[CLASSIC] — Phil Nicolaides made national headlines only once. In 1981, as Ronald Reagan’s deputy director of the Voice of America, heurged the VOA to push pro-American and anti-Soviet propaganda. He used the word “propaganda,” too, because, knowing Latin as hedid, he knew what it meant: things to be propagated. But the wordscandalized the media, and there was a big uproar, and Phil was forced to resign.
Was he bitter? I’ll tell you how hard he took it. During the talk radio debate on whether he should resign, Phil called a local station anonymously, using one of his dozens of fake foreign accents, and vocally disguised as a Russian refugee from Communism, vigorously defended himself in the third person. He and his friends thought it was a howl.
If there was humor in any situation, Phil was the man not only to find it but to magnify it to hilarious dimensions. I can’t really
describe him, but he was, to put it very pedantically, the functional equivalent of Sir John Falstaff. Think of a Falstaff who had gone
straight, studied Aquinas, and retained his sense of humor and imagination,giving a wonderful twinkle to every occasion, and you’ve got at least the faint idea of Phil.
Think of a Falstaff who had gone straight, studied Aquinas, and retained his sense of humor and imagination, giving a wonderful twinkle to every occasion, and you’ve got at least the faint idea of Phil.
Phil shocked us all last week by dying. It wasn’t like him. True,he’d had heart surgery years ago, hadn’t taken care of himself, had resumed his Falstaffian dimensions, and then got cancer and went into surgery Friday. But that hardly seemed sufficient to extinguish such a merry flame as Phil’s.
I went to see him, for what turned out to be the last time, a couple of hours before the operation, with my seven-year-old. Phil was
already groggy from the drugs they’d pumped into him, but even on his back he couldn’t resist clowning for Joey, contorting his athletic eyebrows, crossing his eyes, and sticking his tongue out sideways. A few hours later I got the bad news.
I keep hoping this is just one of his pranks, like the time he collected a debt for a friend by phoning the delinquent in an ominously
raspy voice and, affecting to struggle with big words a la Luca Brasi, mumbled: “A man oughta meet his, whaddya call ‘em, business obligations, know what I’m sayin’?” Next day, debt paid.
“His religion is so private he won’t even impose it on himself.”
describing a pro-abortion politician
Mimicry was one of Phil’s roughly forty talents. At one time he’d been an actor, understudying George C. Scott’s Richard III and occasionally stepping into the part himself. He was a splendid singer, a gifted artist, a pianist, a linguist, a wit, all in all the most charming, entertaining, talented man most of his friends (including me) had ever met.
And even that doesn’t begin to do justice to him. He was a brilliant thinker and teacher. And just a sweet man. He’d been voted
teacher of the year once by the students at Fordham University, where he’d taught philosophy and psychology. He and children warmed to each other right away, and he had a way of explaining things to them vividly, tenderly, amusingly, at their own level, whether they were small children or adolescents.
Gee, he was fun. Every minute. His mind was like an otter, always enjoying its own vast energy and savoring its freedom of
movement, finding humor even in abstract ideas. A typical witticism was his quip about a pro-abortion Catholic politician of loose morals: “His religion is so private he won’t even impose it on himself.”
Phil had courage, too, though he never called attention to it. He broke with other conservatives over the Gulf War and, probably as
a result, lost his current job soon afterward. He was an orthodox Catholic, and a devout one, but he didn’t recognize any political
orthodoxy. That left him largely unemployed. The only conservative who found use for his boundless talents in his last years was Pat Buchanan. The bond between the two men was not total agreement: it was deep mutual respect.
Phil didn’t expect to die of his surgery, but he knew there was a chance. He thanked God for a good life and readied himself. Now
his friends thank God for 64 years of Phil Nicolaides, and how we wish it could have been 65.
Copyright © 2014 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This is an article being considered for a new collection of Sobran columns titled Subtracting Christianity: Essays on American Culture and Society (fgfBooks, 2014). It originally was published by Universal Press Syndicate on June 28, 1994. See more information here.
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