100 YEARS: Mecosta’s Russell Kirk remembered at centennial

HAPPY COUPLE: Pictured are Russell and Annette Kirk. (Courtesy photos)

MECOSTA — Russell Kirk, the prominent and influential writer and political theorist who is perhaps most well-known for his influence on 20th century American conservatism, is being celebrated this year, the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1918.

Kirk — who passed away in 1994 at age 75 — is the subject of a book that came out earlier this year, “Imaginative Conservatism: The Letters of Russell Kirk.” He has been honored with proclamations from the state of Michigan and his hometown of Plymouth, which called his birthday on Oct. 19 “Russell Kirk Day.” Plans are underway to have his family’s ancestral home in Mecosta, known as Piety Hill, named as a Michigan Historic Site.

Annette Kirk, Russell’s wife of 30 years and president of a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to his memory and teachings, said the recognition is a testament to the enduring nature of the lessons her husband taught.

“I think that because Russell has made old truths new … that is what you have to do. That is how you renew the culture. There are certain principles, truths, things of essence, that don’t change, and that is what Russell promoted,” Kirk said. “He wasn’t coming up with some new thought, or new political program. He wrote the principles of conservatism, and that will last for 100 more years.”

Kirk, who moved to his family’s ancestral home in Mecosta in 1954 and stayed there until his death, penned more than 30 works of both fiction and non-fiction over the years.

He is arguably best known for the political tomes “The Conservative Mind” (1953) and “The Roots of American Order” (1974), as well as his extensive and in-depth research into the life of philosopher Edmund Burke. He was deeply influential in conservative and religious circles, counting among his acquaintances T.S. Eliot, William F. Buckley Jr. and President Richard Nixon.

“The Sage of Mecosta,” as he was known in conservative circles, was awarded 12 honorary doctorates; was a Constitutional Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities; a Senior Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies; as Fulbright lecturer in Scotland; and was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Ronald Reagan.

His accomplishments aside, Annette Kirk said, his family — including four daughters, Monica, Felicia, Cecilia and Andrea — were just as proud of who he was behind closed doors.

“I was extremely fortunate and privileged to know Russell and have been married to him,” Annette Kirk said. “He was an integrated man, which was very different than most people. Intellectuals may say and know one thing, but do another. Russell lived out his beliefs — when he spoke about Christian charity, or family, he was that kind of a person. … There was no difference between his public and his private life.”

Today, Annette Kirk leads the the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, located just west of downtown Mecosta. The center hosts seminars, research, and fellowship opportunities in a unique residential library and conference center. Kirk said being involved in conservative scholarship helps her cope with her husband’s passing by preserving his memory.

“I haven’t moved. I’ve been in this house since 1975. It helps remember and have the memories, and it also helps to transfer these ideas to the young, Russell’s idea of story and place. I can look outside and see trees from here to the next block, full of trees he planted. That says something about the kind of person he is,” she said.

It’s hard to say how Kirk may feel about contemporary politics, Annette Kirk said, 24 years after her husband’s death. President Donald Trump often sends policy-shifting dispatches over Twitter, whereas Kirk derisively referred to personal computers as “electronic computers.” Kirk enjoyed reasoned, polite discussions of political thought, whereas today’s most important issues are settled through shouting matches between idealogues on cable news.

However, Annette Kirk said, it’s likely to say her husband would have cheered Trump’s stance against interventionism, a reversal from Republican presidents in recent history. (Kirk was not in favor of the first Gulf War, an undertaking of President George H.W. Bush.) Russell Kirk also would have likely supported Trump’s policy on limiting immigration, Annette Kirk said.

But Trump’s blustery personality would have been a big turn-off.

“Anybody — Republican, Democrat, anyone who would talk on it — would agree that if Trump would stop his tweets, his uncivil language, he would be a much stronger leader,” she said. “The problem is that he is only an example in how we have descended in our conversation and language. Russell would say, we need a more civil discourse. We are trying, in our small way, to make words mean what they mean.”

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