Dale Vree, R.I.P.
EDITOR OF NEW OXFORD REVIEW FOR 31 YEARS
It is with a heavy heart that I announce the death of Dale Vree, my father and former editor of the New Oxford Review. He passed away peacefully on December 10 in the presence of his wife and children, breathing his last as we prayed the Rosary over him. He had been admitted to hospice a few days earlier and received Anointing of the Sick, the Last Rites, and an Apostolic Pardon — the full remission of sins and satisfaction of all temporal punishments — because he was unable to make a verbal confession. It was a merciful end to a long trial.
Papa retired from the NOR in 2008 due to declining health. It was then that I, his only son, assumed the reins. It has been both a blessing and a burden carrying on my father’s work — a blessing in that I too am a laborer in the vineyard, exercising, as Hilaire Belloc once put it, “the apostolate of the pen,” and a burden knowing that my efforts invariably fall short of the standard set by my father.
Though I had spent the previous eight years as my father’s deputy editor, when the time came for me to take my turn at the “big desk,” I knew I was unequal to the task. A son is expected to exceed his father. But how could I, blessed with no great attributes, match, much less surpass, a man of towering intellect who was a trailblazer in his field? I’ve taken part in no great historical moments. I’ve undergone no profound personal transformation, experienced no miraculous epiphanies. I’ve launched no enduring, influential apostolate. I’ve written no books, appeared on no television shows. I’ve led no group of believers into the Barque of Peter. My father did all this — and more.
The outpouring of sympathy I’ve received from people who knew my father well through his role as editor of the NOR offers an indication of the impact he had. He has been remembered variously as a “good man,” even a “great man,” a “pioneer,” a “visionary” who “fought the good fight,” who made “great contributions to the life of the Church,” and who left a “splendid legacy.”
All these are true. But there’s more to the man than what the public record reveals. My memories of him are more intimate and more complex, for I knew both his private and professional sides. You see, the Vree family home, where I grew up, is, to this day, where the NOR is produced. The Dale Vree I wish to describe existed and expired far from the public eye. He was a man I loved, admired, feared, and imitated. When I was a child, he was my idol. As I matured, he was my mentor. At all times, he was my model of what it is to be a man.
My father loved his work; indeed, he lived to work. He was a classic workaholic, which tends to happen when your home and office are the same space. And like any good father, Papa taught his son innumerable lessons, by instruction and example, many of them a blend of guidelines for life and work. One of the most enduring is to find satisfaction in duty fulfilled. He taught me never to seek after praise or riches — and to be suspicious of those who do. To judge people by their character rather than their credentials — and never to be intimidated by titles or paralyzed by pretense. To hold fast to the truth, honor my vows, and always act on principle — and never count the cost. To exercise self-denial, keep solidarity with the poor, and hide my good works. To mourn with those who mourn, and rejoice with those who rejoice.
Above all, Papa taught me to trust in the providence of God, to seek to know Him and do His will.
And in the end, he taught me how to suffer and die.
Shortly before retiring, my father had been diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia (PPA), a neurological disease that attacks the brain’s language center, degrading its receptive and expressive communication skills and eventually erasing them altogether.
Imagine: Papa worked with language all his adult life: at university, earning a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in political science from Berkeley (a rare triple crown); as the author of two books and countless articles in publications of all types, including a regular column in the National Catholic Register (in its pre-EWTN and pre-Legionary of Christ days); and, finally, as editor of the NOR for 31 years. But now the Lord, whom my father had dedicated his life to serving, was asking of him his most treasured faculty, the one by which he earned his daily bread and made his mark in the world and the Church. There’s no doubting the divine irony.
But that was not all the Lord was asking. Even more was to be required: Over time my father would have to shed his mental acuity, his memories, his personality and sense of self, and his ability to relate to and even recognize the ones he loved. He would be made to suffer all manner of indignities. Eventually, he would sacrifice everything he held dear in this world, up to and including his life.
I was stunned when the neurologist made his diagnosis. I had heard of aphasia, but not this strain, which is idiopathic and irreversible. This couldn’t be! My shock soon gave way to horror at the magnitude of this malignancy. The neurologist informed us that whatever we wanted to call it — PPA, Alzheimer’s, Lewy bodies — the end result would be the same: death, courtesy of a protracted battle with dementia.
With a basic grasp of what he was facing, how would Papa react?
In a word, cheerfully. He never once complained or put on a poor face, never sought anyone’s sympathy. How easy it would have been for him to succumb to despair or wallow in self-pity, to rage against fate or curse God. How easy it would have been for him to lash out against those of us not afflicted, whose concern appears patronizing and whose assistance appears a mockery. Yet my father’s demeanor never changed, even as all we dreaded about this disease came to pass.
What began with aphasia led to asymbolia (loss of the ability to comprehend familiar signs and symbols), spatial disorientation, inexplicable weight fluctuation, periodic incontinence, sporadic syncopal (fainting) episodes, muscular rigidity, difficulty swallowing, and more. Yet through all the miseries and humiliations, Papa’s cheerfulness was constant. He had picked up his cross eagerly, and through it all, he bore it with a quiet courage.
