This past Monday I read with sadness of the passing of Reggie Foster. The name may not be familiar to many, but Reginald Foster was one of the great Latinist of the past half century. Father Foster was born in Milwaukee in 1939 and died of COVID in an assisted living facility in the early morning hours of Christmas day in that same city. For decades this Carmelite monk had translated anything that came into the Office of Latin Letters of the Vatican Secretariat of State, toiling at a bare desk in a modest space for four decades stretching from 1969-2009. Foster—or Reggie as he was known to generations of Latin enthusiasts—was much more than that. A man of great intellectual capacity with a strong body constitution and an incredible capacity for work, for years he also taught as many as ten classes each academic year at the Pontifical Gregorian University to all levels of learners. His students included the lowest beginners to the most advanced trying to take that final step to mastery.
I myself had not known who Father Foster was until this past fall. Early this year, for reasons still unknown to me, I felt an urge and urgency to begin studying Latin. I started in earnest in early summer and when the busy fall semester began I found the time by studying from 6:00 – 7:30 am each morning before I began the workday. Foster’s name and life’s work came to my knowledge around September when I read Ann Patty’s poignant memoir “Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin.” After reading that book I began the inevitable deeper dive into Foster, including a JSTOR search where I found several pieces of longform journalism about the man. Apparently someone is well along the way on a biography at the current moment.
What made Foster so respected and admired was his commitment to the language itself. He had little patience for anyone who saw Latin as a means of “self-improvement,” improving SAT scores, or any faddish motives that diminished the language itself. That’s why people came from around the world to study under him. Foster’s students admired and respected the man greatly, but his bosses at the Vatican and at the Gregorian University often found the outspoken priest difficult to rein in. The university let him go eventually because, well . . . he was telling students not pay for the courses. When anyone showed up he was always happy to have them if they took the work seriously. He spoke often and loudly also when he saw things in the Vatican that he believed were silly, ridiculous, or just plain wrong. His superiors did not like that, but he was just too good at his job as a Latin translator to let go. If an encyclical or other document had to go out quickly for release, and with assurance that there would be mistakes, the task inevitably fell to Father Foster. The final denouement came when he gave an outspoken on-camera interview to Bill Maher—standing in front of the Vatican—that appeared in Maher’s 2008 documentary “Religulous.” None of that meant Foster had lost his Faith, his love for the Vatican, or for the Discalced Carmelite itself. Far from it. He almost certainly would have gotten fired, but because he was so close to retirement his bosses let it go and he held on for the few months he remaining.
Foster returned to Milwaukee after his many decades in Rome. Health issues eventually confined him to a wheelchair and the retirement facility. Still he continued teaching classes, again almost always for free, to anyone who took the work seriously. There are many lessons to take from the life and experience of Reginald Thomas Foster: his belief in committing to and mastering difficult tasks is one of them; his work ethic and intellectual rigor are others. He found beauty in simple things and led an ascetic life dedicated to the search for truth and meaning. Though I never met him, I’m glad I learned who he was while he still alive. What is more, I will try in my own modest way to live up to his ideals.
Yesterday I finished David Paul Kuhn’s important new book “The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution.” The book is about the lead up to, the clash, and aftermath of the brutal confrontation that took place between blue collar construction workers and Vietnam War protesters in downtown Manhattan on May 8, 1970. Most of the hardhats were men currently working on the construction of the Twin Towers a few blocks west and north of Federal Hall, where the incident began before moving northward to City Hall and Pace University. (Federal Hall itself was closed for renovation.) The event took place four days after the shootings at Kent State and the same day as Game Seven of the 1970 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks, which the Knicks famously won when Willis Reed limped out of the locker room and gave the hometown team just enough to defeat Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers. I cannot recommend “The Hardhat Riot” strongly enough, especially for anyone who wants at better understanding of our current historical moment. Events and people are complicated. Individuals can be both perpetrators and victims, worthy of sympathy and censure simultaneously. Kuhn shows us that complexity. I cannot imagine the work that went into reconstructing the riot into a narrative, though the author gives us some idea in the bibliographic essay in the back matter. It is all the more extraordinary because even half a century on there were people trying to keep him from records and details that could help that story.
It was thus a little serendipitous then when yesterday evening–Christmas Night–a friend sent this article written by White House staffer Dwight Chapin explaining how he facilitated the December 1970 White House encounter between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon. I won’t go into the details because Chapin has already done that so well. The short explanation is that Elvis wanted to help Nixon bridge the Generation Gap, especially in the fight on drugs. (Oh, the irony). Presley saw himself as a figure who could bridge the generational chasm, and in a way was suited to do so. I have a good friend, a baby boomer born in 1956 who grew up in typical boomer fashion: suburbia, multiple siblings, stay-at-home mother, WW2 veteran father, the whole works. He explained to me more than once that Elvis Presley was within the consciousness and paradigms of his parents and their friends in a way that the Beatles could never be—and never were. There was something within Elvis to which even full-fledged adults—people who had grown up during the Depression and had gone through the Second World War—could relate. I suspect a large reason for that is because The King was so deeply rooted in the blues, country, and gospel traditions and was working within frameworks recognizable even to adults of the 1950s. That would not be the case when the Beatles came to America in February 1964. Though my own father was not of the World War 2 generation I know that he could never relate to The Beatles, and even got a little angry and upset when my brother and I listened to them in later years when we ourselves were coming up. By the time The Beatles played the Ed Sullivan show my parents already had two kids.
