The famous conservative author, William F. Buckley, Jr., had a legendary biography as best-selling author, magazine publisher, TV personality, and confidant to presidents Nixon and Reagon. I became acquainted with Buckley because of his avocation and skills as a deepwater sailor. His adventures with companions who included ambassadors, Time/Life editors, and other distinguished companions involved several crossings of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and were documented in four exciting books.
I wrote to Buckley as I frequently do to authors whose books I liked. After saying how much I enjoyed his writing, told him of my forthcoming retirement and my plans to do some serious sailing of my own toward shoreless horizons. I also mentioned my difficulty in finding his most recent book, Racing through Paradise.
How pleased I was to receive Buckley’s prompt reply thanking me for my “warm letter” and his comment, “I will count the days until your retirement.” He also offered to help obtain the book I was looking for.
I replied immediately thanking him for his email and telling him of my three sons, especially my son Christopher. Buckley has a son named Christopher who often sailed with him on ocean-crossing endeavors. I also subtlety mentioned how thrilling it would be to receive a book by WFB from WFB.
Two weeks later Racing through Paradise arrived in the mail with a brief note praising my “wonderful family” and saying, “I envy you having three sons.”
Wow, a $35-dollar hard cover book signed by Bill Buckley himself. How could I ever thank him? Then I saw that Buckley was going to be speaking in my hometown at Indiana University two months later. My thank you to him said, “Knowing your love of classical music, I am hoping you might extend your visit on the Bloomington campus so as to take a tour of the IU school of music which is ranked up there with Julliard as the best in the land.” I added that Dr. Charles Webb, Dean of the school of music, has offered to host a luncheon and conduct the tour. I knew Dean Webb personally as organist at our church.
A return letter from Buckley’s secretary said he would be delighted to attend the luncheon and take the tour.
I met Mr. Buckley in front of the IU Memorial Union at 11 AM when he arrived in his limo. I learned he was being paid $20,000 for his one-hour lecture that evening so my time with him took on added significance. I hoped my numerous calls to Buckley’s secretary and IU would result in a smooth luncheon and tour prior to his talk.
My concern about the lunch was that a some point someone would stand up, point a finger at me and ask, “Who the hell is Jim Stark and what is he doing here?” Before Mr. B checked into his Union hotel room to freshen up before lunch, I explained that I was a Bloomington businessman, not part of IU, but a great fan of his writing and had used my acquaintance with people in the school of music to set up the luncheon. Buckley was most appreciative and looked forward to learning more about Indiana University.
The luncheon was held in a small intimate dining room for eight of us. With Buckley at one end of the table and Webb at the other, the Dean went around the table introducing the attendees. There was Madame Virginia Zeani, Distinguished Professor of music who had performed the starring role of La Traviata hundreds of times throughout Europe. Next to her were Dr. George Buelow, Chairman of Musicology at IU, and Mr. Doug Wilson, Vice President of IU. Across the table were Dr. Keith Brown, conductor of IU’s Camerata Orchestra, and Malcomb Webb, son of Dean Webb, coordinator between Indiana state universities. When the Dean got to me he said, “Of course you know Jim Stark who runs a major electronics company in the Midwest. And I added, “And also plays the ukelele, a little.” All laugh.
A pleasant luncheon followed with conversations about the performances IU was staging that year. Then the talk turned to the lack of interest by the common man in opera and the challenge to reverse the trend. How to market opera to the masses was the question put before the table.
I volunteered, “Well, I’ll tell you how to market opera.” Having said that, it suddenly occurred to me, “Stark, what the hell are you talking about? Here you are surrounded by virtual impresarios of the music world and you are going to tell them about opera!”
I fearlessly charged onward, “My wife and I love opera. We go to performances in Louisville and Cincinnati as well as Bloomington. We love the staging, the costumes, and the music. But the thing that enhances our enjoyment tenfold is when the opera is performed in the original language with supertitles. That way seeing the translated words above the stage permitted us to enjoy the theater of the opera.” Not knowing what to expect from those around the table, I was elated when Dr. George, Madame Virginia, and Dr. Keith started applauding.
Apparently, Dean Webb resisted the use of supertitles and allowed students to sing in English instead. Guess what? At the very next opera performance and every performance thereafter, subtitles with translations appeared above the IU opera stage. Thank you Jim Stark.
The luncheon was concluding but before things moved to the touring phase, I interjected with, “Now wait a minute. I ought to be entitled to at least one question about sailing.” To those assembled, I explained, “You may not know it, but Mr. Buckley is an experienced and accomplished sailor. He has crossed the Atlantic and Pacific at least four times and written four wonderful books about those adventures. His last book was subtitled, ‘The End of an Affair.’ My question is, Was it?”
Buckley answered by saying the companions with whom he liked to sail—Ambassador to France, head of Time/Life correspondents, etc—were into other things and the effort to prepare was great and very expensive.” But then added, “Who knows.”
His answer gave me the opening to reveal that another of Buckley’s sailing companions was his son, Christopher. And like his father, Christopher was a best-selling author. In fact, I said, “At one time both father and son had books on the New York Times bestseller list. And that was a first.” And Buckley chimed in saying, “And the only time.”
After the tour, Dean Webb gave Mr. B some brochures of music school activities. One of the pieces was a recital hall schedule for the month showing the performances scheduled for October. At that moment I was able to lean forward and say, “Yes, and you will notice that on October 12th, there is a doctorial recital to be performed by Eric Stark, my son.”
Buckley said, “Oh you must be very proud.” Dean Webb was even more impressed. “Eric Stark! Is he your son? Eric has done several conductings for me at First United Methodist Church. He is very talented.”
Gad, I loved it!
Saying goodbye later in front of the Union, Buckley could not have been more sincere in his appreciation of the effort spent on him. I thanked him again for his letters and the book he had generously given me.
Buckley’s letters had always been signed “Wm F. Buckley”, but the note I received following his Bloomington visit was signed “Bill.”
My friend Bill Buckley died in 2008. His son Christopher wrote a wonderfully touching book titled, “Losing Mum and Pup.” I sent Christopher a letter and he replied, “Thank you for your lovely note about the book. I’m so glad it landed as it did with you. All the best, Chris Buckley.”
It has been 29 years since my day with William F. Buckley, Jr.. Yet, I remember every detail and conversation that day. I don’t know what I expected of Buckley, perhaps being aloof and somewhat haughty in dealing with us Hoosiers. I had driven Bill from the lunch in the Memorial Union to the Musical Arts Center for the tour. Those brief one-on-one moments were special. Bill asked about my business, my sons, and my sailing experiences. He was incredibly thoughtful and appreciative of the day.
What a memorable day it had been.