A Father’s Lessons: On Michael Novak on His 80th Birthday

by Jana Novak

Michael Novak turns 80 today, September 9. During his eight decades, he has contributed immeasureably to our society and to our political discourse. His latest book is his political memoir, Writing from Left to Right, which was released on September 3. This past Saturday, he celebrated surrounded by family and friends.

My father has taught me many things over the years. Lessons that have stuck with me despite the time that has passed and the geographic distance between us now. Indeed, one of those lessons is from decades ago — and is perhaps most appropriate for this evening  as one of the things my father taught me was that, as a child, one should be seen and not heard. You all know the classic saying I am sure.

Apparently, I took this to heart — not surprisingly. I am my father’s daughter after all. For there is a story of one dinner party my parents hosted, where I came downstairs repeatedly, each time in a different outfit. I then proceeded to — silently, of course — twirl about, show my clothes off, and — still completely silently — acknowledge my audience before disappearing upstairs again.

Twirl, acknowledge, repeat. Letter of the law though: I was seen and not heard . . . and even my father, taskmaster and disciplinarian that he was, had to admit as much. Much to his chagrin!

Well, tonight no costume changes are necessary, as I will be heard, as well as seen, though my father might wish the opposite were still true as, in celebration of my his 80 years on this earth, I will share with all of you a few of the many things my father has taught me, such as. . . .

That God made Notre Dame “number one”, and also, seemingly contradictory yet still accurate, that God may not care who wins or loses, but His Mother sure does. That questioning and curiosity are virtues — unless I’m questioning him too much. That there is a positive to having determination, and even hard-headedness, but that it’s a fine line that is not always best crossed. And that it is a “Novak trait” to cross that line. That criticism — <ahem> scholarly feedback is I think how he’d prefer it to be noted — is an integral part to growth and development, except when the tables are turned. (After all, I’m sure most of you have heard his lament about our first book together, and that my “scholarly feedback” was instead the “heartbreaking loss” of page after page of “the most beautiful prose ever.”) That sports are our religion, our sustenance, and our glory – Alabama’s victory notwithstanding. That humor should be practiced regularly and implemented frequently; a day lacking laughter is a day lacking value. That high standards, ethics, and honor are what make us who we are; without them, we are nothing. (Of course, he plagiarized this from his father, but who’s counting?) That charm will actually get you everywhere, as will feigning helplessness. That passion — for work, for others — is the key to a life well-lived and well-loved.

When I look at my father, I see a man who has taught me so much. A scholar who emphasized questioning, challenging, learning. A professor who emphasized constant education. A sportsman who emphasized the pursuit of happiness in playing or watching athletic endeavors. A zealot who emphasized that God — or at least His Mother — made Notre Dame the best. A believer who emphasized faith, even when his team got rolled. A witty man who emphasized being quick with a joke and even quicker with a laugh. An honorable man who emphasized that doing right is not a matter of who is watching. An ethical man who emphasized painting the underside of the stool despite the fact no one sees it. A gentle man who emphasized kindness and compassion. A tough man who emphasized never backing down from a fight, nor from high standards. An intense man who emphasized dedication to one’s work, one’s passion, one’s love. A loving man who emphasized the many terms for love in Latin, and strove to achieve them all regularly. A charming man who could woo a critic, a stewardess, and an audience equally. A talented man who could compete against the best of them. A generous man who never failed to share the spotlight.

As one of the many recipients of that spotlight here tonight, I should highlight this simple fact: The public Michael Novak is the same as the private Michael Novak — and all of us are blessed that this is true. As it means all of us can and should learn from him and his example.

So . . . thank you, dad, for being such an incredible role model and inspiration — to me and to so many people. Thank you — and Happy Birthday!

— Jana Novak is a freelance writer, who co-authored two books with her father, Michael Novak.