Peter Lawler, RIP

I have only read the thinnest amount of Peter Augustine Lawler‘s writing, but he’s been someone in the periphery of my life who I’ve tried to pay attention to whenever possible. Peter died this week.

Nicholas Frankovich remembers:

What would a word cloud of Peter’s collected writing look like? Terms in big type would include Tocqueville, Walker Percy, southern Stoicism, Flannery O’Connor, relational life, and, of course, postmodern conservative, which he coined, or so he maintained, wryly but seriously.

Peter Lawler’s insight into our time is one that I’ve become very sympathetic to:

Peter was wary of the exaggerated individualism that he saw as the logical conclusion of “liberalism” in the classical sense of that term. He was of the view that, human nature being what it is, absolute autonomy is an illusion anyway — we are social creatures, and no amount of libertarian posing could ever change that. He was alert to the perils of collectivism but also to those of its opposite. He worried about conservatives who in their enthusiasm for free-market principles got carried away and forgot the necessity of “relational life.”

He thought that our social values were in danger of being reduced to economic values. That concern of his extended to his criticism of higher education, which, he complained, was being flattened by “the empire” of “competency,” a bureaucrat’s idea of what teachers should engender in their students.

Rod Dreher remembers him, and shared an excerpt that captures why I always find Lawler’s writing so rewarding as a reader:

Southern literature at its best is a critical account of the mind of the semi-dispossessed aristocrat. Faulkner and Walker Percy, for example, let us see the self-deception at the core of racist paternalism, as well as the neglect for the truth about natural rights taught by Jefferson. But they also let us see how empty middle-class life is from an aristocratic view, and how clueless those who so methodically devote themselves to the pursuit of happiness are about what human happiness is. True individualism, from this view, regards rights not as rooted in calculated interests but as points of honor to be exercised honorably.

Among the instances in which Southern Stoic virtue has elevated the American mind, the most obvious is Harper Lee’s character Atticus (note the name) Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus’s virtue had nothing to do with Christian charity or the liberal understanding of rights. He was courageously and paternalistically taking responsibility for his inferiors, for those who couldn’t defend themselves against the vicious mob that threatened the rule of law in the decadent South.

And then there are the Stoic characters of Tom Wolfe. There’s one who becomes “a man in full” by reading Epictetus, and so knows what to do as a rational man completely isolated in a maximum security prison. There’s also the star basketball player in I Am Charlotte Simmons who learns how to treat women and regains his manly self-confidence through absorbing—making his own—his professor’s very Stoic reading of Aristotle. In Wolfe’s novels, the foundation of coming to live according to this version of natural perfection has nothing necessarily to do with being raised with Southern “class,” but he shows us that, in the classically Southern version, becoming a member of the class of rational, responsible, relational men is a possibility available to us all.

Wolfe, by reminding us that it’s barely possible but highly countercultural to live as a natural aristocrat in our clueless and trashy time—when our institutions of higher education are the most clueless and most trashy parts of American life—frames a narrative of American moral and intellectual decline. His nostalgia for the past is meant to be selective, and it is meant, of course, to inspire personal action in the present. The purely Southern mind—like all aristocratic narratives—is a reflection on our movement away from what was best about the past. And so the Southern mind is anti-progressive, even as it suggests, with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that the one true progress is toward wisdom and virtue in a particular human life.

Actively crafting a life

I once heard a priest tell this joke during his homily:

Three men are talking after a long night of drinking (“philosophizing”) about how they want to be remembered when they die. The first man said, “As a good father and husband.” The second man, a teacher, said, “I hope my students remember me as a good teacher.” The third man said, “I hope when my friends and family surround me in my casket they say, “Look, he’s moving!” Cue laughter.

None of us want to die, yet we do. Living meaningful lives is our daily challenge.

A friend recently shared Michael Novak’s 1996 article commemorating the death of his brother, James. I found this description of his life so fascinating:

As an independent writer and international consultant, [he] cultivated an intellectual life and a life of adventure in the nineteenth-century British style. Indeed, among his papers is a brace of short stories on daily life in Asia, conceived as the observations of an American, Somerset Maugham.

In 1995, Jim accepted a dangerous assignment as consultant to the Koh-i-Noor Foundation for Afghanistan, which required extended travel in the regions controlled by feuding Afghan guerrilla armies. One of Afghanistan’s provincial governors appointed him an “honorary colonel” in the Afghan resistance army, guaranteeing his safe passage.

