Jan. 10, 2012
My Mainer friend, Bob Knight, called me last night with the news: our old colleague Tom Landess had died in South Carolina. He apparently suffered an aneurysm while watching a football game Sunday night. I hope it was Tim Tebows. Tom was a tireless laborer in the vineyard. A social conservative for decades, we was still in the harness at age eighty.
I had not seen Tom in ten years and had spoken to him only a few times since he returned to the sunny South. Tom joined our staff at the U.S. Department of Education in 1986. Thats when reporters, not so kindly, referred to that agency as Fort Reagan. I would joke we were all committed to disestablishing that department, as our brave president was. But if liberals in Congress would not let us do that, we should conduct ourselves so that they will wish they had never created it.
Shortly after meeting Tom, I started laughing. And never stopped. Like Shakespeares Falstaff, Tom was not only witty himself, but the occasion of wit in others. If you wanted to find him on the fourth floor of that dreary government building, you could just go down the hall, turn right, and follow the peals of laughter.
Very soon I learned that Tom was an American by birth and a Southerner by choice. He exemplified the best in the South. He told us endless stories of the Agrarians, an important literary school of the 1930s and 40s. But he sure could puncture the pieties. Hed tell you the whole story of Allan Tates writing of Stonewall Jackson, relating the almost worshipful feeling that Southerners have for that intrepid Presbyterian warrior. Then, hed catch you up by saying: Its not a very good book.
When Tom defended the flying of the rebel flag on the State House in South Carolina, I took issue with him. Tom argued passionately that it was Southern heritage that was being honored, not racism. I think Tom was entirely sincere. I remarked to Tom on the arrangement of flags atop the capitol in Columbia: U.S national ensign, then, bright blue and white flag of the Palmetto state, and, beneath them, the Confederate flag. Reminds me, I told Tom, of what Jefferson Davis said about his frustration in dealing with fractious state leaders. Davis said if the South lost the Civil War, its epitaph would read: Died of a theory.
With Tom you learned not to judge Southerners by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. He was the one who brought an aged Rev. Ralph David Abernathy around to meet all of us. Dr. Abernathy was Martin Luther Kings right-hand man in the civil rights movement. He was Kings successor in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Tom worked with Abernathy on his autobiography. Dr. Abernathy had been deeply wounded by all the vicious liberal attacks on him when he endorsed Ronald Reagan for president.
I will always remember Tom looking over my shoulder when the first word processors arrived in our offices. He watched disapprovingly as I labored to transfer my writing from the yellow legal pads I then used for drafting.
Dont do that, he said sternly. Write directly on the screen. I cant do that, I replied.
I think by writing, and I have to write it out longhand first.
You must train yourself to think as you write on the word processor. The device lets you revise and change at will. Think as you write! He said it with the air of command of a Stonewall Jackson. I was reminded that Jackson would shoot a shirker at the drop of a hat. And drop the hat himself.
I obeyed. And never went back. I will treasure the memory of this true Son of the South teaching a stubborn Yankee to use a devilish new machine in order to be more efficient. Jack Kennedy was right: Washington is a city of southern efficiency and northern charm.
My favorite Tom Landess story is of his Episcopal priest, Father Rogers. The preacher was talking about giving to the poor. It was a good sermon for his well-to-do parish. Afterward, over coffee, folks talked about how they would surely give to the deserving poor. Thats fine, said Father Rogers, but Ive found that the deserving poor dont stay poor. So I always give to the undeserving poor. Stunned, his parishioners asked the good father why. I give to the undeserving poor because I am undeserving poor.
Tom understood our need for grace and why it continues to amaze. I thank God for making Tom Landess my friend.