Ernest Warren Lefever 1919-2009

It is worthwhile to live and fight courageously for sacred ideals. ~Norbert Capek

Welcome. It is heartwarming to see so many of you attending the Memorial Service for my father, and it is a great comfort to my mother. Your attendance here disproves what the greatest American philosopher of the 20th century (Yogi Berra) stated, namely “if you don’t go to your friends’ funerals, they won’t come to yours.” My father, at least in his later years, did not go to his friends’ funerals. However, he would have loved to be here for this service since he loved any occasion in which he was the center of attention.

I want to tell you several things about my father. First, he was not a regular guy. He did, however, have the great misfortune of having two sons who were or are regular guys. And, my brother and I had endless amount of fun exposing his lack of regularity. For example, my father loved to play word games, play with ideas and would question us—or anyone who would listen—about all sorts of topics ranging from the sublime to the inane. One day, at lunch with relatives visiting, he asked my brother and me which was more important, a woman’s face or her body. We seized the moment and rhythmically chanted “body, body, body, body….” He seemed chagrined and regained the floor. Then he asked which was a more important quality in a woman, her intelligence or her sense of humor. To this we replied: “Body, body, body, body….”

My father was invariably annoyed by these antics, and it was easy to irritate him. He could be tight with a dollar and my brother and mother invented a game where my brother, sitting at a movie theater before the show asked my mother for $20 dollars. This provoked the usual “when are you going to grow up?” or “when are you going to leave the nest” or “parasite” remark from a particularly irritated Ernest. Then, upon receiving the $20 from my mother, David passed it behind the chairs and returned it to my mother, only to ask for another $20, which when passed to him again raised my father’s irritation and our amusement.

My father was totally disinterested in sports and abhorred watching sporting events on TV. He attended his first (and only I believe) Major League Baseball game at the age of 50. He did not play sports. When he had played sports as a child, he claimed some immodest success—but also insisted that he did things his way—such as hitting a baseball holding the bat cross-handed. He misapprehended the importance of sports to his regular-guy sons who lived for sports. On one occasion when I was discussing my high school basketball team he said: “Quit basketball, take typing.” His consistent message was that we were going to make our living using our brains and not our bodies—and that David would make his living with numbers and I would make mine with words. He was partially correct.

It was great fun to roast my father at his retirement from the Ethics and Public Policy Center in 1989. Perhaps he did not understand the purpose of a roast. Richard Neuhaus told the story of having an intense argument with my father over a speech delivered by Martin Luther King. In the middle of the argument, my father announced that he was winning. I also had fun that evening rendering the following verse, which among others, was particularly irritating to him:

My daddy lives in an English Tudor.
My Daddy is a great do-gooder.
My Daddy is great, my daddy is swell.
He set out to do good…
And he did very well.
[make money gesture with fingers here]

Ernest also tended to be irritating to others. He had no back down and no apology in his personality. In this way, he was a formidable opponent. He was certainly irritating to the liberals. The recent obituaries in the major papers such as the Washington Post and New York Times dredged up and rehashed the allegations they had promoted during his Nomination as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights. That they still seemed so irritated by him all these years later was of comfort and solace to his family. It indicated to us that they had not defeated him, or the truth, and were still trying all these years later to tear down what he tirelessly represented.

I consider my father quite robust. No back-down, no apology. He was a zealous and formidable opponent and family member. When I think of him I think of this indomitable spirit. Several years ago I traveled to Europe with my father as part of a Huguenot tour group of about 15. The tour lasted about 2 weeks. The first leg of the return flight was from Switzerland to Amsterdam. He was 82 at the time of the trip and he had complained of hip and leg pain and would limp around on occasion with great drama. Upon arriving in Amsterdam, the flight was late and there was a very narrow window to make our next flight across the Atlantic to Dulles. I was, at 44 the youngest member of the group by 15 years. It was quickly decided that I would run through the very long airport to the terminal and our departure gate. If I could get there before they closed the gangway, I could buy time for the others to get there. I took off like a shot with the 59 year old man somewhere behind me. The rest trailed. After about 10 minutes and a half mile run I arrived at the gate. As soon as I did, I turned to see if the 59 year old man was in sight. What I saw was my 82 year old father right on my heels. The 59 year old guy was nowhere to be seen. Everyone made the flight. So much for complaining about his hip. I think of him in this way—as robust and indomitable, and it is hard for me to believe that he is gone.

The no-back-down part of his character was not as good a quality in his private life as it was in public. He was very organized and efficient in every way, and wanted things a certain way at home. He wanted what he called “gracious living.” However, families and relationships are less than perfect and can be down right messy. So, in wanting this sense of everything going well, smoothly, organized, and gracious, he could be quite critical when it fell short. And, it nearly always fell short. Therefore, he wanted something that he could never have and in fact was complicit in destroying. “Better is the enemy of good” and there was plenty of good at home. My mother made sure of that. I loved my father and I could see that he wanted good things for us. We were proud of his accomplishments and he frequently told us that he bragged to others about ours. And there is a great love story here, and that belongs to my mother. The amazing love of a woman who for 58 years was ready and eager to have the slightest warmth and who waited for the smallest sign of tenderness or tolerance or intimacy is truly astonishing. The love story is hers. She was a great example for us.

Please do not misunderstand. My father was a better parent than his parents. This is a commitment each of us should make—to be a better parent than our parents and to not repeat mistakes. The way I view my father is of someone who wanted these good things, the close family, intimacy by the fire—but could never quite allow himself to participate. He watched from the outside. He was sort of like the image of cupid shooting arrows. He arranged the circumstances then got out of the way. And while others experienced love, he had difficulty in joining. I noticed this as a child and about 30 years ago, as a young adult, I wrote about a Valentine’s Day ritual and the events of one day in particular:

St. Valentine

Each year the same—the door bell rang
And we would race to find—some treats.
On our front porch. “It was St. Valentine,”
My mother said to boys
Who believed in dis-belief.

“How does he get away?” I asked.
“He must be fast.” And then
Another year would pass—I’d hear the ring
And off I’d go—and yet
Again too slow: Two toys, a game, a lamp,
A yo-yo and a ball
Put in a plastic can—
But no St. Valentine.

“I’ll catch him this year. He will not get
Away.” And then the door
Bell rang and off I sprang to see the magic
Done. I leapt the stair
And tore into the hall and then I saw
My Dad. I watched him running swift and close
To the ground, like a speeding Groucho Marx (so as to make
No sound). He had his tongue between
His teeth. “Ah ha,” I cried,
I caught you,” as he closed the study door.
He did not hear.

He did not know I spied.
And suddenly I realized that in
My victory was something sad.
I lost a part of magic that a moment
Earlier was mine. And so
I never told my Dad what I had seen,
Nor that the thing I did so long suspect was true.
He was St. Valentine.

Bryce Lefever

22 August 2009