National Review has lost a lot of good friends and contributors — the words are largely coterminous — to the Grim Reaper in the last few years, but the death of Mike Potemra is especially painful because it was both unexpected and sudden. He was only 53 years old, and he always struck me as one of those people who, without being excessively healthy or athletic, look and sound as though they will soldier on amiably for several more decades. Also, the suddenness of his death meant that his friends didn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye to him. I know that I was very glad to have been able to visit Linda Bridges in hospital (where, by the way, she was both aware of her impending demise and uncommonly unfazed by it). Linda had been NR’s institutional memory bank, and we swapped stories about the great figures of the magazine’s earlier days until she began to tire. My last words with Mike were probably over the telephone about which paragraph to cut from an over-long article in the magazine.
You might suppose that such a conversation wouldn’t be very entertaining, but when Mike was doing the editing, it was likely to flower into something both learned and extravagant. He was an excellent sub-editor (Brit English) or line editor (American English.) He rarely cut something without improving it, and he always asked for the writer’s opinion on his improvements. In my case the conversation often became an extended one, either about the topic of the article or about some quirk of the English language that we disagreed about. I always enjoyed these chats — and that’s not universally true of discussions between authors and editors.
What may have made the experience easier was that Mike was a nocturnal animal, starting work when others were going home. But I shared his late hours when I was in the U.S. and found them convenient when I was filing from abroad. Taking account both of his nocturnal hours and occasional departures from conservative orthodoxy on religious and political questions, I would sometimes accuse Mike of being a mole — and emerging from his cubby-hole office where he hid behind piles of review copies, blinking and smiling, he did slightly resemble the friendly and trusted Mole of The Wind in the Willows.
Rich in his fine obituary mentioned that Mike, though apparently a confirmed bachelor, always seemed to be accompanied on social occasions by a succession of slim blondes. Though I never saw Mike with a slim blonde, I can believe it. He fit perfectly the description given by a girlfriend of mine (about, as it happens, another National Review contributor): “He’s like a lovely old teddy-bear left out in the rain overnight.”
When not squiring slim blondes, Mike spent a lot of his life seeking God in secondhand bookstores. I like to think he has already heard the words: “Well done.”