Ben Novak celebrated his 75th birthday on February 14th at home in Ave Maria, Florida, and this evening, at La Chaumière on M Street in Georgetown, I’ll be with Ben and family and friends for what I’m sure will be a night of joyful stories, memories, and mirth.
I first met Ben in 2008. At the time, he was living in Bratislava, Slovakia in what was partially a self-imposed exile after a full life and career as a Central Pennsylvania attorney, founder of the Mount Nittany Conservancy, four-term Penn State trustee, and a dozen other or so things to contribute to public life in State College, Pennsylvania.
I remember, vividly, meeting Ben for the first time. A few minutes after shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, Ben asks me what I’m majoring in at Penn State. “Political Science,” I offer. As we’re walking down College Avenue, he responds: “What good is that going to do for you?” And I loved that reply, and was attracted to him for having the pugnacity to put that question to me so directly, because I understood his meaning to be not “What practical/career value will that degree have?” but rather, “What good is that going to do for you?” What will it do to and for you as a human being; to your soul? What sort of person does it help you to become?
That exchange captures so much about Ben, both his willingness to be forthright and incredibly direct to the point of consternation, as well as his concern for the true and the good and the necessary pursuit of those things in a life that’s to have any meaning. These sound like high-minded things, but in practice with Ben they almost never are.
The essence and fullness of Ben Novak is expressed in all the everyday things: in his willingness to do almost anything for someone he cares about; in his self deprecation; in his longing for community and communal life with other good people; in his quick smile and his hearty laugh; in his intellectual humility and his insistence that the intellectual and philosophical stakes are real and worth engaging; in the tireless work ethic that seems to run in his family; in his love and affection for his parents; in his spirit of adventure both external and internal.
“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst,” writes C.S. Lewis. In Ben, I met a man with a chest, and with a sense of honor that made trust and fast friendship easy—even when he was being a damned bastard about some point or other. To turn Lewis around a bit, and poorly: in Ben I was shocked to find a whole man in my midst.
We’ve collaborated many times over the past decade. An inspiration for Nittany Valley Press, he was the one who introduced me to American Indian folklore. He and Vince Verbeke and others introduced me to a love for Mount Nittany. He helped me think more deeply and meaningfully about Penn State and the nature of a university. He showed me in practice a deep sort of Christianity that’s unselfconscious and confident. He recovered in me a love for the grail legends of King Arthur and an authentic chivalric sense of honor and duty and love. I’ve spent collectively coming up on a year living in Ave Maria, Florida with him and his late brother Michael. Together, we’ve published his essays “Is Penn State a Real University? An Investigation of the University as a Living Ideal” and his craft beer columns in “The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution.” We recorded and released two audiobooks, with a third (on the American Indian legends of Central Pennsylvania) coming later this year. I kept kicking him until he finally knuckled down to publish his PhD dissertation on Abductive Logic, the logic of Sherlock Holmes and the tyrants of modernity. Here’s Ben telling Henry W. Shoemaker’s legend of Princess Nita-Nee:
Unlike his brother Michael, the diplomat, Ben might be described by contrast as the aggressor. In our present cultural moment, that confounds and frightens some people. What both the diplomat and the aggressor shared as brothers and Novaks might be described as the desire to “get at the heart of things,” urged on by Joseph Campell’s sense of the “call to adventure.” Celebrating Michael’s 80th birthday a few years ago in Washington, at the Army-Navy Club was a joy, in particular this vignette: Ben toasting to the genius of his brother’s “Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” and its key insight that capitalism didn’t just have to be tolerated, but could be defended as a force for moral good against the allegedly morally superior Marxist-Communist ideal, so long as it was restrained from rapaciousness:
Clarence Thomas is pictured seated there in front of Ben. That night was my first time meeting a Supreme Court justice.
After the scandal of the Jerry Sandusky revelations, and the Penn State Trustees’ utterly scandalous response to the allegations of Sandusky’s crimes, which itself led to the unjust loss of Joe Paterno’s reputation and a reputational taint that Penn Staters will need a half century to recover from, Ben helped lead the way in showing that love and community feeling were some of the only responses that could lead to recovery. Here we are attempting to honor Joe Paterno’s legacy by reading from his autobiography in November 2011 on The LION 90.7fm (WKPS), Penn State’s campus radio station, where we delving into the coach’s sense of right and wrong through Virgil:
And here’s Ben around the same time on The LION 90.7fm’s “Radio Free Penn State” public affairs talk show reading Paul and Maralyn Mazza’s public letter, “Chin Up, Shoulders Back” to their friends Joe and Sue Paterno:
The shock of both the Sandusky scandal and Penn State’s disastrous response to it all led us to release the adapted essays of “Is Penn State a Real University: An Investigation of the University as a Living Ideal“, which were essays that Ben first drafted in the late 1980s and which originally helped him get elected to his four-terms as a Penn State trustee. We also recorded the audiobook version of those essays.
And it was in Ben who I encountered a love for nature and for the power of symbol, particularly in recovering a memory of Old Willow as Penn State’s first symbol and a tangible and lasting gift of Evan Pugh and Penn State’s founders. Here’s Ben telling stories of Old Willow:
Yes, Ben is the sort of person who would devote himself to honoring a tree. Of course, “honoring a tree” is only how someone without a deeper sense of the value of such things would think of it. The same love Ben has for Old Willow is what inspired his titanic efforts to conserve 300+ acres of Mount Nittany in the 1980s and found the Mount Nittany Conservancy, and in these things I recognized the same values that he would have shared with my grandfather, and I felt echoes of the experience of nature of my boyhood, growing up near great trees Pop planted and near surviving suburban woodlots, and feeling so deeply the power of creation to speak to the soul of a person.
In Ben’s “open letter to the future,” first published in the Centre Daily Times in 1995 and narrated below, Ben uses the Disney film The Never-ending Story to call out to Penn Staters of the future to find something true and good in the essence of Penn State and recover it with love:
Vignettes and testimonies and reminiscences of my friendship with Ben over the past ten years in honor of his 75th birthday.