Last night I was awoken at 1am by text messages from my sister in the US, instructing me to get in touch with her immediately. Sensing her urgency, I told her to FaceTime me and accepted the call in the dark, to see my mother and sister sitting on the couch in front of me. They had bad news: last night Gene, my mothers boyfriend for the past 10+ years and a person I’ve been close to for nearly that long, died in his sleep.
My parents divorced when I was six years old, before I was able to grasp what marriage really meant. After their separation, my mother put every ounce of her energy into raising me and my teenaged sister. She had a handful of suitors over the years, but none really captured her heart until Gene, who was a highly intellectual investor, political conservative, and towering giant at 6’8″ tall. I looked up to him literally and figuratively.
Gene was well-informed and confident. Ever seen a very confident, hyper intelligent, and outspoken 70 year old who’s 6’8″? I’ve seen many surreal sights but Gene ranks among the most memorable. The walls at his house on Queen Street in Old Town Alexandria were completely lined with books, more than I’d ever seen outside of a library. His appetite for knowledge was voracious and after educating himself, he’d make impassioned and convincing arguments that he was right. Right about politics, right about human nature, right about government. Eyes would often roll when Gene would go into long winded rants, often citing 19th century literature or obscure battles in military history that would never fail to disarm anyone who disagreed with him.
Gene had two children who didn’t follow in his footsteps, and that disappointed him. He longed for a family which he could be proud of, and for a decade he instilled his virtues into me and patiently explained complex issues with great care. In my father’s absence, Gene dedicated himself to educating me, and in the absence of Gene’s sons, I was his disciple, grateful to learn from him. We’d exchange emails debating and agreeing on world politics, behavioral genetics, and human nature. Sometimes I’d be up late or thinking for hours about how to carefully construct a rebuttal to Gene that could withstand his incredible scrutiny. It felt like how school should have been: hours spent assembling an impassioned argument that I believed in, to be presented to someone with more knowledge, experience, and passion than I. In each instance, he taught me something.
I’ve read at least a dozen books that Gene either suggested or outright gave to me, including books I’d definitely have never read on my own, like Pat Buchanan’s Death of the West. After reading that and other books, I’d share my thoughts with Gene and he’d sharply correct me where he saw that I was mistaken. Years later, I’d have a bookshelf filled with books that would arouse the suspicion of my houseguests. (Like Kensho and Tenzin, who when seeing Pat Buchanan on my bookshelf jokingly accused me of voting for George W. Bush. To most people, reading the literature of your ideological opposition skirts the boundary of betrayal.) I regularly acquired and read books with the specific intention of discussing them with Gene. I finished reading the most recent one, John Lott’s More Guns Less Crime, last week and purchased the most recent one just two days ago, The Conscience of a Conservative, authored by Barry Goldwater in 1964. Through Gene I developed the skill of confronting ideas and people that you disagree with for the sake of personal growth and the acquisition of knowledge. None of these are books that I would be reading if not for Gene’s influence.
Although I feel terrible about losing a close friend and mentor, I don’t think it’s really hit me yet. I’m glad that I was able to see Gene last summer and give him a hug, and that my mother cooked his last meal. Gene is gone but the ideals that he stood for — of courage and the relentless pursuit of knowledge — will live on through me. I will never be afraid of subjecting the ideas which I hold most closely to the scrutiny of those most capable of revealing their weaknesses.
Thank you Gene.