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William F. Buckley’s Intellect Went Beyond Basketball and Bob Knight

Original Article
The first time that I met Bill Buckley we had lunch in an Italian restaurant on the lower East Side of New York City.
I belong to The Quest Club, a group that meets in Fort Wayne on Friday noons, and each week members present papers they have written on a variety of topics. I had been assigned to speak on the subject, “The Life and Influence of William F. Buckley Jr.”

After doing quite a bit of research, I decided to seek an interview, and I wrote to him in care of National Review magazine to ask for one. I said that I would come to wherever he might suggest for whatever time he could give me. He responded that he would meet with me on condition that I would first have read at least three of his books. I wrote back that I had already read five, and so a time was set to meet at, I later learned, his favorite restaurant.

I arrived on time and was graciously taken to a table in the middle of the restaurant, and he arrived a few minutes later. I don’t know whether or not they opened the restaurant just for us but, in any event, there were no other diners there during the time we were eating.

I had an agenda to discuss, primarily biographical data about him, and we had a chance to talk some about politics and current events as well. After a while, he asked me about the title of my paper and how long it would last when I delivered it. I told him it would run somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour. He said it was a little surprising to him that I would take the time and incur the expense to come to New York for an interview, just to help in preparing a presentation no longer than that.

I replied that most of the subjects of our biographical papers were deceased, and that he was a rather unusual case in that he happened to still be alive. Therefore, I reasoned, it was worth the effort and expense to do a really thorough job. (I could have added, but did not, that he was one of my heroes and a person that I had admired for many years.)

He seemed amused at my explanation, and, after reflecting for a short while, he asked me to give an example of other people, still alive, about whom papers had been given. I told him that the only one that I could think of was Bobby Knight. He stared into space for a couple of seconds and then he said, “Who is Bobby Knight?”

I explained about the state of Indiana, its enthusiasm for basketball, the recent successes of the Indiana University Hoosiers and the somewhat startling personality of their coach. I told him that there were few, if any, people more well-known in Indiana.

When I delivered the paper to Quest Club, I was asked to discuss my meeting with him, and I recounted the conversation we had about Knight. Hilliard Gates, a prominent sports personality, radio broadcaster and personal friend of Knight, said that he simply could not imagine that someone would not know who Knight is, and he was sure that Buckley had been pulling my leg. A few others agreed.

I sent Buckley a copy of my Quest paper, and we kept in touch by correspondence. A few years later, I was invited to New York to attend the 45th anniversary celebration of National Review. It was a two-day affair, and on the last day I was invited to a reception at the Buckley home on Park Avenue.

When I had a chance to talk to him alone, I said, “Bill, when I had lunch with you some time back, the subject of Bobby Knight came up. You said you didn’t know who he was. I have to tell you that some people back in Indiana were incredulous about that, and said you were just kidding me. So tell me, did you know who he was, or were you just kidding?”

Again, that brief stare into space, and finally he said, “I do not know, at this moment, who Bobby Knight is.” He was serious, but I laughed. I told him again about Indiana and basketball and Knight. He said, “You know, I had a similar thing happen to me one time when I was speaking at the University of North Carolina. Some person there was a coach, and they seemed to think that I should know all about him.”

We continued to correspond, and there were a couple of occasions after that when my wife and I had the opportunity to meet and visit with Bill Buckley. (I only called him “Bill” after asking if that would be all right. In one of his books, he had said that he preferred the more formal custom of a bygone day, when first names were not used until a certain acquaintance had been established.) The last message I got from him was last year in response to a sympathy note I had sent to him on the passing of his wife. I was moved. It was handwritten.

Since his death, there have been a lot of articles written about him and many accounts of the incredible list of accomplishments of his amazing life. I will simply say that he was one of the most charming individuals I have ever known. When he ran for mayor of New York, back in the ’60s, he got a remarkable 13 percent of the vote, almost in spite of himself. If every New Yorker could have met him in person, he would have won in a landslide.

And that lunch we had in New York – Bill insisted on picking up the check.

Howard Chapman is an Adjunct Fellow of Discovery Institute