• I’ve been rereading Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism lately, and want to share a small bit of that today. (I’ll also be sharing two more bits next week.) I’ve written about Scruton before. He wrote this book in the late 1970s, and while much of his perspective draws on British life, it’s very much a book about authentic conservatism of spirit rather than the cheap conservatism of merely politics.

    This bit on family life really calls out for appreciation:

    The family is the origin of self-respect, being the first institution through which the social world is perceived. It is also autonomous: a form of life which has no aim besides itself. What is achieved through family union could not be achieved in some other way. The family is therefore instilled with concrete values, providing each of its participants with an unending source of rational objectives, which cannot be specified in advance but which arise from the realities of family life. …

    I have previously taken the family as the clearest example of an institution based in a transcendent bond. It is a clear example because it is an extreme one. Almost nothing about the family union rests in contract or consent, and none of the values which spring from it can be understood except in terms of the peculiar lastingness with which it is endowed. While a football team has an identity which can outlast the contributions of particular members, it is not for its lastingness that is is valued. (Although it would be of less worth were it to be constantly formed and re-formed without some trappings of continuity.) In the case of the family, however, the experience of continuity is immediate and dominant. Parents play with their children and so re-enact childhood. They also educate them, preoccupied by the future character and happiness of their offspring. This motive reaches forward beyond death, and also backward, to a sense of former dependency and a remembrance of the parents who protected it. In the commerce between parent and child, past and future are made present, and therein lies the immediate and perceivable reality of the transcendent bond which unites them.

  • Relics

    A side project I’ve been working on intermittently over the past few years is helping my family get its history in order. So much of any family’s history is lost as mementos and heirloom materials is divvied up and typically rarely thought of. I know this has been the case in our family from time to time. What I’ve been doing is getting things together for long term storage and fireproof safekeeping.

    Over the course of this project I’ve encountered so much that I had seen at one point or another but had slipped from active memory. One example of that is the World War I Victory Medal I’m sharing here:

    This is something from my great grandfather Phillip A. Bruce‘s time in the Great War, and two of the surviving bars speak to some of his service—specifically in the Army at St. Mihiel from September 12-16, 1918 and at Meuse-Argonne from September 26-November 11, 1918. After the war, Phillip became a Philadelphia police officer and served for five years before being killed in the line of duty. His Victory Medal has survived nearly a century, and it’s something we want to take better care of to ensure it lasts another century.

    The idea that “the past is a foreign country” becomes very real when you’re able to encounter relics from that foreign country.

  • I travelled from State College to Petrolia in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania earlier today to visit my family’s original farming territory and cemetery. There are at least 70 ancestors and relations at rest there, many of which are documented here. It was founded in 1812, and it felt right to return for the first time in seven years. The latest burial occurred in 1995.

    It’s indescribable what it first felt like to come upon a place like that—to encounter your family name and history in such a personal way and later come to know their individual stories. There have been many spellings of the family name over the years, especially in the 19th century—Shakley, Shakely, Sheakley, etc. The immediate area seems to still be populated by relations of various degrees, and there are a few different roads with the family name there.

    The historical information we have indicates that American settler Michael, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1754 and became a naturalized British citizen in 1763, homesteaded about 430 acres after serving in the militia in the War of Independence. Michael settled the family in Armstrong County, and my branch of the family traces our history to Henry Shakely, one of his sons. Henry and Elizabeth, his wife, are two of those buried at the cemetery. Elizabeth’s father Nicholas Alleman also served in the War, and I owe my membership in the Sons of the American Revolution to him.

    It’s worth visiting the past every so often. Learning to carve out sacred spaces for encounters with the past can help shape the future. I’ll be back.

  • In April, Centre Foundation brought in Tom Rogerson to keynote their Campbell Society luncheon. Tom is a family philanthropy adviser at Wilmington Trust, and a compelling speaker. I wasn’t there, but a friend recorded the talk for me and I sat down to listen to it recently.

    Over the past two years I’ve helped kickstart a few Centre Foundation funds. I’m a fan of Centre Foundation, and am interested in learning about intentional approaches to family life, which is what Tom Rogerson addressed in his talk from the angle of governance and philanthropy.

    A few things I took from his talk. First, on family culture. Specifically the idea that stronger families learn how to make decisions as a group. This can include lots of things, including a united family approach for decisions involving schooling, higher education, career, etc.

