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Van Cavett, 77, a man who was without guile

[Updated Jan. 2, 2011, to include Van Cavett's 1997 Morning Call farewell editorial]

Some of us will remember fondly Caroline and Van Cavett who were members of the Cathedral during the 1990s while Van worked as Comment Pages Editor for The Morning Call. Both were active in parish and diocesan ministries. Van died this past April. He was in his third year of EFM.

Caroline tells me that Van died "after a long bout with heart disease. His last six months were pretty awful - for him to endure and me to watch/endure as well, so while I miss him greatly, particularly when I remember all the good years we had, I could not wish him another minute in the state he was in.  Of course, the flip side of that is that remembering all the good things - and there are legions of those memories - also keeps a smile on my face."

Grateful to Caroline for having sent these a few days ago, I have posted below: 1. Van's obituary, 2.Summer Thoughts after a Spring Death, by Caroline, and 3. A eulogy delivered by Van's EFM mentor.

Van A. Cavett, 77, died at his Lookout Mountain [Tennessee] home on Sunday, April 11.  He is survived by his wife, Caroline, daughter, Anne Cavett and her partner Leslie Urban of Davidson NC, and son, Andrew Cavett of Lookout Mountain.

    Born in Memphis August 5, 1932, to the late Van Andrew Sr. and Anne Broyles Cavett, Van grew up in Mississippi, primarily in Jackson where he graduated from Millsaps College.  He was a member of Kappa Sigma fraternity and Omicron Delta Kappa honorary leadership fraternity.  During his college career, he also worked as a sportswriter for the Jackson Daily News while serving as two-year editor of the college newspaper, only the second person in the school’s history to do so - his predecessor being his future father-in-law, Norman Bradley.  Following his 1953 graduation from Millsaps and US Army service, he received a master’s degree from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.  He briefly worked in Roanoke VA, then joined the staff of the Chattanooga Times in 1957 as a copy editor.  In 1964 the family moved to Louisville KY where he served the Louisville Times in a number of positions; after a Professional Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University, he became an editorial writer and later Editorial Editor of the Times, then the first Editorial Editor of the combined Courier-Journal and Louisville Times and finally Editorial Editor of the Courier-Journal when it assumed single status.  Van retired briefly in 1989, then moved to Allentown PA as Editorial Editor of The Morning Call, where he brought best-of-state awards to that newspaper within a year, to add to a number of other personal and professional recognitions in Kentucky and Pennsylvania.  His journalistic career not only afforded him the opportunity to travel the world but allowed him personal access to interesting world figures from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Yasser Arafat to surviving dissidents from a number of former Iron Curtain countries.
    Van particularly valued his close connection with other editorial writers through membership in - and presidency of - the National Conference of Editorial Writers, which awarded him a Life Membership in 1995.  Upon his retirement from The Morning Call in 1997, Van and Caroline returned to Lookout Mountain where they have continued to make their home in the house where they met. 
    Over the years, Van maintained an active involvement in a variety of community pursuits, most especially the Episcopal Church, which he served as vestryman and diocesan representative in Louisville, Bethlehem PA, and Lookout Mountain.  At the time of his death, he was in the third part of a four-year Education for Ministry program to prepare lay members for more extensive leadership.  
    After a post-retirement guest appointment as University of South Florida James A. Clendinen Professor in Editorial and Critical Writing Van participated in the initial Senior Neighbors Leadership Academy and the first Holmberg Arts Leadership Institute in Chattanooga.
    Visitation will take place Wednesday, April 14, at 2 p.m. in Talbird Hall at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Lookout Mountain, with a memorial service at 3 p.m. in the church and interment in the Harriet Caldwell Garden.  The family requests that memorials be made to the Church of the Good Shepherd music program or to the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts.

