John J. Miller’s tribute to Michael Joyce, (“Michael Joyce, RIP,” March/April) brought back images of the smiling, puckish face I used to know so well. I think Michael Joyce first entered my life when I taught at Syracuse University and came down to Manhattan to serve on the board of the Institute for Educational Affairs.
We had in common an upbringing in parochial schools in heavily “ethnic” cities, he in Cleveland, Ohio, myself in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It is not so much that “we talked the same language” as that we had many similar bittersweet memories, never to be forgotten. We saw life from the same angle, mostly looking up from below. We shared a love for the people among whom we grew up, and millions of others like them in other cities, towns, and rural areas. Early, we both picked up like a benevolent virus a thirst for ideas and a reverential respect for their power, especially ideas that are true to human nature. (We recognized full well the alluring but destructive power of bad ideas, too.)
Mike was combative—he really relished a good fight, when the odds were long on the other side. I didn’t know at first, but I learned that he had been a tough little football player, and later a high school football coach of a city team in a tough league. That was another bond between us, our love for football as a liturgy, a baptism by fire, and a test of endurance and grit. On any given day, a team with less brawn but more spirit and will and imagination could win. That was the greatest fun of it, to be the underdog and to pull it out. Best of all, to pull it out at the end. Few joys bear comparison with that.
So I was not surprised when, years later, Mike took on the whole city of Milwaukee, even the state of Wisconsin, to fight the immense power of the teachers’ unions to get a voucher program started for poor kids, so that their parents could afford to send them to superior private schools that had lesser funds but greater spirit and will and imagination. And discipline. And purpose. And much higher rates of success!
That victory was as sweet to Mike as any won on the football field, to the everlasting benefit of (by now) thousands of kids who, before that, hadn’t had much educational chance. Mike had formed an astonishing “ethnic” coalition, against the Big Boys in the Establishment, and his “little people” had won.
Mostly, though, I got to know Mike Joyce, and the wonderful Mary Jo, his attentive wife, when he attended conferences, lectures, or meetings that the Bradley Foundation had funded. He nearly always pulled me aside, cigarette in the hand of his that roped me off from others, to ask what I thought about this or that scheme he was now working on, or person he was about to interview or consider, or crazy idea that just might work if . . . . Mike loved that conspiratorial gesture, that pulling someone aside for a private tête-à-tête, his version of the football huddle.
I think he lay awake at nights scheming, and spent many a long evening reading through magazines and journals in search of new talent, new analyses, new ideas. Sometimes a single really good article will change the way a certain subject may be thought about, for a good long time. A well-aimed book can change the direction of a whole field. Mike specialized in thinking of the people who might write those articles and think through those books—finding them, supporting them, helping to get their ideas out.
The secret here was high quality—originality, thinking against the current, hitting reality straight and true. Mike Joyce had a lot of faith in ideas. What bolstered that faith in ideas was probably this: The God Mike Joyce served was introduced to him this way: “In the beginning was the Word . . . .”
God knows that Mike Joyce was a complicated man, a tormented man in some ways. Beneath that smiling leprechaun face was a fierce hunger—so much to do, so many worries about getting it right. He constantly sought out good counsel, especially that of one of the wisest men in America, Irving Kristol. Michael Joyce was always asking, always seeking, always checking, always restless with victories won and worrying about the next big game.
Football coaches do not often live long. They live too much, too fast, and burn up their candles before the rest of us, but they do indeed throw a lovely light, and live burnished in memory for a very long time.
American Enterprise Institute