A Real Compassionate Conservative
5 August 2001
It wasn't long ago that I saw John at a family cookout. He traveled to Boston from his home in Syracuse to spend some time with his extended family and friends. It was the first time I had seen John since before my mother died. He looked great for someone in his late seventies, thirty-five years my senior.
My mother loved and admired her cousin, John. She often spoke of the fun they had together growing up. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Army. He worked his way through college, graduating from both Boston College and Columbia University. Despite all of John's accomplishments, she admired him most because he was a good man, a compassionate conservative.
Make no mistake: my mother was not someone who was prone to feeling affection for conservatives. She despised Richard Nixon. She had a blind spot for the clergy and the Kennedy family. Despite their privileged lives, she believed they made a real difference in people's lives.
John was a good "family man" and his conservative political beliefs were secondary to my mother, though not altogether dismissed. He loved his children, Danny and Terry, and his wife, Nellie, with whom he was married for 50 years. Status didn't mean much in our house but every year my mother made sure she addressed John's Christmas card to Dr. John P. Kavanagh & Family. When I was older, old enough to often say and believe dumb things, I told my mother that John was an optometrist, not a doctor. That comment lead to a severe tongue-lashing. I learned not to diminish the hard-earned credentials of Dr. Kavanagh or anyone else.
John wouldn't like my writing this, but he had a bit of Bill Clinton in him. If he was two hours late, he was early. On one trip to Boston he showed up to Sunday dinner at my grandmother's home approximately four hours late. Let's just say that leg-of-lamb was very well done. My Uncle Buddy, who let anger build up inside himself like lava in a volcano, voiced his displeasure after three hours: "I wouldn't give him a cheese sandwich." In John's defense, he would have been happy with a cheese sandwich.
He also could work a room like Clinton. Smiling, laughing, with an earnest nod that was as convincing as it was genuine. John was no actor. He was the real deal. His Christmas card always included a summary of the Kavanagh year in review. He traveled to 115 countries during his lifetime and each year detailed at least two trips for those who were living more provincial lives. Nor did his writing hide his strong belief in Catholicism and the righteousness of American democracy and our role as world leader.
In the year professionals from Canada first played the Soviet Union in a hockey series that would question North American dominance of that sport, my family made a rare trip to Syracuse. The Kavanaghs opened their home and hearts to us. One of my most vivid memories was John bringing out the 8mm home-movies of a trip to Japan and Southeast Asia. To the chagrin of a boy just reaching puberty, Nellie shut the projector light off during the Geisha scenes. John narrated the film. In hushed tones he invoked the fear and loathing many of his generation felt towards communism as the footage showed a crossing point into China with armed guards: "We stand just yards from Red Communist aggression."
When I was in high school and college, John made the pilgrimage to Boston virtually every year around the Fourth of July. I teased him about his attire when he made the mistake of wearing the same black and white leisure suit three years in a row. I challenged his politics, including sending him a subscription to Mother Jones, and debating with him our nation's policy toward South Africa and the system of apartheid. I had the exuberance and experience of youth and John was always diplomatic in response to my pontifications.
The last time I saw John was quite moving. He must have been suffering with the ALS that would later take his life, but he said nothing of that burden. My family resides in Lexington, Massachusetts, birthplace of the American Revolution. That fact led our discussion back to the Lexington Green and the events of April 19, 1775. John, with total admiration, told the story of that day as if he had been there. His voiced cracked and his eyes shed tears as he related the courageous acts of individual men risking their lives for liberty. We should all feel history so deeply.
Alas, we are all too mortal and every day brings us one day closer to death. John lived a full life, never full of himself but always thinking of others. He died a religious man, believing that God awaited him. It is a concept that is hard for me to believe. I do know that if there is a just God that John will be welcomed into his kingdom. John, if you are once again right and I wrong, please give my mom a hug.
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