By Glen Sproviero
A few years back, I was standing on a packed southbound 1 train in lower Manhattan when I noticed a fellow commuter glancing through the latest edition of The New Criterion. Looking for an icebreaker, I teased that while I had significant respect for that journal, I was “more of a Bookman guy.” Sensing an ally, my fellow commuter cracked a smile and replied, “well, then you must know Gerald Russello.” I should not have been surprised, because everyone in New York seemed to know Gerald — and those who knew him, liked him a lot.
I first met Gerald when I was a sophomore in college and he was a young lawyer at the Securities and Exchange Commission. At the suggestion of a friend, I contacted him because of our mutual interest in Christopher Dawson and asked if he would be interested in having lunch. Gerald was at the vanguard of the Dawson revival in the late 1990s and early 2000s and I was eager to meet this rising scholar.
A few weeks later, in the shadow of the wrecked World Trade Center, we crammed ourselves onto the corner of a flimsy metal table at the front of a busy downtown deli and ordered lunch. I do not recall for exactly how long we sat, but I distinctly remember his hopeful attitude and infectious laugh despite the somber surroundings of post-9/11 New York. By the end of lunch, he provided a few suggested readings and we had become fast friends.
Gerald was a prolific scholar, and the energy and enthusiasm he brought to his scholarship, along with his deep humility, made it look effortless. Everything he did reflected his deep faith, devotion to family, and his never-ending search for beauty and truth.
After meeting him, Gerald’s enthusiasm for Dawson made sense against the backdrop of his personality. Like Dawson, he understood that religion and culture are bound in an eternal union, and that the keys to history lay far beyond the pseudo-religions of modern ideology. In the post-modern world, Gerald did not acquiesce to the seductive temptation of despair; rather, he saw the post-modern imagination as one capable of being shaped by a moral imagination sowed in the fruitful fields of Christian humanism. He believed that ours is an age of hope and opportunity, and he embraced the Catholic notion of a providential history in which God is an ever-present Father to free-willed actors in an unfolding human saga.
But while Dawson was a short-tempered introvert who despised urban centers, Gerald was a rare New Yorker and a rarer conservative. He was thoroughly at home in Brooklyn, utterly patient, and argued that the vibrancy of urban culture could benefit the conservative cause. There was no doubt that, despite the seeming ubiquity of dismal urban decadence, Gerald happily remained “on Brooklyn’s side.” While acknowledging the legitimate basis for Dawson’s pessimism, Gerald was more positive about the prospects for contemporary civilization and confronted the challenges of our world with hopeful optimism.
Over the years, Gerald and I would often meet for lunch or coffee to escape the grind of our busy legal careers. The Starbucks at 54th and 6th and the University Club became favorite places for plotting writing projects or discussing the latest legal headlines. While Gerald’s writing and scholarship are known to many, his contributions to the legal profession were similarly significant.
A former law clerk to the legendary Leonard Garth of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Gerald was a skilled securities lawyer, who became a partner at one of the world’s most eminent firms. Despite the daily bustle of his schedule, he gave his time generously to pro bono matters, particularly in the area of religious freedom.
One particular case comes to mind – American Humanists Association v. Aberdeen-Matawan School District, which we argued together in 2015. Representing the American Legion as intervening defendants, Gerald and I jumped at the opportunity to work with the First Liberty Institute to challenge the American Humanists in their objections to the Pledge of Allegiance under the New Jersey Constitution. It was a chance to advocate for the religiously infused conception of culture championed by Dawson in the context of precedent-setting American law. As we worked on the briefs and prepared for argument, we were like college kids rebelling against our establishment professors.
When we prevailed, and the suit was dismissed, the American Humanists decided against filing an appeal and abandoned several similar lawsuits in other states. It was a knock-out victory. Throughout the suit, as was typical of Gerald, he avoided the limelight and leapt to give credit to the team while claiming no recognition for himself. It was Gerald the generous mentor at his finest.
Gerald’s untimely death leaves a significant void in American scholarship and his absence will be keenly felt at the New York bar. We can only speculate about the books he may have written and the additional lives he could have touched through his effective legal advocacy. Five books and countless articles later, his prodigious pen doubtlessly dripped with ink in anticipation of future projects that will now never be written.
But we can say with confidence that his impact as a scholar, lawyer, and man of letters was substantial. “History has many cunning passages,” and while we cannot now know how his work — or anyone’s — will be received in the future, we can be confident that Gerald will continue to be an important voice in the battle of ideas.
Yet Gerald knew that man cannot live by ideas alone. He was a devoted servant of God, a husband and father who relished going on college tours with his girls and Boy Scout campouts with his son. He glowed whenever he talked about his wife and children.
Gerald was a rarity in that he energetically lived the Christian virtues he championed. With Josef Pieper, he knew that we are most human when we engage in the humane, and he lived the motto instilled in him by his Jesuit teachers: ad maiorem Dei gloriam. He always found the good in others and was the guy you could not help but love. If “victory needs good friends and good art,” he gave us both. We will all miss him tremendously.
Glen Sproviero writes from New Jersey.
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