My wife and I will never forget the night in his living room while he told of trying to “cure” his daughter’s sick pet mouse before she arrived home. His timing and droll asides had us on the edge of our seats. By the time he got to the part about taking “Cynthia” to the vet, who remarked somberly that “Cynthia is a very small patient,” we were literally on the floor.
I met Tom 20 years ago while working as Senior Fellow for Cultural Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation before moving on to the Family Research Council. Tom was working as a Reagan mole in the U.S. Department of Education as a speech writer. He somehow found out that I was taking on some stuff that most people wisely avoid, such as the homosexual activist movement, and sent me a steady stream of research that rebutted every “scientific” claim that activists had gulled many into believing. Tom saw this agenda as the greatest single threat to religious freedom in America, and, sadly, events are proving him right.
At the University of Dallas in the 1970s, where, as an Episcopalian, he was the only Protestant faculty member among Catholics, Tom taught a number of bright students who made a mark, such as Michael Schwartz, who wrote several books, worked closely with the late Paul Weyrich and now serves as Sen. Tom Coburn’s chief of staff, and Media Research Center founder L. Brent Bozell III.
Tom’s wife Mary Beth relates how Tom snookered Brent into a poker game during the university’s charity week:
“Tom was an ace poker player, but Brent didn’t know that. They sat down, and ol’ Brent was really set to take him out. But, after not a horribly long time, the only man left standing was Tom Landess. He had on his poker face the whole time, and only afterwards did he show his ‘Why, who me?’ grin.”
Disgusted by the leftward drift of the Episcopal Church, Tom was a devout Anglican who loved the liturgy and eschewed Christianese, such as using fellowship as a verb. But he was an intellectual force within the Christian Right, with many evangelical and Jewish friends and no prejudices except against pretension and pomposity.
His satirical portraits in Southern Partisan of certain Republicans (especially Virginia Sen. John Warner) who betrayed conservatives while courting their support are deadly, laugh-out-loud funny. His serious works exhibit a remarkable mind animated and tempered by his Christian faith and knowledge of the Scriptures. In 1996, Tom wrote an obituaryin Intercollegiate Review for the great Agrarian movement scholar Andrew Lytle. Tom noted that other Southern writers, such as Robert Penn Warren, had moved north to Ivy League schools and become famous. But as for Lytle:
“[He] would remain close to home and continue to hold a conservative view of society and culture, one that broadened with the years and finally became quintessentially Christian. Once he began to see history in terms of its relationship to eternity, he transcended his Agrarian viewpoint without in the least abandoning it. The South and other traditional pockets of culture became for him the remnants not merely of Western civilization, but of a larger and more inclusive Christendom.”
And that’s a major reason Tom moved his family first out of metropolitan Dallas to a rural South Carolina island, and out of Washington to Columbia, South Carolina. In the Palmetto State, the same modernist winds blow through TVs and ipads, but it still retains Southern grace.
Above all, Tom will be remembered for his devotion to faith and family, his kindness, storytelling, his selfless mentoring of young writers and his anonymous work for Christian and conservative causes, for which he labored often without compensation. He was a loyal friend, mentor and one of the most decent human beings I have ever encountered or ever will.
His last speech, for the Ciceronian Society at the University of Virginia in March 2011, was a serious, yet humorous look at the Agrarian movement and the impact of Lytle’s seminal anthology, I’ll Take My Stand.
Of Lytle, Tom wrote, “Despite his dark view of the modern world … he laughed more than others, enjoyed the company of an ever-widening circle of friends, and mocked time as the shadows grew longer.”
I couldn’t put it better than the master writer, so I’ll let that be the last word, too, about my dear friend – Tom Landess.