To Baby Boomers themselves though, Elvis must have been something from the Remote Past in the waning Age of Aquarius. In December 1970 at the time of his White House visit he was less than three weeks shy of his thirty-sixth birthday. For those not inclined to trust anyone over thirty, he was ancient. Elvis was in the middle of his comeback—his post-1968 output is my personal favorite—but culturally the world was moving on. By December 1970 The Beatles had already been broken up for six months. Black Sabbath’s first album had come out that February. In October Jimmy Page and his bandmates released “Led Zeppelin III.” That was the historical moment when Elvis walked in to the White House for his thirty-five minute audience with President Nixon fifty years ago this week.
It was been an unseasonably warm weekend here in New York City. I was in Green-Wood Cemetery earlier today when I saw this headstone. I had seen a few monuments to Man’s Best Friend in this beautiful garden cemetery over the years but had never crossed this one before. Some quick internet searching once I got home revealed that leaving sticks for Rex has become a thing since the onset of the pandemic. The cemetery always provides fresh surprises, which is not surprising given that are nearly half a million stories to tell interred within its grounds.
I hope everyone’s Thanksgiving weekend has been restful. It has not been the holiday many of us might have liked but it’s the one we get, and for that I am thankful. I must say I have not done much other than relax these past several days, though I did work half a morning this past Friday. Life has been so stressful on so many fronts recently that it’s been good to have a bit of a respite. There has been lots of jazz and Bob Dylan on the turntable as well, which is always a plus.
I was telling someone last night: there’s Bob and then there is everyone else. Essentially I rediscovered him over these past nine months of the shutdown. At least for me Dylan has been the ideal voice for the current moment. The trick with Dylan is to not take it too seriously and understand how witty, playful, and just plain funny the guy is. I think he takes the minute parsing of his life and lyrics with more than a little bemusement, and probably contempt and derision as well. And yet within all that he’s working on about 3-4 different levels. This is not bread and circuses.
It is a glorious Sunday morning here in New York City. Under normal circumstances we likely would have gone to a museum or something today. Maybe next year. Instead I will use the day productively to gear up for the remainder of the semester, clean the house, and get in a walk at Green-Wood. Whatever you do, make the most of the remainder of the weekend and these waning autumn days.
I wanted to take a moment to wish everyone a happy holiday. If one feels that this year’s is not a “real” Thanksgiving because of everything going on in our world right now, it might be helpful to keep in mind that this is a centuries-old tradition and that we have observed the occasion through wars, depressions, health crises, and other calamities before. In the image above we see a Thanksgiving camp scene drawn by Alfred R. Waud in November 1861, just when it was dawning on Americans that the “ninety day war” many had anticipated that previous spring was going to take longer to resolve. As these men settled into winter quarters, they did not know what the future held either.
Remember the spirit of the holiday. If able, reach out on this day to others who you think might need a special boost. Making someone else’s day a little brighter will do the same for yours as well. Be safe and be careful. Enjoy your Thanksgiving.
(image/Library of Congress)
Today is the 157th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It is one of our goals to visit for Remembrance Day sometime in the not too distance future. Usually when we go it is in early summer during the campaign anniversary. I imagine Gettysburg has an entirely different feel in late autumn. In challenging times it is helpful to reflect on difficult moments of the past. Today, a week before Thanksgiving, is a good time to do just that.
(image/1887 advertisement from “The Battle-field Of Gettysburg” published by the Gettysburg and Harrisburg Railroad Company)
Ooff. Long day. It was leavened somewhat when someone emailed me around noontime and told me that today was Dizzy Gillespie’s birthday. It had totally escaped me that today was the 103rd anniversary of Gillespie’s birth. In a nice piece of serendipity I was listening to Charlie Parker when I opened my friend’s message. In this case Bird was accompanied not by Gillespie but the young Miles Davis. Here is something I wrote on this date nine (!) years ago commemorating Dizzy Gillespie. My gosh, has he really been gone twenty-seven years. Though I never saw him live, I am glad I lived during his time. I stand by what I said all those years ago about Dizzy Gillespie being underrated and under appreciated despite the plaudits he received during and after his lifetime. Here is some listening for an autumn evening. . .
This past Thursday in the early evening I attended a virtual writing event at which we the participants wrote in bursts of twenty minute increments with a brief break in between to check in on how we did. For me it was a chance to get back to my manuscript about the Rufus King family, which I had to put aside in mid-August to prepare for the academic year. I mention it because the book begins with a brief telling of the October 1881 centennial observation of the Siege of Yorktown. Cornwallis surrendered to Washington on October 19, 1781. In what seems a lifetime ago I wrote a little bit about this five years ago in August 2015, though from a different angle from which I will be focusing in the King book.
The reason I mentioned all this here is because John Alsop King, Jr., Rufus King’s grandson, was one of the leaders of the New York delegation. He was hardly unique: the grandsons of many of the leading figures of the Revolutionary War Era participated in the Yorktown observation, which proved hugely important in late nineteenth century diplomacy.
(image/Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center of the Boston Public Library)