Michael Novak died last week. I’ll be at his funeral in Washington tomorrow. I might share a tribute to him at some point, but I’m not sure. In the meantime, I wanted to share his remembrance of his brother.

Both shared the sense of actively cultivating an intellectual life and life of adventure. Actively crafting a life is a great strategy for living one worth remembering.

Paul Mazza

Paul Mazza died three years ago today, on March 9, 2013. I wanted to share something I wrote at the time, because I’ve been thinking about Paul lately, particularly on a recent visit to State College:

Paul will likely be most remembered for founding, along with his wife Maralyn, the South Hills School of Business and Technology. I’ll remember him as a friend, a gentleman, and though it would probably make him laugh, a mentor.

It was in 2009, I think, when I first met Paul and Maralyn Mazza. They’re the sort of figures that have a spark about them that seems no less impressive when apart. After meeting them—after seeing first-hand the presence and reality that the fuzzy concept marriage has—you can’t help but first wonder Where did they come from? and perhaps later even Can I get a bit of what they’ve got? But words in moments like this are paltry. So instead I’ll share a specific memory.

It was in December that I most recently saw Paul and his wife. They honored The Nittany Valley Society, a small cultural/historical nonprofit I’m involved with, by coming to our first “Winter Reception” in downtown State College. The Mazzas are probably the best known couple in the Nittany Valley other than the Paternos, so this really was an honor. An established couple in their eighth decade didn’t have to come out on a cold December afternoon. But they did, and they brought a warmth, humor, and attentiveness that helped define the day.

In visiting the Mazzas a few days later for what turned out to be a long and memorable evening, both Paul and Maralyn sat with us for hours in conversation. What was the state of the world as we saw it? What were we doing with ourselves? Where were we finding difficulty? What’s fun? A friend of mine jokes, “Any gathering of two or more older people ends up becoming an organ recital—what’s wrong with whose body and how often.” Even if true for most elderly, there couldn’t be a less fitting way to describe Paul (or Maralyn) Mazza.

That night Paul turned in a bit earlier than Maralyn, as he was getting ready for another trip to Italy, and had to get packing. On getting up from the table, he saw I had a copy of a book I was editing. It was a very early proof copy of The Legends of the Nittany Valley. “How much for this?” Paul asks as he fingered through the paperback.

“Oh, that’s just an early rough copy. It’s not worth anything,” I reply. “Well, I’d like to have this copy,” insists Paul with his steady, slight grin. What could I say? Paul and Maralyn Mazza became the first owners of the first physical, albeit rough, copy of the book.

As it turned out, this would be the last time I’d see Paul Mazza.

At the time, I discounted this incident in my mind. It was simply a courtesy. Indeed, in describing the conversation it sounds like nothing. But, so often, those moments that matter most in one’s life end up being described as exactly that—as nothing. A great kindness or favor reduced to, “Oh, it’s nothing. Think nothing of it.”

And so I’ll cherish this moment with Paul for precisely this reason; because for Paul Mazza, those sorts of courtesies that imply a much deeper reservoir of feeling were nothing special—that is, they were ordinary. Paul Mazza, I think, hasn’t come to be so widely respected as the epitome of a gentleman because he sought to be a gentleman, but because he sought to be good to others whenever the chance arose.

It wasn’t a conscious action, or an act. For Paul, that was life. It was nothing.

But that didn’t mean it wasn’t something to me.

A remembrance from Martin Bigsby on the Centre Daily Times obituary also struck me for its metaphor: “The lasting image I have of Paul is from part of a story he once told me in passing. He mentioned that he and his dad were among the townspeople who cleared the rocks and built Community Field – I believe it was a WPA project, if memory serves. That’s the image I get of Paul – lugging rocks and toiling to make our town better. I am so sad Paul is gone.  We need more like him. We lost one of the finest, most community minded, high quality people.”

During the dark days of November 2011 in the Nittany Valley when all Penn Staters shed tears, Paul and Maralyn penned a public letter to their friends Joe and Sue Paterno. In their letter, they describe the many years of Paterno contributions to the good of the community. I believe Paul and Maralyn’s words describe their own life together as much as their friends the Paternos. I adapt Paul and Maralyn’s words as an epitaph for Paul himself:

“When we look back over the years, we do not see a mountain of Mazza kindnesses and accomplishments. We see entire mountain ranges of Mazza kindnesses and accomplishments.

