Remembering Dad


NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Frederick L. Will, my father, recently died here. He was, as used to be said, well-stricken in years, nearly 89 of them, and suffered many of the afflictions that often accumulate in very elderly bodies. He was, it is safe to say, not sorry when the Dark Angel tapped him on his shoulder and said it was time to go.

In earlier ages, much was made of ars moriendi, the art of dying, of having "a good death." Nowadays, science often overwhelms that art. When death approaches the elderly on measured tread, they are apt to become tangled in the toils of modern medicine. Then the dying are pushed to the side of the stage as medicine becomes the leading actor in the drama. That is no condition to be in when the "summons comes to join the innumerable caravan."

Medicine is marvelous at helping fend off infections and diseases in bodies that, absent them, would thrive. However, medicine becomes problematic when it resists not the body's afflictions but the body itself -- when the body is no longer impelled by an essential vitality, and instead tries to subside.

In this downward turn of life's trajectory, the mind and body can be mysteriously complicitous. Fred's life began to ebb when his wife, who survives him, disappeared into dementia, like a photograph left exposed to the sunlight. Fred could no longer bear to listen to music because it deepened his sadness, and he could no longer thrive.

Fred was a son of the middle border, and of a Lutheran minister who graduated from Gettysburg Seminary about 40 years after the great battle. The minister served many marginal churches in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland, including one in Boonesboro, Md., hard by Sharpsburg, the hamlet on Antietam Creek that Robert E. Lee visited on Sept. 17, 1862.

Lee and Luther were lasting influences. Fred's lifelong dignity and reticence, which did not desert him when he was dying, reflected Lee's model of American gentlemanliness. Fred's philosophic interest was quickened by witnessing pastor Will struggle to reconcile grace and free will. After earning a Ph.D. from Cornell, Fred taught philosophy at the University of Illinois for 39 years.

The U. of I. opened in Champaign-Urbana in 1868, six years after the federal government, during the presidency of a son of downstate Illinois, produced the Land Grant College Act, which began democratizing access to higher education. The U. of I. opened with three professors (not quite enough) and 50 students.

Serious scholar

Early in Fred's career, he labored for nearly a decade completing a manuscript of a book that reached conclusions broadly congruent with the prevailing consensus among philosophers about his primary interest, the problem of induction. Then one day, while standing at a blackboard, there suddenly came to his mind an episode from a Thackeray novel, which, after he reflected about it, suggested that he and the conventional wisdom since Hume were mistaken about induction. So he set aside the manuscript that was the fruit of his career until then, and began again. That unsung example of intellectual integrity is among Fred's finest works.

In Fred's last years, he published a collection of his philosophic essays, and he died shortly after receiving, but when he was too ill to savor, the Festschrift published in his honor by some former students and colleagues. The essays and the essayists are radiating ripples from Fred's scholarship.

As he lay dying, we continued our lifelong playfulness of quizzing each other. What, I asked, was Special Order 191? The man who was a boy in Boonesboro remembered Lee's lost order that a Union soldier, on the way to Antietam, found wrapped around three cigars. One night when the nurse in the intensive care unit dimmed the lights, I asked, "Who said, 'The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime'?" Barely audible through an oxygen mask, he said, "Easy. Lord Grey."

Joseph Epstein, the essayist, says that one of death's drawbacks is that it wipes out so much reading. Fred several times read Wallace Stegner's magnificent novel "Angle of Repose," the protagonist of which is a retired professor. The title is a technical phrase used by mining engineers to describe the angle at which sliding dirt and debris come to rest. Stegner's protagonist, seeing the irresistible metaphor, calls the phrase "too good for dirt," and "descriptive of human as well as detrital rest."

Fred left life as he lived it, nobly composed, having reached his angle of repose.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/02/98

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