By Robert Alt, Buckeye Institute President and Ashbrook Board member. Originally given at the 2018 Claremont Institute Salvatori Dinner.
Roger Beckett and I were the best of friends.
And it is appropriate to offer a few words to honor him tonight at the Salvatori Dinner since we met more than two decades ago through the Claremont Institute’s Publius Fellowship.
Little did I know back then, but Roger and I being accepted into that program at the same time was no coincidence—this meeting had in fact been carefully planned for some time.
You see, my professor and mentor, Chris Flannery, and Roger’s professor and mentor, Peter Schramm, were themselves best friends dating back to their college and graduate school years. Together, with a few others, they had co-founded the Claremont Institute and its programs. In the intervening years, Flannery went on to teach political science at Azusa Pacific University, where I attended, and Schramm went on to become the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center and professor at Ashland University, where Roger attended college.
Flannery strongly encouraged me to apply to the 1998 Publius Fellowship and Schramm strongly encouraged Roger to do the same. I thought Flannery wanted me to do so for the benefit of, you know, learning important stuff, but that wasn’t the whole truth. These two old friends had hatched a plan and decided together that Roger and I really needed to meet, so that their two students could share the kind of long-term friendship they had enjoyed for so many years.
Looking back on it all today, it seems like quite a gamble: how were they so certain that Roger and I would become the best of friends after meeting one summer? Perhaps they were sure because of their understanding of and indeed purpose in creating the Publius Fellowship. It was—and is—conducive to facilitating not only learning, but friendship. The focused study of important texts—and the testing of ideas among interested colleagues all but assures that you leave the Publius program with a deeper understanding of our founding principles—and with new lifelong friends.
Now I should pause here to say that the Publius Fellowship in 1998 wasn’t the same as the Claremont programs of today. Sure, we still learned important things from serious scholars. But the difference was in the “extras.” Back then, we didn’t stay at a fancy resort hotel—but rather in simple dorms that were some distance from where the classes were held. How did we get back and forth, you wonder? The solution was our own special “extra”: bicycles provided by the Institute.
I am reasonably sure that I had not ridden a bicycle since I was in elementary school. While the saying is true regarding never forgetting how to ride a bike, you will note that the old adage offers nary a word about how elegantly you will perform in doing so. And so, on one particular ride over to the program with my new friend Roger by my side, a lamppost jumped right out in front of my bicycle. The lamppost won. Roger laughed an impressive laugh that you all know very well. He never tired of telling that story—particularly when he would explain to someone that I was going off to climb some obscure mountain in recent years.
The Publius Fellowship had the desired effect. Roger and I bonded over the love we shared for our country and its founding principles, and we set out to make a difference—to live lives full of meaning and to seek jobs that mattered.
Maybe Schramm and Flannery’s scheme wasn’t so much of a gamble at all. After all, who ever met Roger Beckett who didn’t become his fast friend? Roger had a love of life that was contagious. It was natural, comfortable, and easy to be friends with Roger.
Additionally, Roger is one of only two people I had ever met who laughed louder than I do. The other is Justice Clarence Thomas—so Roger and I relished that we were in good company.
But, to truly understand Roger, you need to know that he got his pilot’s license before he got his driver’s license. I have not yet confirmed it with his beloved mother, but it would not surprise me to learn that Roger also ran before he walked. Roger had places to go, and he was going to get there fast. After all, he was intent on preserving, protecting, and—yes—saving the country he loved, and there wasn’t a moment to lose.
To this personal drive, he added the uncommon practical wisdom of knowing what to do in almost any situation. At a very young age, Roger possessed prudence. Accordingly, when you approached Roger for counsel of any kind, he would help you to see that what seemed to be an impossibly difficult problem really wasn’t so intractable at all.
But it was on those occasions when you approached him with something truly complex or convoluted that he really shined. That’s when he would pause to take it all in, lean back, and say with a grin, “Now, that’s amusing.” And so it was that you knew he was about to put his considerable talent for problem solving to work.