Requiescat in pace, Paul. I hope to see you again one day.

Stupidity, but not oblivion

Clare Coffey writes on the death of her grandmother:

… one by one all the privileges of self-possession and agency failed her, and sickness stripped away in layers the persona known to the world. …

What I do know is that the soft and helpless smiler of her children’s middle-age was as much my grandmother as the hard-edged diamond of their youths. Neither woman is more real. You can say, if you like, that the true Roseanita was the one who existed before debility made her strange to you, but that premature rupture is a choice: the safety of a familiar story over memory still alive, still capable of being shaped and reshaped by new truths that grow on each other without break or differentiation. …

We end and die a little with each of our fellows, and death is both the universal point of human solidarity and the challenge to its ties. Everyone dies alone, and no one dies alone.

I was crying for my grandmother but also for myself, and for my father: not merely in the sense that death waited for us too, but because a part of ourselves had already now succumbed to its call.

Still, only a part—I learned new things about my father, and his memories, and my memories of him, as we each in different ways participated in his mother’s long death. Our relationship is complicated in the way that only those between parents and children can be. I hope—I believe—it will change and be changed as we slowly die together.

Michael asks, “Who is like God?

In considering an answer, we’re confronted by the stupidity of our first response.

I think this is partly why death stings, because we come face to face with the frailty of our judgment—of the choice to reshape human life. We face the fact that we were meant for more; were meant for life without end; but instead, by our choosing, this mask of death is something we each will have to wear. And the pain is real, because death “opens a chasm which swallows the past as well as the future.” In encountering death we encounter our stupidity, but not oblivion.

Every one of us who loses our place in the present, slipping into our ancestral past, is a shock. Rightly raged against. Rightly celebrated as one whom we loved; love still, and who all but the nihilist know is worth suffering, worth humility, worth mercy, worth virtue, to meet again.

Jidoo, my paternal grandfather, is dead.

Uncle Bruce

Bruce L. Shakely, my great uncle, died Monday morning. I’ve shared a bit about him before. He was my grandfather’s brother, but because I was in many ways raised by my grandparents as much as anyone, I ended up being fortunate to have something of a relationship with Bruce Loyal, too. We only saw each other probably eight or 10 times, starting in the early 1990s, but he and Martha were from my earliest memory of them incredible people with what seemed like all the best virtues. 

And it was through him and my grandfather that I came in touch in a tangible way a bit of the “pioneer spirit of the Allegheny Mountains” that Pop spoke about.

I’ll write more about him in the future. In the meantime, I’m including his obituary from the Beaver County Times:

Bruce L. Shakely, 92, of Brighton Township, passed away at his home, surrounded by his family, Monday, January 18, 2016.

Born August 12, 1923 in Evans City, PA, he was a son of the late Clarence and Allene Shakely. After serving proudly in the U.S. Army Air Corp during World War II, Bruce graduated from both W&J College, Washington, PA, and MIT, becoming a research engineer with Crucible Steel. He was a longtime member of Four Mile Presbyterian Church, serving as an Elder, Clerk of Session, youth group leader, and Sunday school teacher. He was an active member of the Beaver Art Group, Beaver Valley Artists and West Hills Art Group, enjoying painting and sharing his watercolors with family and friends. Bruce was a particularly proud veteran, marching in every Memorial Day Parade up until his 91st birthday.

In addition to his parents, Bruce was preceded in death by his wife of nearly 59 years, Martha Bell Shakely in 2007, along with a brother, John Shakely and his sister, Jean Eury.

He is survived by a son, Roger B. (Alison) Shakely, Arvada, CO; two daughters, Marian E. (Keith) McGaffick, Industry, and Rebecca J. (Rev. Jay McMillen) Shakely, Pittsburgh; ten grandchildren, Carrie A. McGaffick, Daniel J. (Casey) McGaffick, Stephen C. McGaffick, Kyle L. Shakely, Ross D. Shakely, Kelly T. Shakely, Michael Q. Shakely, Andrew S. McMillen, Maegan M. McMillen, and Zachery D. (Roni) McMillen, along with two great-grandsons, Reese McGaffick and Connor McMillen. Bruce will also be lovingly remembered by numerous cousins, nieces, nephews, many friends, and special compassionate caretakers.

