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The namesake of a Yale residential college belongs to a radical. An alumnus who not only challenged the contemporary fabric of American society, but also his alma mater. A radical in thought, character, principle and drive.
Few fit the bill better than William F. Buckley, Jr. ‘50. As chairman of the Yale Daily News, he refashioned the paper from a standard college daily to an unparalleled forum for political and social criticism. His frequent editorials — published as often as twice a day — were widely read, grappling with issues from anti-Communism to Yale’s economics department, pieces which often drew the ire of University faculty. All of which is to say that few Yale students craft bits of their legacy at Yale herself: Buckley did just that.
He then went on to refashion an entire intellectual movement. His prominence took on a national audience with the publication of “God and Man at Yale,” just one year after his graduation. He then went on to found the National Review, the most enduring conservative publication since its launch in 1955. Radical, indeed.
Judge his politics how you like, but Buckley’s contribution to the American literary conscious cannot be denied. Indeed, Buckley’s pen knew no bounds: apart from political works — some 6,000 newspaper columns—his writing lined the pages of The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and a bevy of spy novels (one of which won the American Book Award in 1978). Buckley was, first and foremost, a writer, a veritable stylist of the English language. His abilities transcended genre in a way few other twentieth century writers can match.
But perhaps most commendable about Buckley was his radical refusal to stop. (There’s a “Stand athwart” joke lurking here, but I digress.) A refusal to stop learning, to stop writing, to stop fighting — the definitive marks of a Yale education. Christopher Buckley ‘75, in Losing Mum and Pup, describes helping his father, in his last days on earth, finish the manuscript for his fifty-fifth and final book, a biography on Barry Goldwater. “It was as if his mind were a still brightly burning fire deep within the wreckage of his body,” he writes. “I was, for the thousandth time in my life, in awe of him.”
Buckley’s legacy reminds us that, as Yalies, it is our duty to pave the roads we see fit, even if we find ourselves journeying them alone. And once we start, we must not stop.
Peter Robinson, a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, once asked of Buckley: “Bill, you were born wealthy and you’ve been famous for 30 years. Why do you keep working so hard?”
“My father taught me that I owe it to my country,” he replied. “It’s how I pay my debt.”
Yale should feel a similar debt to Buckley.
Elaina Plott is a senior in Silliman College, a Weekend editor on the Managing Board of 2015 and a former chairman of the Tory Party. Contact her at email@example.com.