By Jack Fowler
There were many, hundreds upon hundreds, of emails that catalogued 15 years of friendship and low-grade skullduggery with Gerald Joseph Russello, a.k.a. Jerry. Or was it “Gerry?” Because in all of those years he never once signed off his missives with his nickname. Frequently it was just “GR.” Funny: I never got up the nerve to ask him his preferred spelling.
If only he were still here to ask.
But he is not here. To some, it may be a rote condolence, slight of meaning, but — we hope, and we are even confident declaring, that Jerry is in a better place. Because where Jerry’s soul now resides is a better place. The home of his Savior is now Jerry’s too. The better place is now all the more so.
Better . . . get back to those emails. Dan Sullivan, a good mutual pal, long ago emailed that we should break bread, this hodgepodge of conservative alumni of New York City’s Regis High School (me always the elder of these cheerful gatherings). Great idea! We did. And there was Jerry. From the get go, I enjoyed instant friendship with the New York lawyer and conservative intellectual.
The editor of The University Bookman was very much that. Not that he ever tried to formally (or informally) play the part. He couldn’t have pulled it off if he wanted to: Gerald Russello was of the type where the boy may have left Brooklyn, but not the reverse. Here was a guy of genuine happiness and conviviality, of good will and spirituality and desiring always to be of help.
His intellectualism shone in a deep and intimate knowledge of conservatism. His last piece for National Review, written earlier this year, was a perfect example: a deep dive into a book that was itself a deep dive into the philosophical roots of conservatism. He could take this on as only few could. Jerry knew his Scruton and Burke, his Madison and Kirk. Intimacy with this movement, its figures and its foundations and its trends, the breadth of those writing about conservatism in books and journals — who knew more about such than Jerry?
He was a man of ideas, day-jobbing as a securities lawyer.
The emails: Oh, there were many that conspired about this or that (my favorite, which involved Jeff Nelson, was the project to celebrate the centenary of Russell Kirk in 2018, which included a terrific New York event moderated by Jerry and broadcast by CPSAN). But countless missives emanating from some Russello email address were of the single-word subject-line variety: “Lunch?”
That one word was a promise, and a certainty, of exceptional camaraderie and excellent conversation.
Oh my, there were many lunches. Nothing too fancy for these Outer Borough Boys, who enjoyed hamburgers, soda, on rare occasion a beer, and always laughter and smiling — did anyone ever have a face so ideally constructed for a big, sincere grin as did Jerry? The conversation comprised gossip about the doings in the conservative movement, books he was editing on Christopher Dawson, his own book on Russell Kirk, The University Bookman (which prospered under his steady editor’s hand for a decade and then some), questions about how National Review was positioning itself on this or that, other important books, more about books, mutual friends, presidential races, Holy Mother Church, our parishes, our alma mater and what was becoming of it, our families. The entire enchilada.
Speaking of enchiladas, one lunch stands out: At the Caliente Cab Company, gone but not forgotten, located at the infamous corner of “Toidy Toid and Toid,” in the late summer of 2012, the two of us were having a grand old time over Mexican fare. Alas, it was not as grand as a nearby table occupied by a half-dozen twenty-something ladies. They were dining old school: liquid lunch. The non-stop raucous eventually concluded, and the ladies stumbled off, except for one. Her name, she told us, was “Heather.” Maybe in her solitude Heather wasn’t pleased by our laugh-filled conversation? Maybe the booze heightened her curiosity and intrusiveness? Whatever the motivation, she wobbled over and wanted to know (if there weren’t hiccups, well, there should have been) what Jerry and I were chuckling about.
Honest Injun: We took note of the condition, remained polite, maybe even gentlemanly, although . . . we couldn’t help but snigger. Heather’s blotto-posed inquiries, a bit prosecutorial (and unprovoked) were funny.
Plopping down at our table, she demanded accounts of our employment, explanations of these National Review and The University Bookman thingamajigs, and our own positions on various topics, in particular abortion – something which she very much favored. The cock did not crow — Jerry and I were not looking for a fight (and truth be told, we didn’t get or give one), but we told our boozy new pal what the catechism taught. Heather rendered a rebuke, something feminist yet marinated in margaritas. If it was bait, we didn’t take it.
By then, anyway, the lunch-turned-comedy had stretched into Act Four. Clients beckoned for Jerry, subscribers for me. We bid adieu and sincerely wished our inebriated new friend well.
From then on, when the promise of lunch presented itself, either Jerry or I would tell the other “If we’re lucky, maybe Heather will join us.”
But not for what would prove our last lunch. Well, first, about the penultimate one: Come September, 2020, the initial lockdown lunacies loosening, restaurant parking lots now permitted to allow for dining a la asphalt, Jerry emailed — “Lunch?” So I stole down to New Rochelle, not far from his home, and we found a diner with a tent outside, and spent a couple of hours catching up over the usual fare. Like old times! It was a delight to break bread with my serial lunchmate.
Within six weeks came terrible news: Jerry had cancer. Aggressive, in his brain. Surgery (while conscious!), followed by chemo. He became the offering of many a rosary. The emails went in his direction: “You hanging in?” “Tell me you are doing well!” Sooner or later he summoned strength to answer, never with a whine. Doing ok, or still trying to work, or maybe soon we can get together, etc.
And that happened: Another lunch. In the spring, a bit revitalized, Jerry suggested we mangia near his home, so he could walk there. It was a warm, sunny, May day. I got there early and waited outside, squeezing into a storefront nook to take a call . . . when a guy in a kerchief passed by. It was my amigo (he wore that kerchief pretty well, proven by this C-SPAN appearance from February). I grabbed his arm, cut off the call. We hugged and then found the joint, and filled our bellies. But this was a tough lunch. There was laughter, but I must admit — Jerry made me cry. And he teared up too. Because the battle he had been waging was rough, and it was going to continue to be, and there was simply no winning. The thing he was most concerned about was his wife and children — would they be ok. And — could he squeeze out more time to be with them (understatement: He loved them very much). About his own struggles, he was factual, but without a hint of pity-seeking. He talked of God and the state of his soul and his faith — stronger than ever — the Knights of Columbus, his efforts to continue writing (he did) and the need to carry on with legal work, and then there were his concerns about The University Bookman and the Kirk Center. He still had goals and dreams. And oh yeah: “Hey Jack, how are you doing?” Of this he truly wanted to know, and always did.
Jerry thought he could tough this out for another two or three years, he said as we walked after lunch. Tiring, we ambled towards Casa Russello, which I took as a measure of real friendship, because in his way Jerry was a private person. We would meet again, soon, we assured each other at his front door. I wandered off shaken and thinking — this is one tough hombre, and admitting, if I got a splinter, I would not show the manliness of this dude.
Right before Labor Day I haunted him about his health. Came the reply: “See you in September?” I responded “That sounds like the title of a song. Absolutely.”
It wasn’t to be. Jerry’s last weeks were a matter of chemotherapy and exhaustion — the cancer had spread. In the end it overwhelmed, much sooner than hoped. Having endured his own, he died at Calvary Hospital — a place with a fitting name.
Goodbye Jerry/Gerry. When we have our next lunch, in a better place, you can set me straight on that.
Jack Fowler is the Director of the Center for Civil Society at American Philanthropic and the former publisher of National Review.
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