America lost an unsung hero on Jan. 8 with the passing of Thomas H. Landess. To say that Tom was an accomplished Southern academic would be like saying that Robert H. Goddard was a guy who liked to tinker with rockets.
The reason you may not have heard of Tom Landess before is that he did much of his work behind the scenes in countless selfless ways.
Tom taught literature and creative writing for 24 years, including posts at Vanderbilt University, Converse College and Furman University. He was a professor of English and academic dean at the University of Dallas.
At the time of his death, at age 80, he was press secretary for South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and was working on many projects, including several books and a script for a multimedia tutorial on the U.S. Constitution for the American Civil Rights Union.
An expert in Southern literature, Tom published hundreds of articles, poems and reviews for scholarly publications such as the Sewanee Review, the Southern Review and the Georgia Review and newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal; co-wrote articles in peer-reviewed psychological journals; and wrote or ghostwrote more than 25 books.
In 2010, he edited Allen Wildmon’s colorful autobiography about the founding of the American Family Association, “The Wildmons of Mississippi: A Story of Christian Dissent: ‘The Red Clay Hills of Tippah County.’ “
Over the years, he tried, gloriously and at least somewhat successfully, to get Yankee friends like me to acknowledge the Southern side of the War Between the States, but he had no sympathy for slavery or racism. In 1989, he ghosted the autobiography of Ralph David Abernathy, who succeeded Martin Luther King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Tom was a friend when Abernathy came under attack for endorsing Ronald Reagan.
Tom often pointed out to me and others that liberal policies were racist to the core and designed to break up families and increase dependency. As for his allegiance to the South, he made a strong case that the victor gets to write history and that the region to this day gets a raw deal, especially from Hollywood. Tom was so persuasive that a friend began to worry and bought me a bust of Lincoln as a totem to ward off Southern sympathies.
Nothing, however, could work as a defense against Tom’s generous spirit and remarkable storytelling.
My wife and I will never forget the night in his living room when he told of trying to “cure” his daughter’s sick pet mouse before she arrived home. His timing and droll asides had us on the edge of our seats. By the time he got to the part about taking “Cynthia” to the vet, who remarked somberly that “Cynthia is a very small patient,” we were literally on the floor.
I met Tom 20 years ago while working at the Heritage Foundation before moving on to the Family Research Council. Tom was working as a Reagan mole in the U.S. Department of Education as a speechwriter. He somehow found out that I was taking on some stuff that most people wisely avoid, such as the homosexual activist movement, and sent me a steady stream of research that rebutted every “scientific” claim that activists had gulled many into believing. Tom saw this agenda as the greatest single threat to religious freedom in America, and, sadly, events are proving him right.
At the University of Dallas in the 1970s, where, as an Episcopalian, he was the only Protestant faculty member among Catholics, Tom taught a number of bright students who made a mark, such as Michael Schwartz, who wrote several books, worked closely with the late Paul Weyrich and now serves as Sen. Tom Coburn’s chief of staff, and Media Research Center founder L. Brent Bozell III.
Tom’s wife, Mary Beth, relates how he snookered Brent into a poker game during the university’s charity week:
“Tom was an ace poker player, but Brent didn’t know that. They sat down, and ol’ Brent was really set to take him out. But, after not a horribly long time, the only man left standing was Tom Landess. He had on his poker face the whole time, and only afterward did he show his ‘Why, who me?’ grin.”
Disgusted by the leftward drift of the Episcopal Church, Tom was a devout Anglican who loved the liturgy and eschewed Christianese, such as using “fellowship” as a verb. But he was an intellectual force within the Christian right, with many evangelical and Jewish friends and no prejudices except against pretension and pomposity.
His satirical portraits in Southern Partisan of certain Republicans (especially Virginia Sen. John Warner) who betrayed conservatives while courting their support are deadly, laugh-out-loud funny. His serious works exhibit a remarkable mind animated and tempered by his Christian faith and knowledge of the Scriptures.
In 1996, Tom wrote an obituary in Intercollegiate Review for the great agrarian movement scholar Andrew Lytle. Tom noted that other Southern writers, such as Robert Penn Warren, had moved north to Ivy League schools and become famous.
But as for Lytle, Tom wrote, “[He] would remain close to home and continue to hold a conservative view of society and culture, one that broadened with the years and finally became quintessentially Christian. Once he began to see history in terms of its relationship to eternity, he transcended his Agrarian viewpoint without in the least abandoning it. The South and other traditional pockets of culture became for him the remnants not merely of Western civilization, but of a larger and more inclusive Christendom.”
And that’s a major reason Tom moved his family first out of metropolitan Dallas to a rural South Carolina island, and out of Washington to Columbia, S.C. In the Palmetto State, the same modernist winds blow through TVs and iPads, but it still retains Southern grace.
Above all, Tom will be remembered for his devotion to faith and family, his kindness, storytelling, selfless mentoring of young writers and anonymous work for Christian and conservative causes, for which he labored often without compensation. He was a loyal friend and mentor and one of the most decent human beings I have ever encountered or ever will.
His last speech, for the Ciceronian Society at the University of Virginia in March 2011, was a serious yet humorous look at the agrarian movement and the impact of Lytle’s seminal anthology, “I’ll Take My Stand.”
Of Lytle, Tom wrote, “Despite his dark view of the modern world … he laughed more than others, enjoyed the company of an ever-widening circle of friends, and mocked time as the shadows grew longer.”
I couldn’t put it better than the master writer, so I’ll let that be the last word, too, about my dear friend Tom Landess.
Robert Knight is a senior fellow for the American Civil Rights Union and a columnist for The Washington Times.