This Week I Lost Faith. We All Did.

By John Zmirak Published on May 24, 2018

Last week I got the urgent message from a mutual friend: “Faith is gravely ill, and she doesn’t have long. Maybe a week….”

It came as an ugly shock. Just two weeks before, I’d seen a picture on Twitter of Faith Whittlesey looking hale and hearty. A twinkle in her eye (the one she hadn’t lost to cancer) she held up a copy of my 2014 book, The Race to Save Our Century. Alongside her stood my co-author, pro-life filmmaker Jason Jones, and former Trump strategist Steve Bannon.

An Activist for Reagan

It was no surprise to see Faith among movers and shakers. A housewife and mother in Pennsylvania in the 80s, she entered conservative politics to stand up for her values. For her Christian beliefs and the country she loved so truly. Starting small, she soon became a mover and shaker in the GOP. She had the vision to back Ronald Reagan over the tired Gerald Ford in 1976 — and paid the price in party circles. Four years later, she helped deliver the state for Reagan, and went on to serve the President both on his White House staff (as the highest ranking woman there) and also as ambassador to Switzerland.

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She parlayed that appointment into a long-term useful career via the American Swiss Foundation, which she made a crucial bridge between two sister democracies. Faith served on boards of international corporations, always a voice for honest stewardship. She endured the shocking suicide of her husband, and took exquisite care of a beloved son stricken, as a straight-A student at Harvard, with crippling schizophrenia. Faith carried other crosses which she wouldn’t want me to talk about. But she did so with grace and an almost implausible courage.

An Early Conductor on the Trump Train

Faith was one of the first prominent Republicans to endorse Donald Trump in 2016, many months before that seemed sane to me. I know because she asked me to help with an early draft of her essay. It proved prophetic. She said that Mr. Trump had many of the same political virtues as Ronald Reagan. That he could rouse the GOP from its torpid, elitist coma. And she was right, as was her old friend Phyllis Schlafly, who passed in 2016 just after publishing The Conservative Case for Trump.

Faith Changed My Life

The picture, three weeks ago, made me smile. One reason? Without Faith I might never have written a single book, much less the 11 I’ve published. In a very real sense she rescued me, at a turning point in my life. I’d taken a pricey (to me!) apartment in Manhattan to be near a magazine job. The day after I moved in, our whole editorial staff got canned. That was so depressing that I never unpacked my boxes. From a step up in life the apartment had turned into an anchor around my neck. I scraped by, job-hunting and gradually falling apart. One day a mutual friend introduced me to Faith. A few weeks later she invited me into the office of the American Swiss Foundation to talk about a job.

“But you cannot wear purple socks to a job interview. It’s just not done.”

I put on my best clothes (from an Episcopalian thrift store!) and printed a resume at Kinkos. I looked across the desk at this still-lovely, brilliant woman who might be my only hope. (The alternative, moving back to sleep on my dad’s couch at age 34, was too grim to contemplate.) She looked me up and down. And here’s what she said:

“Now John, I’m old enough to be your mother. And so I hope you’ll take this in the right spirit….”

“Okay,” I said.

“But you cannot wear purple socks to a job interview. It’s just not done.”

I muttered, “They’re … maroon.”

She smiled, warmly. “Black. Or midnight blue. Those are the only colors for socks.” She scanned my resume, nodding, then returned to the main theme of the interview. “May I ask … do you smoke? Or drink a lot of coffee?”

I shook my head, really puzzled.

“Really? Because I just must ask you what happened to your teeth?”

I shrugged. “I’m missing enamel on some of the front ones. So they look like they’re always stained.”

She nodded sympathetically. “Of course. I understand. . I had similar problems once…. But it doesn’t look professional.” She reached into her drawer. “Here’s the card for my cosmetic dentist. I want you to go get those taken care of as soon as possible. I will give you freelance work for the Foundation editing books. You’re certainly qualified. You can use that to fix your teeth.”

And the interview was over. In subsequent months, I edited several books for the Foundation. It was fascinating work, and it did help pay the rent and go toward my teeth. Best of all, it helped me get to know Faith as a person. She lit up the room wherever she went with energy and intelligence. But even more with warm concern for whoever might feel awkward, sit silent or unincluded. She always made an effort to reach out to the least in any gathering.Faith_Whittlesey_and_Ronald_Reagan

A Patron, Friend, and Wise Counselor

And on a more concrete level, Faith gave me a grant to write my first book, on the anti-Nazi hero and free market economist Wilhelm Röpke. The book was well-received, and it led to a job with its publisher Intercollegiate Studies Institute. That led to my next job teaching, and so on …. But without Faith’s crucial help I might never have found my career. I will always be grateful for that.

Even more, I’m thankful to God for a loving, maternal friend (my mother passed of cancer in 1996). Whenever I had a problem, she was eager to hear about it. She was ready with wise advice and sober warnings. (“John, when you’re around the Swiss, don’t talk about the substance of politics. Any politics. They will think you are an extremist.”) In return, I offered writing and editing help whenever she needed it. And I could always make her laugh.

A God-Daughter, Too

John Zurich optimized

With Faith in Zurich in 2000, as she worries what I will say next.

When she decided to become a Catholic, she asked me to be her godfather. That was in recognition of the books by Cardinal Ratzinger I’d kept pressing on her, I guess. I piled in with her, her godmother Alexandra Preate (also half her age) and another friend for a taxi to Staten Island. That was the closest “sound, conservative priest” whom she approved of. I sat up front with the driver, who seemed to be from a country that hadn’t developed the wheel, much less motorized vehicles. While Faith and her two friends talked on the phone—trying to help some pro-life candidate win in Pennsylvania—I tried to navigate. The driver took us into oncoming traffic, onto the sidewalk, and I swore that he was going to drive us all off the Verranzano Bridge. I clutched the dashboard, terrified, for forty minutes. But Faith stayed calm. She knew she was going home.

And now she is home. Faith died on Monday at age 79, of a suddenly resurgent liver cancer she’d battled quietly for many years. I thank God that I was able to go see her last week. To meet the crowd of people who flew in from all across the country, and some from Switzerland, to thank her for her kindnesses. To make her laugh one last time, with that story about the socks.

The Pains of Childbirth

What I’ll never forget, though… the half hour or so I spent alone with her. Drifting in and out of consciousness from the pain meds, she groaned deeply and tossed around. I was sorry to see her suffering, of course. But more than anything else I thought: “This is like someone giving birth.” And indeed it was. As “the whole creation groans with the pains of childbirth” (Rom. 8: 22-24), her failing mortal coil seemed to be birthing her into the next life, where suffering finally ceases and kind, just souls like Faith hear from their master the only words that finally matter: “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  (Matt. 25: 34)

As one of countless people who were blessed by her wisdom and goodness, I give thanks for the gift of Faith. But I will miss her. She leaves a great hole in my world.

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