My father had always been a thoughtful man, never frivolous. This remained so even during the dark days of his long decline. One moment in particular captures Papa’s consistency of character. Early in the disease’s progression, when he was still able to speak, he and I took a stroll around the neighborhood. I don’t recall the context of our conversation or what prompted his brief reflection. It likely came in response to some query of mine about how he was getting along. But I’ll never forget what he said that day. He told me, in his now-halting voice, “I don’t ask, ‘Why me?’ I ask, ‘Why not me?’”
You see, what my father was trying to convey was that, despite dedicating his life to serving the Church, he didn’t feel himself privileged in any way. Despite his deep devotion to Christ, he wasn’t blessed by the Lord any more than the next fellow. My father’s unflagging faith didn’t mean he deserved a better lot than this. Who was he to negotiate with the Lord? If this is what God demanded of him, this is what he would give, though the price be steep. Papa had willingly submitted to Christ’s chastening.
It is a tremendous lesson — and a terrible one. I prefer comfort to sacrifice. If I were handed his lot, I would probably rebel against such a heavy levy and surely indulge in woe. But not my father. In this too he set an impressively high standard.
I’ve often marveled at my father’s constancy, through the ups and downs, joys and sorrows of life. He was the emotional rock of our family and our moral lodestar. It was natural for his children to honor and respect him. Yet I’ve puzzled over one thing: Whence came Papa’s abiding sense of joy in suffering?
I found the answer recently while rereading his second book, From Berkeley to East Berlin and Back (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985). In it my father recounts his fascinating and unique journey from the Dutch Reformed religion of his childhood to his embrace of communism as a young adult, and the epiphany he experienced in East Berlin that converted him, heart, mind, and soul, to Christ — a conversion that would eventually lead my father, and others who followed him, into the Catholic Church. This is the Papa whom the public knew. Here is how he concluded this book:
Voluntary self-denial can be a profoundly and mysteriously Christian passage to greater Christian joy for us, but involuntary occasions of adversity can also provide such a passage for us. St. Angela of Foligna, the thirteenth century mystic, is known for having taught that voluntary suffering is not half as spiritually efficacious as suffering imposed by circumstances and cheerfully endured…. It would seem that sometimes God arranges adversity for us so that we might, if we are willing, taste His sweetness all the more….
Thomas à Kempis [author of The Imitation of Christ] wrote: “Jesus has now many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few that are willing to bear His cross…. They that love Jesus for Jesus’ sake and not for any comfort of their own, bless Him no less in tribulation and anguish of heart than in the greatest consolation.”
In spite of our weaknesses, let us not be too afraid to drink of the chalice of Christ’s suffering, so that one day we may be able to say to one another, with James, “Consider it all joy…when you encounter various trials; knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4 NAB).
Yes, let us count it all joy! In doing so, we may find ourselves, at times, flying into the arms of our Lord!
Sure, those are easy words to write — and believe me, they’re even easier to quote. But who has the guts to live them, to carry them out to their bitter end, without compromise? I’ve often wondered whether I could emulate my father in this. But I’m afraid, ashamed, of what my answer would be. Indeed, in my cowardice I’ve begged the Lord to spare me from undergoing this test.
But not my father; he was no coward. One of his oft-repeated phrases, when he could still utter words, was a quote of St. Paul: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). He believed — truly believed — that God’s grace was sufficient for him, that God would provide what he needed to persevere, that God’s power would be perfected in his weakness. That’s how he could remain so cheerful.
We’ll never know what, exactly, Papa experienced as amimia, the loss of nonverbal forms of communication like gestures and facial expressions, took hold. Eventually, this man of words was reduced to wordlessness, a completely noncommunicative state. If he experienced mental anguish, he endured it silently; if he underwent a dark night of the soul, it was also a silent night. It was as if Papa’s mind were locked somewhere inside his body. And then his body began breaking down. Even his physical discomfort became difficult to determine once he could no longer point to painful areas. I prayed that the Lord was communing with him in ways we couldn’t know. I prayed harder the further my father receded.
One of the most comforting of Catholic doctrines is that of Purgatory, the cleansing fire, the final purification after death that removes all human imperfection before one may enter the splendor of Heaven. Perhaps — just perhaps — the Lord permitted Papa to undergo purification during his final decade of life. There’s no doubt that my father underwent a severe trial. Is it not possible to say he was also the recipient of a severe mercy?
As the Catholic priest who administered the Last Rites explained, with this sacrament and the Apostolic Pardon, Papa had returned to a pure state, like a newborn baby who has just received the Sacrament of Baptism. Essentially, the Gates of Heaven opened to him. That’s almost too fantastic to believe. My father was a great man who spent his life working for the Church, yes; but he was no saint. He was a sinner like the rest of us, but a sinner whose greatest desire was to be found worthy to stand in the presence of the Lord, and to hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into your Master’s joy.” It is only through faith in Christ and the sacraments of the Church that such a thing is possible. When the curtain comes down on life, what else matters?
I miss my father tremendously. He’s left a hole in my life that will never be filled. My only hope of being with him again is to follow him on the path he trod, to embrace the Cross as he did and remain resolute in the faith.
Papa, pray for me! I’ve fallen short of you in so many ways. I am slow-witted and foolish. Pray that I comprehend this one needful thing, that I learn the final, terrible lesson you tried to teach me, so that I too may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. And not only me, but all those you’ve left behind who strive to keep His commandments, who long to fly into the arms of our faithful and loving God.
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