Pius Giraldus

Gerald Russello, 1971-2021
Gerald Russello (Screenshot from Youtube.com)

“Gerald Russello.”

“Hi, Jerry, it’s Scott.”

“Scott! Great to hear from you. How is everything?”

That’s how most of our phone conversations began. I was one of the people in Jerry Russello’s life who knew him as Jerry, the guy from Regis High School—not Gerald, the well-respected securities lawyer, the editor of the University Bookman, the writer whose prose graced many and various publications.

I must have been fifteen when I met Jerry. Along with some Regis classmates, I had started a Catholic reading group under the tutelage of the great John L. Connelly, a legendary teacher who formed the lives of countless Regians, from Fr. Robert Imbelli (his classmate there) to novelist Phil Klay. With the kind of braggadocio not uncommon among Regis students, we fancied ourselves Catholic intellectuals, and asked Mr. Connelly if there were any heirs today to the authors we were reading. Who was engaged in writing about and therefore preserving a compelling vision of the Catholic intellectual tradition and Catholic culture? Mr. Connelly told us that we’d get to meet such a person the following week at our regular meeting time—8:00 am on Wednesdays, an hour before classes began—when we gathered to discuss Evelyn Waugh and Etienne Gilson and John Paul II and all the rest.

Twenty-seven years later I still have a vivid memory of Jerry walking through Mr. Connelly’s classroom door in his suit, holding his briefcase, thanking Mr. Connelly for inviting him, and assuring him that he was in no rush—the judge he was clerking for knew he’d be coming in closer to 9:30 than 9:00. (With all he did, was Jerry ever in a rush? Did he ever not have time for you?) I confess that I don’t remember much more about that day, but I know that we asked Jerry how he got started as a writer. His advice was simple: writing and exploring ideas should be exciting. Send something to a magazine and see what happens. You’ll probably get rejected, but you’ll also probably learn something. Do this again and again, reading as much as you can along the way, until you get published.   

That first encounter with Jerry made a lasting impression on me. We all need role models, and that day I found one of mine. But if Jerry had just been someone who dispensed good advice, I don’t think there would have been such an outpouring of grief and so many beautiful tributes after his death. Jerry’s life was much more attractive than that.

On the façade of Regis High School there is an inscription that reads Deo et Patriae Pietas Christiana Erexit: Christian piety built this for God and country. During both of our times at Regis, Jerry and I heard a great deal about our charge to become “men for others,” a goal that Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, set out for all graduates of Jesuit schools. Jerry took those words to heart. He truly lived a life of service to others, in service to God and to his country.

Jerry’s greatest gift to me, though, was the way he embodied pietas Christiana—Christian piety. “Piety,” unfortunately, often calls to mind images of “simple” believers or uncritical religious naiveté. But piety is really an approach to life, a virtue that practices being grateful. It reminds us that we ought to be thankful to God for our country, for our family, for our friends—even for our high school. That gratitude, in turn, shapes our encounters with those around us. True piety doesn’t have time for grudges; instead, like the agape for which it is most grateful, true piety “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). True piety never draws attention to itself, and Jerry certainly never drew attention to himself. Those who knew where to look, however, could see the piety with which he approached education, ideas, family, and God.

Jerry would be quick to tell you that piety was a Roman virtue as much as a Christian one. He learned about piety from the Aeneid and from the Bible. And he was always learning. A few years ago, six or so of us got together for dinner with Mr. Connelly, as we did about once a year. One friend had just completed a doctorate on Spinoza, another had completed a residency in psychiatry, a third was working in consulting. As we went around the table updating each other about our lives, Jerry, typically, asked the most questions. He had a knack for being genuinely curious and genuinely affirming. He was proud of all of us, in the way an older brother looks with pride on his younger brothers’ accomplishments.

He understood that, while laws could help bring order to people’s lives, the goal of life wasn’t order. The goal of life was love.

Jerry supported Regis and other educational endeavors because he believed they were places where students could ask enduring questions and cultivate abiding friendships. This is also what he saw in the Russell Kirk Center, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and the Lumen Christi Institute. His education—after Regis, he received a degree in Classics from Georgetown and graduated from NYU’s law school—taught him what was worth studying, and his piety reminded him he didn’t have all the answers. Jerry deeply believed that ancient Greek and Latin texts could help us encounter the permanent things, but he didn’t love them just because they stood as a bulwark against the latest educational fad; he loved them because of the joy he found in getting together with friends—as we did—to read them.

