William Safire’s death has just been announced. He died today of cancer.
Recently, Bob Morris and I both wrote blog posts about his terrific compilation of speeches which included his own introductions, “Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History.” A Pulitzer Prize winner (he later served as a member of the board that awards the Pulitzer Prizes), he became the unofficial language expert to a nation, and continued his “On Language” column up until the month of his death.
His last op-ed column for the New York Times was entitled “Never Retire.” Written in January, 2005, Mr. Safire spoke of his work then beginning with the “Dana Foundation.” Here are his last two paragraphs of his last op-ed:
Medical and genetic science will surely stretch our life spans. Neuroscience will just as certainly make possible the mental agility of the aging. Nobody should fail to capitalize on the physical and mental gifts to come.
When you’re through changing, learning, working to stay involved – only then are you through. “Never retire.”
Many years ago, I read many of the books of the Quaker author Elton Trueblood. Dr. Trueblood died in 1994. His first book, which I read in a reprint edition, was The Essence of Spiritual Religion. Dr. Trueblood wrote a new introduction to the reprint edition, and he bemoaned the current generation’s fixation on the “new.” (The book is buried in storage, so this quote is from memory, and certainly not precise). He stated that just because a book is old(er), this does not mean that it has no value. He encouraged readers to look for wisdom in all that we read, new or old(er). At a lunch meeting, I heard Dr. Trueblood speak just as he announced that he was through writing books. He was asked what he would do now that he was retiring. He thundered his reply: “Retire?! I’m not retiring. I’m just through writing books. You can never retire from a commitment.”
William Safire never retired, and encouraged us all to never retire. And his work, early and later, will be treasured and remembered.
(personal note; I did not agree with Mr. Safire on most political issues. But I recognize good writing when I see it).