Fond family memories of an extraordinary man
George Kennan and my father were classmates at Princeton University, graduating together in 1925 and then entering the Foreign Service. Their careers were both distinguished...
Special to The Times
George Kennan and my father were classmates at Princeton University, graduating together in 1925 and then entering the Foreign Service. Their careers were both distinguished and the lives of our two families were and continue to be intertwined.
I first remember hearing about George Kennan when I was a young boy. In the early 1940s, my father was assigned to Spain and Portugal where, in concert with the British, he ran a preemptive purchasing operation for strategic materials — in large measure to prevent the Germans from acquiring tungsten from the Axis-leaning governments of the Iberian Peninsula.
In February of 1943, the Pan American Yankee Clipper on which my father was flying crashed into the Tagus River at Lisbon. (For those who might remember, this was the flight singer Jane Froman was on; my father broke out a window with his elbow and pulled her and several others from the plane.)
Upon hearing the news of the crash, Kennan, who was stationed at our embassy in Lisbon, rushed down to where rescued passengers were to be brought. Although 25 of the 37 passengers were killed, my father, a strong swimmer, survived in spite of his having tied his briefcase full of top-secret documents to his shoes to ensure their safety.
When the launch brought my father — cold and in shock — to the dock, George whisked him and the briefcase away to a hotel, called a Marine to guard the room, put my father into a hot tub, ordered him a bottle of Fundador and then, using clothesline and clothespins, hung the documents to dry.
So, as I was growing up, George was always the man who helped pull my father out of the river and got him drunk!
Over the next two decades, our families crossed paths, but it was not until the fall of 1956 that I began to know him, his wife Annelise and his children well. They were living in Princeton and George was at the Institute for Advanced Study, writing and lecturing. I had just been enrolled in a boarding school, Lawrenceville, down the road, and my parents, stationed abroad, asked the Kennans to act in loco parentis.
Having come from spending a few years in one of those infamous English boarding schools, it was quite an adjustment for me. The Kennans took me into their family and treated me as one of theirs. George and I built a treehouse for his young son, we worked in the yard, ran errands together and talked. He was one of the kindest men I have known. But his special magic was that he wanted to hear what others had to say — even young schoolboys. He never allowed the great intellectual gap that existed between us to discourage me! For the three years I was at Lawrenceville and the following four at Princeton, he was my adviser and friend.
Over the years we stayed in touch, made easier when my parents retired to Princeton as well. Always he was interested in what I was doing. When my father passed away in 1975, he gave a moving and insightful tribute at his memorial and he and I sat in his yard and exchanged memories and stories of their lives and their friendship. Every time I visited my mother, I would stop by the Kennans' familiar home and we would catch up.
A few years ago, my son, Chris, decided to finish his high school years at Lawrenceville. Although I didn't impose a second generation of Butterworths on George and Annelise, George found talking to Chris just as interesting as I remember he seemed with me. And Chris had an open invitation to visit.
The last time George and I really talked was on Annelise's and his 75th wedding anniversary. I was visiting Chris and called the Kennans to see if I could drop by.
George was resting in bed in advance of the festivities, but he heard me come in and shouted for me to come up, as he wanted to talk to me. He told me that he was working on a new book about how the political boundaries of North America needed to be redrawn over the next decades to conform to the realities of the 21st century. In particular, he wanted to talk with me about Cascadia — the concept of British Columbia, Alberta, Washington, Montana, Oregon and Idaho coming together in an economic, educational, cultural and, in time, possibly a political union — because that was a perfect example of what he was thinking.
So here was this extraordinary man, close to a century old, thinking about how to make the future a more rational place.
As luck would have it, just as George and my father were friends, so are both families' next generation, and there is hope that the one after will be as well. Goodbye, George, and thank you.
Blair Butterworth heads Blair Butterworth & Associates, a political consulting firm based in Seattle.