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The world is the poorer for his passing.
Don Casper, public official, was an effective terminator against an expensive Arnold Schwarzenegger scheme. Don Casper, student journalist, thrived when being burned in effigy. But Don Casper, marathon runner, couldn’t survive a cowardly, hit-and-run driver. The world is the poorer for his passing.
The California papers (linked above) tell the story of how Casper, as an active Republican and member of the San Francisco Civil Service Commission, blocked one of the Governator’s hare-brained schemes, and of how he was killed this week while on a Sunday evening run. Clearly, he was a man admired for integrity, decency, and wisdom.
But it was his controversial tenure as editor-in-chief of The Hoya newspaper at Georgetown University that made him a legendary figure on campus and led me, 16 years his junior, to find out what a unique and upstanding gentleman he was.
As a senior at Georgetown during the 1985-86 school year, as an Episcopalian at a Catholic college, I decided to do a large feature story for the Hoya analyzing the role — not political, but cultural, spiritual and educational — that the declining number of Jesuits played on campus. I interviewed more people — student leaders, ordinary random students, non-Jesuit faculty, various Jesuits, university President Timothy Healy — than I ever had interviewed for a single story before. Somewhere along the line I was made aware that Casper, class of 1970, had done a similar story — or, rather, a sprawling series of stories — back during his years at the Hoya.
I forget exactly what the exact sequence of events was, but when my story was published, I received a phone call, from San Francisco, from Casper, whom I had never met. Almost gushing, he praised my story to high heaven and said it was far better than his own had been. It really wasn’t better than his, of course, but his kindness, his thoughtfulness, in tracking me down and complimenting me meant a great deal. The encouragement he gave was incalculably important to me. And, as the years went by, we occasionally crossed paths, just a few times, and he always treated me like a long-lost friend. A gentleman through and through, a warm-hearted and generous human being, Don Casper was a living emblem of the Jesuit tradition of “contemplation in action.”
His gentlemanliness was why it was so ironic that, as a student leader whose tenure overlapped that of Bill Clinton’s (he was no fan of the self-important Arkansan), he had stirred such passions. One reason Casper’s kind words to me meant so much was that, before I ever heard from him, I already had heard plenty about him, even all those years after he had left The Hilltop.
Casper, you see, was a traditionalist, and a patriot. He had no patience with student radicalism. And he thought it was foolish for a weekly student paper to cover national politics rather than just cover campus goings-on. The student left agitated for the Hoya to become a mouthpiece for the student protest movement, to write about national affairs, to be a crusading instrument for change. But Casper would have none of it, not while he was editor-in-chief. Casper insisted that the paper cover the campus extremely well, but only the campus, only the things that the student journalists were competent to cover.
For his intransigence, he literally was burned in effigy one evening. Leftists arranged a pile of Hoyas into a body-like shape, labeled it “Don Casper,” and set it ablaze. As I was told the story, Casper just laughed. He may have been unfailingly polite, but he didn’t scare easily.
Yet that wasn’t the incident that led to his greatest fame. I may have some of the details a little askew, because I tell this from a 25-year-old memory of what my research into the Hoya’s files (and Casper’s later recounting of the story) uncovered, but the basics are incontrovertible. Casper’s father was San Francisco’s fire chief, so he knew the city’s political players. In 1969, new Mayor Joseph Alioto was a Democrat, but a reasonably conservative one who, like the Republican Casper, supported the Vietnam War. A nationally known and controversial figure, he was a perfect choice — Casper thought — to be a speaker at a college campus. So Casper invited him.
The Alioto speech drew lots of attention, so much so that even a dozen congressmen were in attendance. It also, by happenstance, coincided with a big Washington meeting of the leftist Students for a Democratic Society, who naturally decided that the Alioto event provided a perfect opportunity to make a statement. As Casper was introducing Alioto, SDS members rushed the stage, somebody yelled the then-truly-shocking word “Motherf——-!,” and as a brawl broke out somebody was pushed into the light switch, throwing the entirety of ornate Gaston Hall into darkness.
Casper, knowing of a back entrance from the stage, coolly grabbed Alioto and ushered him out that way, in the darkness, and down a fire escape — and, as the melee continued, he led the mayor to the Jesuit residence, where a few of the Jesuits provided libations and politely asked Alioto for a condensed version of his prepared speech. Then, with Gaston Hall and indeed the whole campus still in turmoil in the aftermath of the brawl, and with almost everybody wondering where and how Alioto had disappeared and even if he had been hurt or hospitalized, Casper and Alioto casually strolled through a roundabout route to the 1789 restaurant, several blocks away, and proceeded to enjoy a gourmet meal, immensely enjoying themselves late into the evening.
No ruffians could mar Casper’s civilizing impulses, or his sense of the obligations of a gracious host.
And, as the stories about his death make clear, nothing could mar Casper’s sense of duty in public service for the public good, not for personal gain. A former Republican Party chairman, a close guardian of the public purse, Don Casper was incorruptible.
Now, to my great sorrow, he’s gone. Only his ghost remains, but Casper is a decidedly friendly ghost. May he rest in God’s grace and peace forever. Hoya Saxa, my friend; Hoya Saxa.
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