    What Tom proposed a means to strengthen that sort of family culture involves family meetings, that could be paired with Thanksgiving or other annual events but that were distinct, involved decorum and were focused on leaving everyone having learned something or at least started on chewing something for further conversation. It can also involve family team building exercises, family philanthropy, and even a family literary program to teach family members over time about their own history and lessons from successes and failures over time. All of this is connected by the idea of fostering family resiliency and nurturing talent within the family.

    Second, on family governance. Specifically the idea of defining success for the family as a whole. An example was one family’s definition: a healthy and united family, where individuals had high self esteem, built trust and communication through their relationships and through meaningful experiences.

    When it came to family philanthropy as one facet of this, that involved a vision for what they wanted the family to look like down the road, and ultimately led to a committee within the family to engage in family philanthropy with a goal of group governance and transparent decision making that could avoid divided approaches that used limited charitable resources inefficiently or wastefully and at the same time could help avoid an unhealthy and divided family culture.

    Third, on family philanthropy. Specifically by harnessing healthy family culture and governance to further strengthen relationships and decision making concerning charitable resources, no matter what size.

    Tom cited DAFs as a way to approach family philanthropy using his own approach as an example that achieves not only the philanthropy component, but also the culture and governance component. DAFs are a way for families to determine and communicate their priorities as a group. He sets aside $5,000/year for his DAF, which is split so that each of his four kids gets to award $1,000 to a beneficiary. All four have to agree on a beneficiary for the final $1,000. This can be done with $5,000 or $500 or whatever. But he cites the “together piece” as the most valuable.

    This is taken a step further, where he sets aside another $500 year that his brother matches. Then both their kids get together and as cousins agree where that $1,000 will go, contributing to communication, decision making, trust, and seeing results over time as a group. And because it’s done through the DAF vehicle, beneficiaries see the names of the children as donors rather than the parents.

    It was a great talk, and leaves me with a lot to chew on. I think the connecting theme was family resiliency, and if each of us can figure out how to contribute to that, we’ll be building a much better society.

  • Where nostalgia lives

    In March 2014 I tried to explain in Town & Gown magazine “why place matters.” Our world is increasingly “flat” and place is seen as less relevant, at least when it comes to commerce. But I think place matters. And some of America’s most special places are its often distinctive college communities:

    Literary critic Henry Seidel Canby (and father of folklorist Edward T. Canby) observed as long ago as 1936 that “it is amazing that neither history, nor sociology, nor fiction, has given more than passing attention to the American college town, for surely it has had a character and personality unlike other towns.”

    I was reflecting on this recently when walking along College Avenue in State College, Pennsylvania. College Avenue divides the Penn State campus and the Borough of State College. Along a major stretch there’s this little stone wall, and near where the lawn of Penn State’s Old Main reaches College Avenue, the Class of 1915 carved out a section of the wall for its memorial gift.

    One of the reasons that place matters is because nostalgia often lives there. Nostalgia’s often found lurking in specific places, and washes back over us in unexpected moments. It’s definitely true that this happens metaphorically, but I think nostalgia’s most powerful pull happens physically. But what is nostalgia, really? Just a longing for the past from someone who sees the world a bit more colorfully than it really is?

    I think it’s something else, and I lean on Katherine Miller‘s description from a few years ago that’s stuck with me:

    Nostalgia by itself is fake, illusory charm, sure, but nostalgia in the context of reality is an entirely different thing. Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote an entire book about it, basically. … Nostalgia in the context of reality offers moral clarity. It might not be exact science, but it’s the ethos and the pathos of the day. It’s a positive vision, and not positive in the “Let’s all go down to the Christmas tree and sing ‘Welcome Christmas’ even though we don’t have any gifts or food!” sense, positive in the active, concrete sense. It explains what it isn’t at hand in the here and now, but perhaps, what was and what could be — an external representation of our values. … nostalgia, in the context of reality, tells us what we don’t have.

    I think America’s colleges towns are important (and often beloved) not just because they were the settings for some great years in our youth. I think they’re important because, like nostalgia, college towns often “tell us what we don’t have” and consequently equip us with “a positive vision” for what we might enjoy once more.

    This is too abstract, so let me break it down. When I walk down College Avenue and sit on that stone bench, I’m sitting in a place where my grandfather sat at one point nearly 70 years ago. I’m sitting in a place where my cousin sat nearly 20 years ago. And maybe my children or theirs will sit there at some point.

