George Roche's legacy

(John Andrews in the Denver Post, May 21) On May 5 in Louisville, Kentucky, hours before the ponies ran at Churchill Downs, a self-described “old warhorse” of conservative politics and Colorado pride breathed his last. George C. Roche III had a lasting impact on America and on our state. Upon me he had an immeasurable influence, noble though flawed, similar to another of my former bosses, Richard Nixon. Herewith, a tribute. Roche grew up on Chalk Creek in the shadow of Mount Princeton. He lived out his retirement at Ouray in the shadow of scandal. The intervening 70 years took him from Regis and the Marines to a doctorate at CU-Boulder and a teaching post at the Colorado School of Mines, then to the presidency of Hillsdale College, a Reagan appointment, and the authorship of a dozen books.

The old warhorse carried wounds as most do. The worst came when a lovestruck young woman, his son’s wife Lissa, took her own life in 1999 after alleging an affair with him. That finished George at Hillsdale and drove him into a seclusion that lasted until news reports last year quoted the son as accepting the father’s protestation of innocence – something many of us had always believed.

More than the diabetes he had battled for decades, I suspect it was heartbreak that killed George Roche – remorse over the sins of omission (at least) which visited such damage on the family he loved and on the college he had led from obscurity to prominence. Seeing tragedy befall a friend, my own heart breaks a little as well.

However there is far more to this remarkable man’s legacy than the never-verified 1999 allegations. What we can’t sort out, eternal judgment will. But his contributions as an historian, educator, and patriot deserve undimmed honor regardless.

The conservative recovery of America’s founding principles since 1980, our counterattack against totalitarianism abroad and socialism at home, was made possible not only by political leaders such as Reagan, Gingrich, and Bush. Victories in the battle of votes couldn’t have occurred without gains in the battle of ideas, fought by intellectual warriors like Dr. Roche.

The years after Goldwater’s 1964 defeat were a wilderness time for advocates of limited government, individual liberty, free markets, and the faith of our fathers. Helping lead the Foundation for Economic Education in the ‘60s, where he published important books like Legacy of Freedom and The Bewildered Society, then guiding Hillsdale to national acclaim after 1971, its Imprimis speech digest eventually reaching one million circulation, Roche created a conservative idea forum where none had existed before – and on campus, of all places.

In 1981, concerned that the Aspen Institute was pulling businessmen to the left, Roche launched the Denver-based Shavano Institute, a national Hillsdale seminar series on the right. His Colorado team was a merry band. I went on to found the Independence Institute, Mike Rosen to radio stardom, Hugh Fowler to serve as a CU regent, Dave D’Evelyn to pioneer our state’s charter school law, Tom Tancredo to Congress. The seminars continue; one is scheduled in California this week.

Before becoming a college president, George Roche had called for a “moral force of sufficient intensity” to resist “the disruptive influence of political centralization in education.” He later rallied Hillsdale’s trustees and donors to reject all federal funding, including student aid, as the price of educational freedom from bureaucratic control. With books like The Fall of the Ivory Tower and The Balancing Act: Quota Hiring in Higher Education, he gave early warning of the academic rot evident in today’s Ward Churchill and Larry Summers controversies.

Going Home and A Reason for Living are George’s two fictionalized memoirs of his Chaffee County boyhood. They collect not only his wisdom, but also the self-deprecating hints he often gave admirers like me, cautioning us not to put him on a pedestal.

A World Without Heroes, one of the old man’s last (and best) books, could have been subtitled, with his full approval, “author included.” George C. Roche III, unlike the Mount Shavano snow formation he liked to invoke, was no angel. He was an extraordinary American and a devoted son of the Rockies, that’s all. For us who loved him, that was plenty.