The Man Who Saw and Tasted the Abundance of Life: Mitchell Kalpakgian: In Memoriam

Last Tuesday, I was in the White Mountains with the new students of Thomas More College ascending Mt. Washington. Thwarted by gale force winds at the summit, the group was denied its initial goal, turned aside from the main route, and followed an unknown path towards Boott’s Spur—ground I knew, but had trouble finding due to a washed-out bridge and poorly blazed trails. Boott’s Spur is named after the adventurous American botanist and physician, Francis Boott, who hiked Mt. Washington to study the alpine vegetation—and for the sheer exhilaration of the climb. I have hiked to Boott’s Spur for over a decade and find it an uplifting hike, at least uplifting after negotiating an agonizing ascent by way of humid woodland, great steps of rock, silent paths of stricken spruce and fir, and a final eerie maze of Krummholtz which marks the passage into the alpine and tundra conditions above 5,000 feet. As a physician in London, Boott overturned the convention of keeping fever victims confined in rooms closed to the outside air. I think Boott may have learned something firsthand on his White Mountain hikes about the way fresh and bracing wind revives a worn soul.

My role on these hikes is not to force the group ahead, but with middle-age stride to linger and lumber behind, watching out for stragglers and the weary, and to bring up the rear. On that day, the majority of the students had long outstripped me and were lunching on the leeside of the peak, when I came through the tenacious blueberry bushes and late-blooming alpine flowers near Split Rock, hoping to sit down and rest in conversation. At that moment, I received news that Mitch Kalpakgian had died.

Mitchell Kalpakgian

Since the founding of the Civilized Reader six years ago, Dr. Kalpakgian (b. 1941) was our most steadfast and prolific writer. Without significant recompense, Mitch provided a review nearly every month—some 64 reviews since 2012, with a few that will be published posthumously. These reviews were a window upon a fascinating and moral imagination, a man constantly reading and re-reading and drinking deeply from the best springs of Western civilization. Like much of his writing, especially his late books on the arts of civilization, virtue, and children’s literature, these reviews were radiant and nourishing. Dr. Kalpakgian never presented literature as distant, never introduced texts with the ambivalent or ambiguous tone of a university Brahmin. Literature was the bread and wine and salt of life. In his reviews—and the courtly notes he would embed in his emails—he spoke always of the savor and sweetness that came from good reading.

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I heard of Mitch Kalpakgian long before I met him. He was in word and in person a consummate man of letters. When I was a young teacher, a good friend, then Dean of Student Life where I taught, spoke of Mitch as he was and ever remained: one of the wisest and most widely-read of any professor a student could imagine. A Nestor, long in story-telling, short in suffering true fools—those who scorn the noble path that comes from reading and writing with humility—but a Gandalf, infinitely patient and generous with those who saw the twinkle in his eye and trusted that he could lead them out of their ignorance to beautiful and noble places.

When I met Kalpakgian years later we became fast friends. He was of Armenian descent—a New Englander by the accident of birth, but in his heart and blood and memory Armenian. His family had fled the genocide executed by the Turks and abetted by the Allied powers between 1914 and 1923. I had written an M.Phil. years ago on the Romano-Armenian frontier and the Byzantine border wars of late antiquity. I had travelled throughout Turkish-occupied Armenia, and so knew some of the sites and many of the tragic episodes in the history of that noble nation. Dr. Kalpakgian and I both loved literature, but there was a further bond because I appreciated the suffering and fidelity of the Armenian people. And I loved their hospitality and magical powers of narration. Like other Armenian friends, Mitch could wax poetically about cucumbers or the joy seeing one’s children rummaging through a garden, the fragrance of lamb and rosemary, or the golden pleasure of apricots. These were all real joys: Mitch was a devoted husband, speaking reverently and movingly about his wife each time I met him. From their happy marriage, they had five children and 17 grandchildren. I think there were few things Mitch enjoyed more than being a father and grandfather. Like many in his circle, Mitch’s intimacy and kindness made me feel as though I were part of his vast family. I referred to him and think of him still as “our Armenian grandfather”—ever filled with sage remarks and tales; somehow finding the perfect balance between solemnity and mirth. This week I found expression for his loss in the “Day Turned Dark,” a little known work by an Armenian poet, Hamo Sahyan:

