The Baron Award
by
The late John Von Kannon (Heritage Foundation/YouTube screenshot)

These remarks were prepared for delivery at the spring meeting of the Philadelphia Society in St. Louis, Missouri, on March 28, 2020. The meeting was canceled due to the ongoing crisis.

In the late summer of 2015, I called John Von Kannon to say goodbye. His prognosis had turned from bad to bleak, and I could delay no longer.

It was not the first time for either of us. Some decades earlier, when another affliction seemed to have gotten the best of him, I had called to say goodbye. We were young then and unpracticed in such matters. Our conversation was brief and mawkish. In 2015, it was open, or at least more so, and purposeful.

I told John that Jane and I wished to honor him in some way that would perdure. He seemed to brighten a bit. I suggested that we embed the honor in a congenial organization, one that might tend to his legacy over the years.

There was no shortage of possibilities. John was a joiner, an irresponsible, promiscuous joiner. My first thought, naturally, was the Heritage Foundation. In the interval between his two ordeals by cancer, John had raised more than a billion dollars for what had been, when he arrived, a start-up think tank. John responded crisply, “No. We’ve sold naming rights to everything but the urinals.”

I threw out some more names. When I mentioned the Philadelphia Society, he lit up: “Yes! I love those guys. They’re all smarter than I am.”

John then asked what the honor would be for. I replied that we should reward members for being John Von Kannon-like. He seemed to approve. I improvised some language, we dickered a bit, and then agreed to the following formulation:

The Baron Award has been established to recognize each year a member of the Philadelphia Society who most faithfully exemplifies, in word and deed, the good fellowship, personal loyalty, intellectual integrity, and moral courage of our beloved friend and colleague, John Von Kannon.

John had filed off some of my more extravagant prose. Not all, but some. He was a humble man, but not mortifyingly so. I should also note that John insisted on one edit. He had moved the phrase “good fellowship” from the caboose, where I had stationed it, to the front of the train.

And so, thanks to the ministrations of Lenore Ealy, Ed Feulner, and the powers that be at Philly Soc, it came to pass. To this day, the winners of the Baron Award have been uncannily John Von Kannon-like.

But I have to admit, at this remove, that the words describing the award no longer seem up to the job. They are rote and lifeless. They were, after all, composed under the ultimate deadline pressure. They might be fine for a lifetime achievement award, that is, but not for our purpose, which is to celebrate John not for what he did, which was prodigious, but for who he was, which was singular.

So let me add a personal gloss, to which I invite additions, before memories fade, from those of you lucky enough to have known him.

What kind of a man was John Von Kannon?

  • He was the first to call when a friend stumbled, either personally or professionally. He called not to commiserate, but to help.
  • He would rise from a sickbed, even a terminal sickbed, to pass along a story he knew you would find delicious.
  • He was a convert to Rome who fell in love with a Jewish girl and became a Catholic mensch.
  • He took it as his personal responsibility to recover allies wounded on the field of political battle.
  • He would flirt shamelessly with your wife, but only in your presence. You could trust him to escort her to Paris and back.
  • At first a believer in our cause — widely read and deeply thoughtful — only later did he think of becoming a salesman for it.
  • He was delighted, openly delighted, to notice when you had chosen to join his circle of friends, even when it had been he who had done the choosing.
  • He bragged endlessly on his wife and kids, but in a way that caused you to like them and cherish him.
  • And, oh yes, he could separate a donor from a large check and leave him or her wishing it had been larger.
  • He was the friend everybody should have and almost nobody does.

That was John Von Kannon. The Baron.

Neal B. Freeman is a longtime contributor to TheAmerican Spectator.

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