Driving across the snowy landscape of Michigan the day after Christmas in 1973, I was somewhat apprehensive. I had been invited to take part in the first seminar of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in the ancestral home of Dr. Russell Kirk at Piety Hill. We were to spend the next five days discussing his book, The Roots of American Order, which had just rolled off the presses. I had just been named the new editor of Imprimis at Hillsdale College and had scarcely unpacked before heading up north through the woods to Mecosta, but I had managed to finish reading the book. And what a book! It gives a panoramic view of the ideas on ordered liberty that emerge from Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London to converge in Philadelphia in the founding of the American Republic. The prospect of spending several days in the company of this towering intellect whose wisdom encompassed such breadth and depth was intimidating.
I needn’t have worried. The genuine warmth of Dr. Kirk and his wife Annette made staying at the Kirk home at Piety Hill a mesmerizing experience. It was like stepping back in time at least a century, maybe several, to find oneself in a thoroughly Gothic house, steeped in tradition, rooted in the history of multiple generations, and full of beautiful artifacts. It was a place to discuss big ideas in small circles, continuing the conversation throughout the day and into the night, imbibing while drinking in the stories Dr. Kirk told while seated next to the fireplace. After dinner, guests might play the violin or piano, or recite poetry for our entertainment, just as they did in Jane Austen’s era.
This house was for me a magical place, somehow untethered from modernity, overflowing with books and pictures and stories of bygone eras. It was a house literally untethered from a television set, because Dr. Kirk had found the one his young daughters had smuggled into the house against his orders. He picked up the television and literally threw it out the window. The cord caught on the way down the side of the house, leaving the television set dangling there for several days, much to the amusement of the neighbors (and his daughters).
In preparation for celebrating Dr. Kirk’s centenary, as I have thought about the man who became my friend and mentor over the years, it occurs to me that his house was a metaphor for his life. Like his family’s gothic house at Piety Hill, Russell Kirk was decidedly un-modern. His orientation came from looking across the centuries to cull the wisdom of the ages to share it with other seekers of truth. This is the sense in which he was conservative: He set out to conserve the absolute best in thought from the Western tradition to fill the hungry minds and hearts of the next generation to renew the culture. His house held tangible manifestations of these ideas and it would become a frequent destination for pilgrimages of students in search of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. It still attracts them now.
The Kirk house was full of family portraits, handed down through multiple generations, and cherished because of loyalty to tradition. The family portrait gallery was full of interesting and, well… unusual people, from the grandfather who was a banker to the great-aunt who held séances. Dr. Kirk’s books are full of portraits of the family of great thinkers who span the ages: Aristotle, Virgil, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Thomas More, Edmund Burke, and of course Randolph of Roanoke and T.S. Eliot, about whom he wrote illuminating biographies. Dr. Kirk knew Eliot personally as a friend, and the time they shared provided a wealth of insights that found their way onto the pages of Eliot and His Age. The wisdom of the thinkers he chose to write about shaped the intellectual landscape of the world we inhabit. When Dr. Kirk wrote about them in The Conservative Mind, he provided the genealogy for America’s conservative intellectual movement. As their intellectual heirs, we stand in what Edmund Burke called the eternal bond of “the dead, the living, and the yet unborn.” (Since that first seminar, I am acutely aware of moving inexorably closer to the front of that continuum.)
The Kirk house at Piety Hill and Dr. Kirk himself were both venerable and full of quirky eccentricities. The house had steps rounded over the years by thousands of footfalls, odd little passageways, and cubby-holes that make it unique and charming. It is the antithesis of the modern trend that has flattened and streamlined modern homes, making them bland, beige, cloned rows in subdivisions. Dr. Kirk hated ugly architecture and anything that diminished individuality. He found it repugnant and damaging to the human spirit. In a similar way, Dr. Kirk was never bulldozed into becoming a beige bland, modern man. He fiercely maintained his independence, remaining free to write and say what he thought, without having to bulldoze his ideas to make them fit the blueprint of modernity in what he called “Behemoth University.” Although Dr. Kirk spoke at more than three hundred universities in his lifetime, he spent limited time in his career tethered to any single university, except for visiting appointments. He always returned to Piety Hill unaffiliated and unbowed.
The Kirk house was overflowing with books, so many that Dr. Kirk needed a separate building to house his library, where he would sit up late evenings, often working through the night, as he continued the “great conversation” with the greatest minds of the western tradition. He knew them all in the fellowship of ideas, and the books in his library were some of his best friends. With his prodigious, near photographic memory, and a brilliantly impressive mind, Dr. Kirk carried within him a library of the canon of the West.
