Wednesday, November 28, 2012

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Last Gentleman?

He was not a famous politician, and he only rose as high as state senator,
but  nearly everyone knew his name (at least his surname), and I think it
fair to say that those of us who knew him personally held him in higher
regard than many more “famous” politicians.

George S. Pillsbury died in Wayzata, Minnesota on October 13 at the age
of 91. The great-grandson of the founder of the Pillsbury Company, the
grandnephew of a pioneer and distinguished governor of Minnesota and
another governor of Maine, the grandson of a mayor of Minneapolis, the
son, brother and cousin of one of America’s most distinguished families,
a family which has contributed to public service for more than a century.
George S. Pillsbury had a full and fascinating life filled with adventure,
international commerce, and access to the highest political intrigues. A
long-time Republican, he had friends, as well as colleagues, on both sides
of the political aisle in the state senate, and in local and national politics.
When he disagreed strongly with his own party, he said so plainly.

He enjoyed a first-class education in private schools and at Yale, significant
wealth and position, a very large family, including children, grandchildren
and great-grandchildren.

He was a U.S. marine.

He was also a natural American aristocrat, in the very best sense of that
word, i.e., he lacked pretension and felt compelled to help others.

I had lunch with him once a month for many years, and heard
countless stories from a life rich in business, politics, travel and family,
but not a word in envy, hatred or duplicity.  He was the essence of civility.
He was perhaps among the very last gentlemen of the most recent
generation which produced true gentlemen. “Gentlemen” today are
identified mostly by the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the parties
they attend, and the persons they know. George S. Pillsbury was identified
by his conduct, by the ideas he believed in and the causes he espoused, and
by his seeming limitless ability to befriend folks from every station in life
and listen to what they had to say.

He had a singular curiosity in the life around him to the very end.

One afternoon in 1987, I received a phone call from him, having not heard
from him for a few years. (We had first met in the late 1970s.) He said he was
meeting an out-of-town guest for lunch at his private club the next day, and
asked if I would join them. As I walked into that club the following day, I saw
George in the club waiting room, and he told me his guest was the son of his
old college friend who happened to be the then-vice president of the United
States, George H.W. Bush. “He’s helping his dad,” he said to me, “you know
politics; spend some time with him after lunch.” A few minutes later, a
young man came into the club and was introduced to me as Gorge W. Bush.
Young Mr. Bush seemed to be a friendly and cordial person, not unlike some
of the well-heeled fellow students I had known at the University of Pennsylvania
where I went as a public school boy from a small northern city, the son of a
physician who had been an immigrant to the U.S. when the Bush family had
long been established in the New World. It was a pleasant afternoon, and I had
no idea who George Pillsbury’s guest would turn out to be.

But that was so typical of my conversations with George Pillsbury. They would
begin in friendly pleasantries, but something in him would drive us soon to
discuss subjects much more important than pleasantries. He would print out
my online opinion columns, or bring copies of my printed magazine articles,
and raise questions about them point after point. We sometimes disagreed, but
always our discussions weer respectful.

As he grew older, and his legs began to fail him (as they had my own father),
the lighter beginnings of our conversations were shorter, and the talk about
politics and the world went on longer. He had lifelong causes he believed in,
and he repeated them more and more. His signature political cause was the
unicameral legislature, something he promoted as a state senator, and when he
failed to enact it, something he pushed for years afterwards. At the end, he knew
it was not going to be, but he had no regrets about his work for it. He knew other
matters he favored might not happen, but he felt they were right, and he persisted.

Perhaps that was what made him such a gentleman. Like the Marine he also was,
he knew what duty was, and he knew that to give up on what he felt was most
important could be the only failure.

George S. Pillsbury was a success in those things that mattered most to him:
family, friendship, conduct and public service. I think that sums up what a
gentleman he was. His generation will be missed. He will be missed.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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