The Last Ditch -- Sarah Knox Taylor -- DEATH OF A PILGRIM

Our Sam Francis page


A tribute to Sam Francis

Death of a pilgrim



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He who would valiant be
'Gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy
Follow the Master.
There's no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.


Chattanooga, Tennessee, under a crisply blue February sky. I'm here, with a good many other people, to say goodbye to Sam Francis.

Chattanooga is a very small city, taut with civic pride, dominated by its Southern heritage, and in many ways still adrift in the 1950s. It was clear that Southern tradition — the conservative expectation that young men would acquire a classical education, the desire for civility and order — were tangible here, and that Sam had been indelibly stamped by the sense of history and antebellum manners retained in the very land.

I'd known Sam personally for fewer than ten years. In the dozens of tributes and memorials I've read in the past few days, I'd learned that most people who knew Sam considered him to be a shy man, a little gruff, who loosened up in smaller groups, or one-on-one, to become a witty and intelligent conversationalist on topics that varied from current issues, history, old movies, Victorian ghost stories, the nature of terrorism, UFOs, and moral values. There wasn't much that Sam didn't know, and he never stopped learning. Like Kipling's Elephant's Child, he was endowed with Insatiable Curiosity, and he narrowly escaped being pulled into the river more than once by the crocodile of public indignation. It never stopped him, though. His intellectual honesty and sense of integrity were tirelessly engaged in fighting battles that many of his friends supported; but few of us were willing to risk as much as he had. And, in a way that summarizes Sam as no flood of verbal tribute could, he never appeared to think less of us as a result of that reluctance.

A few days before his death, my husband and I went to visit Sam in the hospital, taking with us a couple of books that we suspected — hoped — would be new to him. Selecting something diverting for somebody so widely read had been a challenge, but the idea of a mind like Sam's being confined to bed, practically immobile, with nothing meatier than daytime television and the contents of the hospital book cart to distract him, struck us as almost unbearable torture. Visitors, however, were restricted to family, and we left the books at the reception desk to be delivered to him at a later time.

Less than eighty hours later, he was gone. Hearing the news, we were stunned; but gradually, over the course of the day, the enormity of what had happened began to sink in. That night, depressed and unwilling to expend any energy in fixing supper, we stopped at the supermarket in search of comfort food. Potato soup? Chocolate ice cream? Biscuits and gravy? Finally, I pulled up short in the middle of the bakery aisle. "I don't want any of this stuff," I wailed. "I want my friend back."

We drove home in silence, and on the front porch was a package containing a newly published volume of Russell Kirk ghost stories that I'd ordered for Sam's birthday: in a recent conversation, I'd discovered that Sam had read Kirk's political books, but it had escaped him altogether that Kirk had written a number of very literate and eerie tales based on characters from T.S. Eliot's poetry, all of which had gone out of print years ago and had just been "discovered" by an anthologist.

Sam's intellectual honesty caused him a lot of trouble, and the liberal, politically correct gatekeepers of public opinion gradually managed to shut him down to the point where it became hard to locate his articles and columns. I doubt that he thought of himself as a prophet or a pilgrim or a teacher: he was an historian, one who had reconciled himself to the fact that most of the people around him had forgotten — or never bothered to learn at the outset — the lessons of history, and were thus doomed to repeat, ad infinitum, some of its more dreary aspects. In the past few years, I wasn't able to read Sam's writing on most of the Websites that still published his work: the particular "Net nannies" used by my own employer and most public libraries blocked access to his conduits as Hate Sites, and no amount of back-door probing could breach the barriers.

Sam lost his job with the Washington Times for speaking at an American Renaissance conference — that is, not for anything he wrote for the Times, but for the un-American crime of harboring an unpopular point of view and exercising his right to speak freely. I suppose that most of his critics thereupon dusted their palms and thought to themselves, There! That'll teach him. But it didn't; there were some lessons he simply would not learn. Not only did he keep right on stating clearly what he believed, he never whined about what had happened. He simply took on more writing, speaking, editing of unpopular publications, and in short, continued to work for the spread of the truth in all its unattractive and unhappy aspects.

Who so beset him round
With dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound,
His strength the more is.
No foes shall stay his might,
Though he with giants fight;
He will make good his right
To be a pilgrim.


The night before Sam's burial, nearly eighty people, many of whom drove for up to ten hours or flew from across the country at short notice, gathered for dinner and conversation about our loss. Each of the people there had known a slightly different Sam. Some had known him for more than thirty years, some had met him only once or twice. Each had his own set of "Sam stories" to tell, citing whimsical e-mail exchanges, serious political debates, fascinating insights into literature, quick observations that led to multi-layered discussions of immigration and terrorism, realistic assessments of the fate of an American culture Sam had loved and mourned. Each person in the room felt diminished and bereft, and the overall impression I brought away at the close of the evening was that the complex personality that was Sam Francis had teased out of each of us discoveries and understandings that we hadn't known were there. He had the gift of complementary friendship, urging the people he knew to share and develop previously unarticulated thoughts.

At the funeral home, just before his burial, more than a hundred people came to pay their respects and condolences to the family. We all ended up comforting each other, recalling the shy, somewhat socially awkward scholar who could command a standing ovation with his clear analysis of an issue, the relaxed dinner companion who could stop all conversation at the table with a casually goofy observation, or the solemn, round-faced, jug-eared little kid who, every once in a while, would flash out for a split second and just as quickly disappear into the slightly rumpled responsible adult. There were two former presidential candidates at the gravesite, dozens of brilliant writers, members of the Council of Conservative Citizens, old friends of the family. Family members thanked us for coming from Atlanta, Washington, Florida, California, for a graveside service that lasted less than half an hour. In truth, our sense of loss was so acute that we felt we could be nowhere else.

At the graveside, we clustered around the casket, unwilling to leave him alone there, but dimly aware that a hundred or more unique Sams would leave Chattanooga with us; and that as time went by, each of us would have poignant moments as we read the newspaper, or discovered a new author, or had a quick flash of insight into a current issue — and the unbidden thought would dart through our minds, Wonder what Sam would have made of that? He made so many lives a little richer and a little more thoughtful. Not a bad legacy, when it comes to that.

He fought with giants indeed, and his spirit was unvanquished by them despite all their attempts to bring him down. May the earth rest easy upon him.

Since, Lord, thou dost defend
Us with thy Spirit,
We know we at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away!
I'll fear not what men say,
I'll labor night and day
To be a pilgrim.

— John Bunyan, 1684
as modified by Percy Dearmer
for the English Hymnal

March 12, 2005

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