    We’re so socially, economically, and physically mobile today that most of us don’t have fixed, solid places like this to root our experiences. Where is the family farm that’s been with us for generations? Where is the tree in the yard planted decades ago? Where is the room in the house where your great grandmother once softly sang as the leaves of that tree rustled in twilight?

    We lack these things. We move. We die. And thousands of experiences and stories are fragmented as a result. It becomes difficult to remember what we’re doing here.

    In the context of the reality of this daily life, college towns and the little places they contain like College Avenue’s stone bench tell us what we don’t have. We probably won’t recover most of the beautiful little experiences of yesterday’s America, but at least in our college towns we are often presented with some of the life we’ve lost and reminded we can have it again, even if just for a pleasant visit.

  • Earlier this morning I was searching the Penn State Library archives. Specifically, I was searching for the earliest possible student newspaper articles on the creation of WDFM, which was the Senior Gift of the Class of 1951.

    After a bit of searching, I found what I was looking for. And just as I was about to close the browser, a something struck me.

    “Pop graduated only about a year before this. Why haven’t you ever looked for him in these archives?”

    Starting a new search, I typed in “John Shakely” and two small results revealed themselves. The first, a minor May 1949 news brief noting my grandfather’s role on the Earth Science Club’s steering committee.

    The second and final result from April 1952, two years after his graduation, was the better one:


    I wrote earlier this year about my discovery of my grandfather John Shakely’s Penn State junior class book, and his poetry on the sea.

    Discovering this Daily Collegian article exactly 63 years later to the day (and on Blue White weekend) is meaningful to me. He died when I was barely a teenager. I’ll never have as many personal memories of him as I’d like. Thanks to the Penn State Libraries, I have a bit more of him:

    Greenhorns to Sail Across Seven Seas (Apr. 18, 1952)

    It’s one thing to go around the world in a 30-foot sailboat, the smallest ever to attempt the feat. But when you’ve never sailed a boat before, people may begin to question your sanity.

    John Shakely, an alumnus of the College and of Sigma Phi Alpha fraternity, is now in Florida preparing to take his peapod across the seven seas.

    He has just purchased his sturdy galleon, the “SKOAL,” and with a companion, who never sailed a boat either, is getting ready to embark just after the typhoons quiet down, which will be sometime this summer.

    Shakely is a fun-loving fellow who used to keep three and one-half foot snakes, lizards, and various crawling and jumping animals in his room at school.

    He’s been planning the trip for about six years. He intends to spend three years sailing around the world collecting material with which to write a book.

    Little things don’t stand in the way of John Shakely and his stalwart companion. John quit his job and his friend quit college to make the trip.

    On the voyage Shakely will enjoy the true comforts of a Penn State student. He says he’ll carry only “philosophy books and liquor.” What food he’ll require he intends to obtain through various and sundry means from islanders.

    Our later-day H[?]urtons will weigh anchor at Elkton, Md., and follow a course through the Panama Canal, the South Pacific, Australia, the Suez Canal, and Mediterranean areas.

    You’ve got to know Shakely to realize the significance of the venture. Imagine natives all over the Pacific singing “Hail to the Lion!”

    His book, should his 30-foot boat successfully battle 60-foot waves, will no doubt make interesting reading.

  • Peace, the only duty

    When visiting my childhood home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania earlier this week I made a chance discovery. I was helping hang a print and went looking in the cellar for the hammer and nails. When downstairs a pile caught my eye. In it I discovered my grandfather’s Penn State 1948-49 junior year academic book. It’s still in decent condition nearly 65 years after graduation and 15 years after his death. It’s a treasure to me for a host of reasons.

    It also contains, as far as I can tell from a few DuckDuckGo searches, 19 of my grandfather’s poems. Little things he wrote as a 21 year-old who had seen a stint between high school and college in World War II’s Army Air Corps:

    The beating, beating, beating
    Of waves upon the wall,
    The loudly quiet ocean;
    I hear its tempting call.

    It calls me from monotony,
    From life’s dull, drab routine,
    With all its savage drumming
    And with its silver sheen.

    It calls me to a better life,
    Where all about is beauty —
    The sun, the sea, the stars,
    Peace, the only duty.

    13 Oct 1949

    This was written about five years before he bought his 30′ Tahiti ketch SKOAL and sailed across the Pacific. The photo with this post captures SKOAL on June 22, 1955 in the Pacific not far from Isla Isabela shorter after they had transited the Panama Canal.

    He had that “better life” with SKOAL under the sun, sea, and stars before shipwrecking in a storm in French Marquesas at Ua Huka’s Hane Bay.