Michael Novak, longtime friend and patron of Ave Maria University, passed away on Friday, February 17, 2017.
Students at Ave Maria University affectionately knew him as “Ambassador Novak” or even simply, “The Ambassador.” This title acknowledged his pivotal role as U.S. Ambassador to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations in 1981, and again as U.S. Ambassador to the Experts Meeting on Human Contacts of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1986. But perhaps even more, this title was one of deference, one that signified the special role he played within the Ave Maria University community.
Michael Novak was, to the AMU community, an ambassador of many things. It is most natural to point out first his commitment to the life of the mind and the pursuit of truth. Novak proudly claimed the place as the “first trustee” of the University—the first board member invited by Tom Monaghan to join efforts in founding a university dedicated to Our Lady, specifically in the moment of her fiat. Beginning in 2006, Novak donated to the University’s library what would eventually become thousands of books from his private collection. (Generations of students have marveled at the sheer number of volumes they pull from the shelves that are stamped with “From the library of Michael Novak.”) Ambassador Novak was a promoter and supporter of AMU’s academic and Catholic mission from the beginning, at first from a distance, and then in his final years as a resident of Ave Maria and a member of the faculty.
Novak first visited Ave Maria University for an extended period from January-February 2010, when he taught an accelerated course on Religion and the U.S. Founding (just one among dozens of areas to which his expertise and wisdom extended). Afterwards, he wrote for National Review Online of the experience: “It reminded me that my true vocation, next to writing, is teaching young people.” Already approaching eighty, Ambassador Novak moved to Ave Maria in Fall 2010 to teach a course on his work Belief & Unbelief: A Philosophy of Self-Knowledge. From there, his rededication to teaching young people took off with an energy and enthusiasm incredible to behold.
While never flagging in his vocation as a writer (of the over fifty books Novak wrote and co-wrote on philosophy, theology, and culture, at least five of these were finished while he lived in Ave Maria), Novak began teaching and mentoring the students of Ave Maria University. In multiple places, he referred to his AMU students as the “kids.” His kids. And they, in turn, looked on him with affection, almost as grandchildren sitting at the knees of their wise grandfather, the Ambassador, who had lived a life so full that its vitality continued to spill over even as he entered his final years.
Novak was also an ambassador to the faculty of Ave Maria University. He was so enamored of the quality of their scholarship, their dedication to the truth, and the sacrifices they made for their students, that he independently initiated the Laub-Novak Award for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities, named in honor of his wife, the artist Karen Laub-Novak (1937-2009). “The main idea in my heart,” Novak wrote about the initiative, “was that there are many who make great sacrifices for Ave Maria—students, their parents, the administration and the staff. But since you can’t recognize everyone at once, I decided to attend to the faculty. The faculty at Ave Maria have been extraordinarily high in quality, and they spend so many hours with the students. Their praises need to be sung while they are here, so they see how precious their work is. Recognition is, in a way, the most important thing in a person’s life. If you do great work and make sacrifices, and someone notices, it makes all the difference.”
It was with this sort of attention to the inner life of the individual that Ambassador Novak conducted all of his relationships. He took great pains to ensure that the award ceremonies were special occasions, memorable evenings of praise, entertainment and refreshments. In fact, every gathering in which Ambassador Novak played a part was sure to be filled with good food, good wine, and good music. It was a principle of his that one should make life as beautiful as one is able. He understood that the soul thirsts for beauty.
One AMU alumnus wrote in reflection: “I am especially grateful for the advice he gave me after sending him an email thanking him for the Marcel text he had given me to read. I confessed it was a balm during a world-weary period of life. Michael wrote back, ‘What is crucial is to drink in enough beauty to live another day. One practice is to read a little poetry every day, to have great music surrounding your soul… Beauty, beauty, beauty—the soul needs it like water.’ His reply continues to strike me for its charity, wisdom, and honesty—it came from his experience and he simply wanted to share it with another, an attitude I suspect which may shed light on his seemingly effortless practice of friendship.”
As an ambassador of beauty, Novak organized countless opportunities for the students—and the faculty and staff—to be placed in contact with the beautiful. He was a tireless promoter of his wife’s work, and he loaned many of her paintings and prints to be displayed around Ave Maria University’s campus. Similarly, he donated two portraits, one of himself and one of his wife, completed by world-renown artist Igor Babailov. The portraits now hang in the Ave Maria University Canizaro Library. Novak would organize and fund film screenings, poetry recitations, evenings of music appreciation, concerts, stage readings, and exhibits. He was a passionate fan of AMU’s Shakespeare in Performance program, and he would each year boast at the number of shows he made—often two in a single day. More than one AMU student was helped along the path to becoming an artist by Ambassador Novak’s patronage.