The front door to the Kirk house was open to visitors from all over the world who wanted to learn. A steady stream of students, professors, and friends in the realm of ideas flowed into Piety Hill for nourishment of mind and spirit. Dr. Kirk not only received hundreds of people in his home, he traveled to speak in hundreds of places throughout the nation and abroad year after year—at universities and conferences, even on television. It’s worth recalling that Dr. Kirk was a national figure who commanded respect from both the political left and the right, one who advised presidents, and who shaped the intellectual landscape of the nation. Both Time and Newsweek called him one of America’s leading thinkers. He would plant the intellectual seeds for renewing America in not only the political and economic realms, but in the moral and spiritual realms, because he knew they are always interconnected.
The seeds Dr. Kirk planted were both metaphorical and literal. The area surrounding Mecosta had been aggressively denuded of trees by lumber companies, so Dr. Kirk made it a personal mission to plant trees. We trudged through the snow with him on walks around Mecosta and he happily pointed out trees he had planted himself. This showed us a side of Dr. Kirk that, despite everything lamentable in an unraveling world, was inherently optimistic. Only a man who cares about the future plants trees he will not sit beneath. He gave the gift of greenness to generations to come because he loved the land and took personal responsibility to leave his corner of the world better than he found it.
Dr. Kirk also left people better than when he found them. On my first visit to Piety Hill, I stayed in the room ordinarily occupied by Clinton, whom the Kirk’s affectionately dubbed their “runaway butler.” He was away on one of his unexplained sojourns, leaving the room free for me. Clinton was a somewhat mentally limited stray the family took in, rescuing him from a life of petty larceny. (His service to the family was a mixed blessing, as he neglected to put out the fire in the fireplace one Ash Wednesday, resulting in a fire that destroyed much of the house. Undeterred, Dr. Kirk and Annette painstakingly rebuilt their beloved house, taking the opportunity to expand and update it a bit.) The Kirks took in a steady procession of unwed mothers, political refugees from places like Vietnam and Ethiopia, and other people in various kinds of need. This was all done quietly, with no fanfare. It was Annette who provided the hands-on care, but the heart of her husband beat in tandem with hers in the commitment to help others by welcoming them into their home.
The willingness to extend a hand to people in need was a natural manifestation of Dr. Kirk’s faith. So were the beautiful religious artifacts that filled the house, some from neighboring churches torn down to be modernized, while others were purchased on travels throughout the world. The house at Piety Hill rested on the foundation of faith in God, and although Russell Kirk never wore his religion on his sleeve, it is clear that his understanding of the world was rooted in reverence for our Creator and the certainty that we will all be judged by Him. He believed that all things in this valley of tears will be perfected in God’s perfect time, and that any lasting order in this world is anchored in the transcendent truth of the world to come.
Sometimes the barrier between the visible and invisible realms is thin. It was very, very thin at the Kirk house, which was, well…. haunted. Various apparitions regularly manifested themselves, especially to visitors. There was a crying baby, a man in a checked coat and lacy cravat, and Dr. Kirk’s grandfather Amos—all of whom appeared to so many people staying at Piety Hill over the years, that it is impossible not to believe that they were in some way real. I was one of those visitors who had an unearthly encounter. So when Russell Kirk wrote ghost stories, it was not always pure fiction, strictly speaking. Although some people chided him for this genre of writing, he sold far many more books of his ghost stories than all his other books together. His tales were published next to stories by Stephen King.
While in Scotland, Dr. Kirk encountered ghostly apparitions. It was also here that after his spiritual awakening from agnosticism, he had an epiphany, in which he was given a clear spiritual sense of his mission, which was to write about the ideas that would inspire the renewal of Western civilization. That is exactly what he did.
In the years since, the life’s work of Russell Kirk has reached people all over he globe, informing their minds, strengthening their spirits, and passing on the fire of Pentecost. I am so grateful to be one of those people in whom the fire ignited. And I am grateful that before he died, I was able to thank Dr. Kirk in person for all that he had taught me and modeled over the years, especially the seamless integration of what he wrote and how he lived: wisdom rooted in faith, imagination, and love. Now one hundred years after his birth, may Russell Kirk rest in the mansions of peace and hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And may his legacy endure forever.
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