“Yes, Ken, excellent! I am excited. John”
This was the last email I received from Fr. John O’Malley, SJ, sent last July in reply to a message detailing my plans to interview him for Commonweal. As with all his prose, it was brief, lively, and to the point.
At the age of ninety-five, he warned me, he was no longer able to move about easily, much less travel to Chicago where I had hoped to do the interview live before an audience at the Lumen Christi Institute. All the same, he wanted me to know that our planned interview at the Jesuit retirement home in Baltimore, where he now lived, still excited him.
That’s the word that resonated with me last weekend when I learned that he had died. I can’t pretend to a long and close friendship with Father O’Malley. He was nine years older and traveled a different professional circuit. But I read and much admired his work, as anyone who cares about the craft of history must, and was fortunate to enjoy a relationship with him based as much on coincidence as anything else. As it happened, we were both from Ohio, he from a small town along the Ohio River, and I from a suburb of Cleveland, on Lake Erie. He reminded me of that in a longer email last July: “I assume you are as proud about coming from Ohio as I am,” he wrote. He then quoted something Orville Wright said to someone who asked him how to succeed in life: “First choose good parents. Second, be born in Ohio.”
This was not just Buckeye boosterism. As O’Malley makes clear in The Education of a Historian, his autobiographical last book—published at the age of ninety-four!—he believed that you could not really understand others until you understood where they came from. Roots mattered, and so did all the other breathing pressures of particularity—time, place, happenstance.