Most people knew Jerry through his careers as an attorney and as the editor of the University Bookman. I can’t speak to the intricacies of his work as a lawyer (I’m blissfully ignorant of securities law), but I can attest to the way he brought his piety to legal questions. Even in the rarified world of corporate law, Jerry always had an eye on what specific laws meant to people’s lives, and how the practice of law affected lawyers themselves. His legal practice was important, but it was not the most important part of his life. He understood that, while laws could help bring order to people’s lives, the goal of life wasn’t order. The goal of life was love.

The kinds of thinkers Jerry admired displayed the same kind of piety in their writing that he exemplified in his life. Orestes Brownson, Christopher Dawson, Russell Kirk, and Roger Scruton could all be classified as “conservative” thinkers, but Jerry wasn’t interested in their labels. He saw them as writers who took serious questions seriously. They were concerned about what human beings owed each other and how history and culture shape us. Jerry edited a book of Dawson’s writings (Christianity and European Culture) and wrote an excellent book on Russell Kirk (The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk). In those books, Jerry showed that these two thinkers were still vital for understanding contemporary life. He also wrote introductions for reissued texts of Brownson and Dawson. All these writers remained essential because they raised the most important question: How can we be faithful? Or rather, how can we be pious? They didn’t answer this or any other question for you, nor would Jerry presume to do that. But they offered models, pictures of what a life well-lived looked like.

I honestly don’t know how Jerry kept up with editing the University Bookman, published by the Russell Kirk Center. Every week, a new essay would appear reviewing a book about history or politics or culture. Jerry was always actively seeking out new reviewers, and he had a special gift for nurturing young writers. He had a light touch with his editing, and he always made your work better, often in ways that you couldn’t quite foresee. Most importantly, though, working with Jerry was fun. It was clear that he enjoyed editorial work, but more than that he enjoyed the friendships that came with editing the Bookman. Under the @ubookman handle on Twitter, Jerry brought these qualities with him to the usually depressing world of social media. Even there, he managed to show his bonhomie, and he never failed to see the best in others and engage in actual conversations.

Part of what drew Jerry to Russell Kirk, I’m certain, was Kirk’s piety toward place. Jerry had a wonderfully expansive notion of community, and the republic of letters of which Jerry was such an active citizen knew no physical boundaries. Jerry would want to remind us, however, not to forget that we are individuals from particular families who grew up in specific places. Like Jerry, I’m an Italian-American kid from Brooklyn (although my mom’s family is Irish, and we moved to Long Island when I was six). Perhaps Jerry’s most important lesson to me was that our grandparents—their traditions, their love of family, and yes, their piety—possessed a wisdom that our fancy degrees and “connections” could only hope to emulate. Our educations were valuable insofar as they helped us deepen our love for where we came from and for those who raised us. Sure, Washington D.C. or Oxford or Chicago or Wall Street are great. Have you ever visited Mill Basin or Bay Ridge, though? You can read about filial piety when you read about Aeneas carrying Anchises, but you can actually experience it every Sunday over dinner at your grandparents while watching the Mets. These places and these people opened up our worlds. Our task was to share what we learned. I just wish I had more time to learn from Jerry.

I especially wish I had more time to learn about parenting from Jerry. He was always interested to know about my students because he always wanted to learn what sorts of questions his own children might raise. He cared deeply about passing on the faith to them. I loved getting updates on their lives, and Jerry relished his role as a father. In my sadness hearing about his death, I was heartened to know that when he died, he was surrounded by his beloved wife, his children, and his sister.

Each morning at prayer, I recite a litany of family and friends who have died. Jerry, of course, is now part of that somber list. As I say his name, I don’t worry that Jerry needs to be freed from the temporary torments of purgatory. (I’m sure Dante has already Vergiled this son of Mill Basin up that particular mountain.) Instead, in mentioning Jerry I ask God to allow me to practice the piety that Jerry lived because I want to be conformed to the Love that Jerry now encounters. Oremus pro invicem, my friend, that I may see you again.

Scott D. Moringiello is an associate professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University.

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