In fact, the number of Ave Maria University students, past and present, who owe Michael Novak a debt of gratitude for recommending them for a job, introducing them to a key professional connection, finding them an opportunity, encouraging them in a moment of uncertainty or pushing them to succeed is, without doubt, in the hundreds. Another AMU alumnus wrote in reflection: “It still baffles me how a man of his caliber and life experience cared so deeply about the lives of the young people he knew.”
And the Ambassador’s concern for guiding students to find their calling in life extended far beyond helping them to professional and personal success. He was quite possibly Ave Maria University’s most zealous matchmaker, desiring in the great generosity of his heart to help others find the love that he had found in his “treasure,” Karen. Dozens of young Ave couples were set on their feet by Novak’s magnanimity. He would host intimate dinners in his home for the young men and women on campus, hoping that some spark might light as a result. Many were invited to the pub to celebrate with him on March 19th, the anniversary of his first blind date with Karen. He gave “fireside chats” at the local coffee shop on his ideas on the different categories of love. He even went so far as to “sponsor” dates, offering to tight-budgeted college men the money needed to take a girl out for dinner, thereby encouraging them and teaching the value of dating in a culture so ignorant of true love.
It is easy to say that, above all, Michael Novak was an ambassador of love, especially of the One who is Love. Throughout his long life, he demanded excellence of himself, and he aimed at perfection. He was not satisfied to retire and enjoy himself in old age; rather, he woke up each morning and pushed himself to write an article, to finish yet another book, to call in for a radio interview or travel for a conference or a lecture. Oftentimes, this striving after perfection came out in harsh criticism or strong judgment. He demanded of others the same standards he set for himself. And yet, his criticism and judgment were always qualified with charity, with the recognition of the limitations of life on earth. One AMU student wrote: “He was a kind and critical but always encouraging mentor.” These things seem contradictory, but in fact they are reconciled in the wisdom of God. In his essay, “The Myth of Romantic Love,” Novak wrote: “Christian love is central, bodily, earthy, fatiguing, difficult to find a time for. It is but one means by which God shines the inner love of his own caritas into the inspirited bodies, and enfleshed spirits, of his people.”
We are but sojourners in this world, making our rough way through to the end of the race. We slip and fall, we break a bone, but we continue aiming for the goal. Along the way, God raises up our humble efforts and transforms them into something far beyond our reckoning. This is what Ambassador Novak lived, and in living taught to everyone who knew him.
When the Ambassador turned 80 in September 2013, Ave Maria University had the privilege of organizing and hosting a conference in honor of his life and achievements. Friends, family and colleagues of Michael Novak flew in from around the country to honor this great man. It was an astonishing moment—a pause to look around and take stock of the monumental achievements of a single individual. He came from humble beginnings—born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a descendent of Slovakian immigrants—and went on to achieve success in a vast array of fields: as an author, theologian, philosopher, poet, diplomat, social commentator, benefactor, friend, son, brother, husband, father, and grandfather.
Although he lived a life so full, it was clear in his final years that Michael Novak longed to be reunited with Karen, communing together in the eternal love of God. Many around him wondered what more God could be asking of him, and why he was kept on earth so long after his wife departed. In spite of the pain of separation, Ambassador Novak imitated Our Lady’s fiat and kept the faith to the very end, continuing to do service to the Creator. In this way, he was and is, in the words of St. Paul, an Ambassador for Christ.
After his initial visit to Ave Maria in 2010, Novak wrote: “I have never lived in a more Catholic culture than Ave Maria’s — well, maybe once before, in St. Pius X Seminary during my college years at Stonehill College. … I must report that I have come to love Ave Maria deeply, and feel a very strong pull to live out my final years in such a place.” In Fall 2016, Michael Novak traveled to Washington D.C. for a visiting professorship at the Catholic University of America. When he fell ill during the Spring 2017 semester there, it was with heavy hearts that members of the Ave Maria community faced the fact that we would never see our beloved Ambassador again. And yet, in this moment of sadness, we recall his example and commit ourselves to keeping the faith, to picking ourselves up whenever we stumble and fall, in the knowledge that Heaven awaits, and there we will commune in the joy, beauty and love of God.
By Sarah Blanchard