It is hard to remember when Reid Buckley wasn’t a part of my life, so prominent and life-altering a place he occupied the past 20 years or so. Not only was he a cherished friend but he also held the distinction of being the only person ever to fire me.
Oh, the indignity! And, yet I adored him and he, I think, me. I was a protégée of sorts, having passed through his school of public speaking as a student terrified of the lectern -- and later joining his staff as a speech coach. He fired me because I was incapable of writing critiques in his voice, as required.
I thought my voice was better. He disagreed.
We hugged and that was that.
Ten years later, he fired me again as head of the writing component of the public speaking course, despite my having created the course and despite my being the only instructor. Apparently, someone complained that I tended to veer away from teaching the rudiments of executive writing, which some days felt like an exercise in pencil sharpening, and would engage those willing in political discussion.
Reid was right, but still. We hugged again.
Somehow, he managed to find my replacement and life at the Buckley School, a boisterous oasis of intellectual vigor in the small historic town of Camden, S.C., continued apace.
Finally, because of Reid, I convinced my husband that we should move to Camden and acquire an old house, a persuasion no doubt inspired by the Demosthenesian rapture into which I had fallen thanks to Reid’s contagious enthusiasm for and proficiency in the intellectual arts.
He was, as I wrote in a long-ago “Town and Country” profile of him, a force of nature -- driven by an insatiable curiosity, a joy of learning and apparently a need to salvage what he could of Western intellectual tradition by infecting others with his passion. The Buckley School of Public Speaking has been a tiny incubator where minds were nourished during a brief respite from the mundane and released back into the world with the sublime command to go forth and multiply.
Reid was nourished in turn by the transformation of students who under his tutelage morphed from timid mumblers into Shakespearean actors. Reid taught confident articulation by applying the debate skills he mastered first at Yale where he was president of the debate club, and later as an itinerant debater opposite his liberal counterpart, Max Lerner. The two performed formal debates on college campuses during the 1960s, disagreeing civilly on the issues of the day.
The transformation wasn’t only practical but also spiritual. There was something magical and transcendent about entering Reid’s world. He immanentized the eschaton even though, theologically and politically, he opposed such utopian fantasies. Perhaps it was the intoxication of jasmine growing along the school’s antebellum porch. Or maybe it was the smell of hundreds of books, a fair portion of which were written by various Buckleys. Mostly, I think, it was exposure to knowledge, truth and beauty and delight in feeling a part of something truly special. He raised your game and made you want to be a better human being.
At least that’s what I got out of it.
To the women who worked at the school -- always women because he found them to be particularly skilled at the job -- Reid was our Sherpa as well as our sommelier, which is a good thing because sometimes he could make you urgently wish for an adult beverage. Did I mention he was eccentric? Among his idiosyncrasies was a habit of wearing a knife or three on his belt. He sometimes appeared in lederhosen and a cape. When he finally needed a walking cane, it seemed a natural accessory.
He also could be taxing at times owing to an energy level commensurate with a 10-year-old’s. His desk and office looked like an episode on “Hoarders.” You could build a house using the stacks of books in his office as foundation. And he was delightedly out of step with modern times -- though not with Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times,” or any other noteworthy book. Once he arrived at work and, looking puzzled, queried: “Who is this ah-prah person?”
Reid might not have known who Oprah was but he could quote Thomas Merton or Socrates or Yeats with the ease of mortals ordering dressing on the side. A devout Catholic, he was serious about his faith but counted atheists among his friends. Ultra-conservative, he claimed most of his friends were liberals because they were more fun. Ultimately, he was a sensualist in love with beauty in all its forms.
To the 5,000-plus students who passed through his school, he was the lamplighter who waved the burning torch and showed the way out of the subterranean tunnels of rigid thinking. If, alas, I am a tad bombastic and verbose, please pardon the indulgence. My cup runneth over. If it were possible to ululate in print, I would.
At this point, Reid would suggest I cut it short. He would be right again, but I’m in charge now. There’s so much more to say. He was a novelist, essayist and raconteur, a friend to movie stars, bullfighters and everyday folks. If he had a snobbish bone, he kept it well hidden. His charm lay partly in his eager willingness to accept all men and women as his equal, intellectual and otherwise. He was the happiest of warriors, madly (madly!) in love with his Spanish wife, Tasa, to whom he professed his love nearly every time they spoke. (He did this in Spanish, but I listen in Spanish.)
A devoted father to their 10 children, he called family meetings when any child had a problem to solve. He cherished weekends riding a tractor on his farm, inviting friends to stash and drink wine at his country cellar, and summers writing in his beloved Spain. More than anything, he loved his family, his God and, by no means least, his dogs -- all of them regulars at the school.
He had not been well for a while, but his departure was sudden all the same. In his office two weeks ago, he was in a hospital bed a few days later. Even so, Reid being Reid, he was ever on to the next project. When Karen Kalutz, his long-time right hand and director of the school, dropped by his hospital room a couple of days before he died, Reid was watching Fox News and sprang into form. “Karen, we’ve got to do something! We need to help these people!”
When another staff member, Caroline Avinger, visited, Reid urged her not to be sad. “We’re believers, dearest,” he said. “We know how the story ends.”
We are all inconsolably sad, anyway. With Reid Buckley’s earthly departure, Western civilization has lost one of its fiercest gladiators and God has gained the delightful company of one of his most joyful servants. Reid’s parting words at the end of each seminar seem a fitting close to these recollections and a testament to an examined life well-lived.
“Through your efforts you have advanced in a mighty and terrible power, the art of persuasion. It can be used equally to advance good or evil. May you exercise this power always in the love of truth, decency and the defense of the poor and weak.
“Do you own to a god, may He be your witness and your judge should you betray this trust; if you do not own to a god, may your conscience be your scourge and also your salvation. And so help you, may the lucidity of your reason be guided by the purity of your heart.”