he enters fairyland with a truly childlike wisdom, and The Virtues We Need Again, which is subtitled “21 Life Lessons from the Great Books of the West”. And yet, as worthy as they are, and as worth reading as they indubitably are, there is something about Mitchell Kalpakgian which is larger than the books he wrote. One might almost say that their greatest strength is the extent to which he is himself present in them. It is not merely the wisdom that he conveys but the inimitable way in which he conveys it that make these books special. They are good insofar as they are truly expressive of the author’s very expressive personality, a personality that accepted and embraced the mystery of suffering but infused it with the joyous mystery of life, and the breathtaking mystery of the presence of beauty in life.

There is no doubt that Mitchell Kalpakgian was larger than his books. It might almost be said that the was larger than life except that no man is truly larger than life itself, which is why all men are ultimately forced to relinquish their hold on it. He was, however, a giant among men because he spent his life on his knees in gratitude for the gift of life that had been given him. He used the gift well, like a good and faithful servant, sharing it with his many friends and countless students. That gift has now been taken from him. And yet, for those of us who share his faith, we know that it has been transfigured into a life more abundant and more resplendent than even he could have imagined. May God be praised!

Mitchell Kalpakgian (1941-2018), requiescat in pace.

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