Feb. 26, CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – At the foot of Lookout Mountain, we buried Sam Francis today.
A shy, private man, Sam would have been embarrassed by how many would travel here to pay final respects. His Tennessee family told friends who came from all over the country that they had not really known how admired and beloved Sam was.
When God created him, He endowed Sam with a great gift – one of the finest minds of his generation. Sam did not waste it. As a student, he was a prodigy. By high school, he was winning citywide competitions in poetry and essay-writing. From Chattanooga, Sam went on to Johns Hopkins and, from there, to earn a Ph.D. in English history at the University of North Carolina.
Sam then came north to work for the Heritage Foundation, where he became an expert on international terror. He left to join Sen. John East, whose election had folks chortling that Jesse Helms was now “the liberal senator from North Carolina.” Then, Sam took up his real vocation, journalism, joining the Washington Times, where he was soon winning national prizes for the quality of his editorials.
Sam became a rising star in the conservative firmament and began to write a national column. And that’s when Sam got into trouble. For the founding fathers of the conservative movement had passed on, their estate had gone to probate, and squatters and hustlers had swindled the Old Right out of its inheritance. Soon, others began to redefine conservatism, to impose limits on debate, to censor as heretics those who would not mouth the new party line.
In 1994, Sam merrily ridiculed Baptist churchmen who had issued an apology for slavery. As the preachers had never owned slaves and there was no Bible command against slavery, Sam asked, what exactly were the preachers apologizing for?
Cautioned to watch his step, he did not. For Sam cared about his convictions more than his popularity. As Minister Michael Milton of First Presbyterian eulogized at his gravesite, Sam was one with Flannery O’Connor in believing that “truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
Among the events that altered Sam’s life was the savaging of his friend and mentor, Mel Bradford, whom Ronald Reagan had chosen to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities. Neoconservatives had coveted the post and the honors a chairman could bestow. So a small cabal painted Bradford, a well-known scholar-critic of Lincoln, as a racist. “If they want it that bad,” Mel told a friend, “let them have it.”
Seeing how wounded Bradford had been, Sam was always there when one of his own was caught out in the open. Like his forebears in the Army of the Confederacy, Sam rode to the sound of the guns.
A proud “paleo,” he mocked the neo-orthodoxy that the South was always wrong, Wilson and FDR had been right, and Dr. King was a paragon of virtue and patriotism. He delighted in mocking the tin gods of the New and Revised Conservative Bible.
What he cherished was the civilization and culture that had nurtured him. He loved Southern and American literature, history and heroes, and few men of his time were so widely read. Sam was convinced Western culture and civilization could not survive the dispossession or death of the European peoples who gave them birth. He opposed the mass immigration of non-Western peoples, cultures and creeds, and regarded as the “Stupid Party” a GOP that truckled to corporate contributors and refused to defend our borders.
A decade ago, Sam said as much at a conference and was gone from the paper. He never fully understood what he had done wrong. Said Milton: “Dr. Francis’ defense of the truth led many to admire him, befriend him and, at times, withdraw from him. The work of a prophet is a lonely calling.”
With his intelligence, vast knowledge and droll wit, Sam was the most entertaining of dinner companions. His barbs and anecdotes about friends and adversaries had those at his table laughing so loud that other patrons in the restaurant wondered what was going on.
His death was a difficult one. Sam awoke at home on a Saturday late in January feeling terrible. No ambulance would come. So, he drove himself to the nearest hospital, where he underwent seven hours of surgery for an aortic aneurysm. Heavily sedated for weeks, as doctors feared he could not survive movement, Sam’s heart gave out when they tried to help him sit up in a chair.
I only spoke to Sam for minutes in those final days of his life. And my words here are too long delayed. But Sam’s passing left a hole in our hearts as it will in our lives. It is difficult to bear the thought I will not again see Sam’s big grin, as he sat down to dinner, spread a napkin over his ample lap and proceeded to divest himself of the latest witticisms he had invented.
May the Lord have mercy on my brave and generous friend.