Most people are content with getting to what they consider to be a successful resolution to a tough situation. But, for Roger, that was too easy. It wasn’t a “Roger Beckett” solution until whomever was initially opposed to Roger’s position not only agreed with him, but ultimately offered up the motion that Roger wanted all along, and the unknowing soul did so genuinely convinced that it was his or her own idea. Then you would see Roger smiling quietly in the back of the room, quite pleased that another one of his plans had come together perfectly, just as he had intended.
And, so, more than 20 years ago, Chris Flannery and Peter Schramm’s own strategic plans worked out precisely as they intended, and Roger and I did indeed become the best of friends.
In the ensuing years, there were many adventures—some of which of course we vowed to take to the grave, so I unfortunately can’t share those very best ones with you this evening. But there was the time that I called him to spring upon him the idea that I wanted the Ashbrook Center to send me to Iraq as a war correspondent in the run up to the Battle of Fallujah. I began the conversation with, “Roger, I want you to send me into harm’s way.” Roger’s response before I went any further, “Sure. Happy to. Anything else?”
Or, alternately, the time Roger called me mid-week and stated, “I’m getting married in Vegas this weekend, and I want you to be my best man.” My response was the same as Roger’s had been to me years before, “Sure. Happy to. Anything else?”
As you can see, we were quite the conversationalists. We hung up the phone with each other in both of those life-changing calls in less than five minutes. But don’t let that concision fool you. Although perhaps sparse with words in those two particular cases, Roger was a man of very strong and well-informed opinions.
He had his likes: bourbon, music (preferably jazz), and cigars. I take some credit for that last one. I introduced both Roger and Peter Schramm to smoking cigars, but anyone who knew either Roger or Peter or both, knows that when they adopted something, they did so bigly, and made it their own.
And he also had his loves.
He loved America. His was not a hollow patriotism, but a love of the idea made into a country. His love of America pervaded even into small things. He drank bourbon specifically because it was Americanwhiskey, and regularly chided those of us whose choice of whisky was not.
He loved the Ashbrook Center. He bled Ashbrook. He was a persistent and powerful ambassador of everything for which Ashbrook stands. This advocacy was not undertaken because he had worked with Ashbrook for more than 20 years, but rather because he understood that a country based upon ideas can only be perpetuated by an educated citizenry, and—thus—it was through Ashbrook’s unique role—teaching the teachers—that he relentlessly sought to save, preserve, and protect the America that he so dearly loved.
He loved his friends. What do people do when the chips are down and times are particularly tough? There was never any doubt with Roger. When his old friend and mentor Peter Schramm suffered a life-threatening illness while traveling in Texas some years ago, Roger jumped in—as he always did—with resolve and practical wisdom. Before Peter was safely back in Ohio, Roger had marshaled resources from powerful law firms to the best doctors to federal judges and more who were all at Roger’s disposal to assist on a moment’s notice with whatever Peter would need.
Or, let’s say that in July 2017 you decided to climb the tallest mountain in Russia, in a remote and dangerous part of that country, and happen to have come down with a life-threatening case of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, and that after surviving your horrifying travails on the mountain itself, you got trapped in a filthy Russian hospital that nearly killed you a second time. It could happen to anyone, really. Roger did what Roger always does. He methodically researched. He contacted people from government officials to specialty barometric pulmonologists to Russian speakers to folks with private jets. And he called my wife nearly hourly, for days and days on end, to check in, to see how she was doing, how I was doing, and to offer advice and assistance until I got home safely. Together with my wife, Roger quite literally saved my life. I am not alone. Roger was that kind of friend to so many of you here today too.
But as much as he loved his country, Ashbrook, and his friends, his greatest love was reserved for his wife, Danielle, and his beloved daughters Laura and Sydney. Danielle was his one true love—the love of his life. Although Roger called me his best friend, Daniellewas really his very best friend. And Laura and Sydney were the apples of his eyes.
Roger left us in September at the age of 44. His was an untimely departure, far sooner than he or any of us would have liked, and it is acutely painful to accept his absence.
I miss my friend terribly, but can’t help to think that he already set plans in motion that none of us yet realize. In the days and years to come, I have no doubt that Roger will be looking down from a corner of heaven, smiling like he did so many times before, with the knowledge that his plans are coming together perfectly, just as he had envisioned, and delighted all the more that we think that they were our idea.