Friends will be received Thursday, January 21, 2016 from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. in the Noll Funeral Home, 333 Third St., Beaver. A funeral service will be conducted by Reverend Martin Williams, Friday, January 22, 2016 at 11 a.m. at Four Mile Presbyterian Church, Beaver. Interment will take place at Beaver Cemetery, Beaver. Online condolences may be shared at

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made in Bruce’s name to Four Mile Presbyterian Church, 6078 Tuscarawas Road, Beaver, PA 15009.

Honor the dead

In a compulsively readable book called The Work of the Dead, the Berkeley history professor Thomas W. Laqueur takes as interlocutor not Lucretius so much as the earlier Greek cynic Diogenes—the man who said that, after his death, he wanted his body thrown over the city wall to be eaten by wild animals. And Diogenes was absolutely right, Laqueur argues: As far as science goes, the dead human body is just one more bit of rotting meat.

But Diogenes was also completely wrong, in existential terms, for we cannot find in history an example of a coherent culture that systematically mistreated its own corpses. “We live with the dead because we, as a species, live with the dead,” Laqueur writes. And even by the end of his long, careful book, he can find no better answer than that circular explanation: We do it because we do it. “The charisma of the dead . . . exists in our age as in other ages,” because death has never successfully been disenchanted—not by ancient philosophers and not by modern science.

This comes from Joseph Bottum’s review of Laqueur’s book, but it’s also a great consideration of the lasting mystery of death—and by implication, life.


John Albert Shakely (Jan. 26, 1927-Dec. 1, 2001) was born in Evans City, PA., and was the youngest child of Clarence E. and Alene Dombart Shakely. He was a veteran of World War II and the dear husband of Marion Bruce Shakely.

John earned a pilot’s license at age 17 and promptly left Butler High School, Butler, Pa., to enlist in the Army Air Corps. At the war’s end, he attended the Pennsylvania State College (now University), graduating in 1950 with a degree in geology.

He worked as a petroleum geologist for Formation Logging Service in California for several years, until he had saved sufficient funds to fulfill a boyhood dream, a Pacific adventure. He bought a boat and an instruction manual, and set out on the Chesapeake Bay where he taught himself to sail. He enlisted a fraternity brother and landlubber, Paul Linvill of Linvilla Orchards, Media, PA., as first mate.

Together, they sailed down the east coast, transited the Panama Canal, and entered the Pacific on a 30-foot ketch that had no engine or radio. After visiting many exotic ports, they experienced shipwreck on a coral reed off Moorea in the Society Islands. After a trip by freighter to Australia, John resumed his geological work in South America, the Philippines, and Turkey.

By 1960, John wanted to raise his children in the United States, and decided to change careers. He began graduate studies in history at Temple University, concentrating on China and the Middle East. He began teaching at Central Bucks High School in 1962 and retired in 1990.

He then began his memoirs, dedicating them to his children so they could learn about his life before they knew him. He completed two books: “Skoal” relates his adventures in the Pacific; “Wildcatting” recounts his experiences as a geologist.

John was a skilled cabinet maker and a collector of rare books about the age of sail. He was a member of Sigma Phi Alpha fraternity, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the Naval Institute, and was a charter member of the Cousteau Society.

Surviving John, besides his wife, Marion, are two sons, William H. and Joseph M. Shakely, of Warminster; daughters Marion P. Wedo of Harleysville, Alison A. Shakely and her husband, Matthew Nahrgang, of East Norriton, and Samantha C. Shakely and her husband, Robert A. Aboud, of Upper Gwynedd; grandchildren Phillip, Monica, and Andrea Wedo, Tom Shakely, and Christopher, Sarah, and Julia Nahrgang; a brother, Bruce L. Shakely and his wife, Martha, of Beaver, Pa.; and numerous nieces, nephews, and cousins.

Friends are invited to a Mass to commemorate John’s life, 1:00 P.M. Friday, Dec. 7 at Nativity of Our Lord, Warminster, PA. Interment will be private.

In lieu of flowers, contributions to Archbishop Wood High School, 655 York Road, Warminster, PA, 18974 are requested, to fund a scholarship award in his memory.