My platform when running for senior class president was simple: a senior class trip and a good commencement speaker. The first was a no-brainer — the traditional 5th grade camping trip had been cancelled for my class after the class ahead of us had been too wild, and our 8th grade class trip was substituted with a different junior high trip that not everyone had attended. So we felt deprived, and by senior year it was an easy deprivation to capitalize on. The commmencement speaker was my own beef – our school traditionally had an outside speaker, and I felt like the commencement speaker could be good — probably give us better advice than the last four years of high school combined — and I wasn’t going to phone it in.
During the last few years of high school, I read the Notre Dame student newspaper almost religiously. Among other things, one effect of this was that I became more familiar with law professor Charles Rice, who wrote for the paper frequently. After he wrote a particuarly captivating article about just war theory (my senior year witnessed the terrorist attacks of 9-11), I invited him to be our commencement speaker.
I forget exactly how it all went down, but I know I wrote him a real letter, on paper, with an envelope and a stamp (!), and then at some point in the correspondence he casually gave me his home phone number and told me to call.
Just like that. Give him a call. Charlie Rice. To put it in perspective, I actually took a fan-girl picture outside his office door the summer previously. And now I was going to nonchalantly call him up on the phone.
To make a long story short, he ended up coming down for commencement – and not only for commencement, but joined my family at Mass that Sunday morning and went out to breakfast with us before the commencement exercises.
I don’t remember much of what he said, but I do remember everyone listening, even my classmates… who could be lame at times. You know why we listened? Because he wasn’t there for himself. He had no agenda and he came with no pretense. He knew his audience – a bunch of seniors who wanted to grab the diplomas and leave high school forever, who didn’t know who he was and didn’t care. But he didn’t let that bother him. He spoke to us like we were real people. He spoke to us like we mattered. And I’ll never forget his humility, his humor, and his authenticity. He was a man without guile.
Yesterday morning, Professor Rice went to his eternal reward. He was a hero for the Catholic Church and for Catholic education. He believed in the good, the true, and the beautiful. And he left many, many people — lawyers throughout this country, graduates of Notre Dame, and probably anyone he met — better people for having known him.
There will be many tributes to him in the coming days. (You should start here.) But I think there is far more to Charlie Rice that will never be proclaimed. That’s just seems like the kind of guy he was. The quiet humility of a man of God, who mourned the passing of a great university but never threw in the towel, who lamented the state of our culture but never despaired the existence of the good.
So perhaps tonight, we should all curl up with 50 Questions on the Natural Law: What it is and Why we Need it and thank God there have been men like Charlie Rice in this world.