It is dark. It is time for
The evening meal.
My melancholy gradually
Evolves into crying.
They descended contemplating, bowing
On the corner of the haystack,
One heaven made of milk dough and
One half-moon…
One was abashed by the other,
Subdued and orderly.
My family was sitting
In order from young to old.
They were sitting and waiting
Until grandpa arrived,
Until in the garden
The bell on our ox Tsaghik jingled.
Grandpa entered and with panache
Assumed his place at the head of the table
And the house swelled
With the scent and whisper of the field.
And when my grandma
Took her old ladle in her hand,
The spoons instinctively
Became raucous.
The warm steam from
The yogurt porridge
Ascended toward the beam,
And the column from top to bottom
Transformed into rolling beads.
They were relishing
Lavash and dill,
One working dynasty,
Plain and naïve…
Now from that dynasty
No one is left…
I remain simply as a memory
And as a witness.
It is dark. It is time for
The evening meal.
My melancholy gradually
Evolves into crying.

Mitch’s Armenian heritage was concrete and real. When he spoke of his family, he conjured a sensuous atmosphere of song, and sight, and aroma like few I have encountered. Yet he loved New England deeply (as well the Midwest) and the vast network of former students, friends, and family that he had in many places. He was a graduate of Bowdoin College (Hawthorne’s and Longfellow’s alma mater) and pursued graduate studies at the Universities of Kansas and Iowa. He was a student and friend of John Senior, one of the finest representatives of the Integrated Humanities Program. After decades of teaching in the Midwest, he became a beloved guide to literature and composition at several noteworthy colleges and schools: Christendom College, Seton Home Study, Magdalen College (Northeast Catholic), Mount Royal Academy, and Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. This past Spring, his duties had lightened and he wrote asking me if it would be possible to return in the Autumn of 2019. I looked forward to resuming our discussions of Frost, Shakespeare, and children’s literature and seeking his counsel on some writing projects. These discussions will need to be delayed.

His books are all precious, wise, right, and all carrying, for those of us who knew Mitch Kalpakgian, titles so reminiscent of the man himself and his wonderful way of seeing the richness of things: Manners in Modern Life—The Poetry of Conduct: The Virtue of Civility; The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature; The Lost Arts of Civilization: How to Taste and See the Abundance of Life; The Virtues We Need; and The Virtues that Build Us Up. He wrote as well a scholarly study of “the marvelous” in the works of Fielding and a more personal reflection on his Armenian heritage—one which he was in the process of revising and expanding.

Dr. Kalpakgian’s teaching is fondly remembered throughout the United States, and many current teachers owe to him not only their introduction of books and authors, but something far greater: the ability to accept the joy and goodness that come from reading rich works. To think still of works and authors as rich and good and ennobling! To speak of reading Chaucer or Pyle or Herbert or Walton in the same way one would describe the beautiful dance of a woman or the warmth of a Burgundy or the pungency of garlic. To remember to oneself that teaching is a high privilege. This was an integrated and happy man! It is strange to think that there was a time, not too long ago, when a virtuous man like Mitchell Kalpakgian could openly practice and write about his faith (in Christ and in the classical virtues of the West) and without any sense of tokenism he could receive recognitions—as he did—from the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Mellon Foundation. Dr. Kalpakgian made us better. Those who benefitted from his words, his kindness, his teaching—and that paternal guidance, which flowered in so many forms and places, we owe it to him to remember and live and pass on a thirst for what he had tasted and described.

Recently, the Armenian poet and theologian St. Gregory of Narek was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. I end by remembering and praying for my friend and co-conspirator with the poem placed at the end of St. Gregory’s Book of Lamentations, written over a thousand years ago:

May you who grant life to all be compassionate now.
Let your light dawn, your salvation be swift,
your help come in time, and the hour of your
arrival be at hand.
May the dew of your mercy quench the parched field
where my bones have fallen into the pit of death.
Prepare the earth for the day of light
and let the soil bloom and bring forth fruit,
heavenly cup of life-giving blood,
ever sacrificed, never running dry
all for the salvation and life of the souls in eternal rest.
And though my body die in sin,
with your grace and compassion,
may I be strengthened in you, cleansed of sin
through you, and renewed by you with life everlasting,
and at the resurrection of the righteous
be deemed worthy of your Father’s blessing.
To him together with you, all glory,
and with the Holy Spirit, praise and resounding thanks,
now, always and forever,

Editor’s note: The lead image is a detail from “Still Life with Books” painted by Brabant (François Foisse) in 1741.


  • William Edmund Fahey

    Dr. Fahey is president and fellow of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hamphsire.

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