Summer thoughts after a Spring Death
By Caroline Cavett


    A recent telephone call from one of you dear friends who were involved in our wedding almost 51 years ago now (remember the happy photo page we sent you last September to commemorate our 50th?) brought me about and reminded me that I have been very remiss in not notifying you sooner that my beloved Van died on April 11.  It was not a surprise – he had been in failing health for some months before his death and in really declining, then critical, condition those  last few weeks of his life.  The trouble most likely centered around an hereditary bad heart (most of the Cavett men have had that in one form or another – his father died at 63, his brother Woods at 70 following an unexpected cerebral hemorrhage) – that eventually caused a gradual diseased condition, then an irreversible shutdown of most of his other major organs.  It was a sad time for us all – Van to go through it and finally to realize that there was no hope, me to try to help him as much as possible both physically and emotionally while hurting in my own way, and our children to watch it all unfolding.  So, even though this is a belated announcement (for which I apologize – I should have done this three months ago) of a profound change in my life, it is also a note to assure you that life and loving memories really can and often do overplay death.
    Because of the miles between us and the individual responsibilities of our younger years and then the oh-Lord-I-can’t-even-think-about-another-thing-right-now deep breaths we’ve all taken from time to time (WELL, HAVEN’T WE???),  we didn’t see most of you nearly as often as we had hoped we would when we parted company on that long ago September evening – and I regret that.  But let me tell you what you probably already know:  Van and I had loved each other intensely and joyfully almost from our first meeting some 15 months before our marriage.  That never stopped.  In fact, I’m smiling as I write this about the dreams that do turn into realities – how wonderful (and, yet, sometimes, how very strange!!!) they are.  We had a marvelously happy 50+ years together, full of love and laughter and, as I also need to add, just enough grumpy moments to keep us real!  He was a delight – dear and sweet, loving and opinionated, proud in his own way and interested in others all in the same breath.  He dearly loved his family, though he often had a hard time expressing his feelings in words to anyone but me.  He also frequently told me what all in this world annoyed him (as if it were MY place to shoo those unpleasantries away).  And sometimes I could, sometimes I just had to tell him to figure it out . . . 
    I miss all those qualities.  I miss his famous Letters to the Editor after his retirement.  I miss his joys in his EfM class at church (for those who don’t know, this Education for Ministry is not an ordination step, but a structured four-year Episcopal Church study course for adults committed to a wider lay ministry).  And I miss his pleasure in the imaginative trips we took, the many isolated picnics we had while he could still negotiate uneven ground, the summer evenings when we sipped a little wine on our wonderful screened porch when everything was dark and still and usually cool (we would have probably missed them anyway this stiflingly hot year!)  Still, I remember . . .
    Here’s what I don’t miss:  the sadness of watching his health decline and his near-depression about this; the fact that he could not drive a car for the last seven-plus years of his life, therefore depending on me both in town and over long distances, which, although I was happy to do for him, did cut into the occasional private moments that each of us treasured; his final illness and decline and his recognition that he would not get well this time.  The absence of those things has helped me over the past few weeks as I’ve learned to go it alone (though our son, Andrew, does live in the house with me, and he is a great help when I need him, and pretty much of a non-presence when I crave my space – close to a perfect solution for the time being).  I have to admit that it’s nice to pick up and go when I want to and not have to be sure that Van can get his lunch or to explain where I’m going – and why – or constantly check my watch for whatever reason.  There are no more weeks when we have a minimum of three to five doctors’ visits – and no more of those visits when you learn to read the bad news in the doctors’ and nurses’ faces before they tell you a thing.  There are no more nights when he falls asleep at his desk instead of coming to bed at a decent hour, then crashes full-body to the floor on his way to the bedroom, unable to get up without assistance.
    Many years ago, well before this bad period, Van and I had signed Living Wills and Powers of Attorney concerning the final illnesses we never expected to have.  That turned out to be a wise move, as we knew it would be.  I had no trouble telling the doctors and the hospital that we wanted no invasive treatments, no heroic measures that could not change the outcome . . . and there were none.  He came home the final time in a Hospice ambulance late on a Friday afternoon, semiconscious (though, I’m sure, well aware of what was going on).  Our daughter, Anne, who lives in Davidson NC, came over for her third visit in about a month, knowing full well that this was to be her last trip under these circumstances.  The three of us – Anne, Andrew, and I – were sitting with him on Saturday night after a day of his slipping in and out of consciousness, able to communicate only with his eyes when they could focus, until about 10 o’clock when he roused slightly and said in a very intelligible voice:  “It’s time to call Robert.”  Robert is our priest; I knew what Van meant.  Robert, bless him, was here within ten minutes, leaving a dinner party for the Bishop, to give Van the last rites.  That soothed him considerably, and he drifted on off.  Anne stayed with him the better part of the night, ready with light drugs to ease his discomfort, and he died peacefully the next morning – at home.  It was where he had wanted to be.
    His funeral was a wonderful reflection of his life, with all participants being special friends of his, many out-of-town family members in attendance, magnificent music including most of the choir (many of whom made special arrangements to be there), a superb eulogy by his EfM mentor, the eternally  comforting words from the Book of Common Prayer, and a very meaningful committal in the church garden, with family, clergy, and friends shoveling the earth over his ashes.  Except that I would have loved to rejoice with him later about what a wonderful tribute it was to him and how deeply it touched me, I could not have asked for anything better. 
    I’ll always miss him, of course.  Always.  But I’d like for each of you to know that things are not all bad.  In fact, life is very good these days, and I’m finding that even with the profound difference, I can do just fine.  Many of my friends have looked at me kind of wide-eyed and said, almost in amazement, “You seem to be doing so well!”  My reply is usually this (or something like it):  “I am doing well.  Van and I had a wonderful life together.  And I have no regrets.”
    None.  It was, indeed, the grand and glorious ride we spoke of in our anniversary greeting to each of you  – the life together we’d anticipated and enjoyed.  And where there were two, there is now only one, but the memories are numerous and untelling – and the smiles come at surprising moments – such as each time Andy and I eat leafy green vegetables, which we ALL have always loved and yet had to do without, much to Van’s regret, during his years on the Coumadin trail.  I think to myself that he must be sitting up there right now on his pink cloud enjoying all that spinach and broccoli with great relish.  Every day.  More than once, if he wishes.  I certainly hope so.  He earned every delicious bite. 
    Sorry it took me so long to notify you of his death.  But I want you to know that despite my regrettable tardiness and especially its sad circumstances, all is indeed well in this household.   Thanks be to God.

    Much love to all of you and your families,

Behold my servant in whom there was no guile
A eulogy
By Hap Harwell

"I'm honored that Caroline asked me to offer a brief eulogy at this celebration of Van's life.
    "You know, we are not asked to live a perfect life - we are simply asked to be the instrument God made us to be in His service.
    "With this thought in mind, Caroline's request quickly brought to mind a favorite scripture - the Gospel according to John, Chapter 1, verse 47.  The King James version:  Jesus saw Nathaniel approaching  and said of him, 'Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no guile.'  The NIV says ' . . . in whom there is nothing false.'  And shortly, after brief dialog, Nathaniel says to Jesus, 'Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.'  Long before Peter and the others 'get it,' Nathaniel who has no hidden agenda, is not jockeying for position or a place of prominence, 'gets it.'
    "How does this relate?  Well, I think those of us who have grown to know Van and to love him could have easily said as he came down the sidewalk every Wednesday evening for some three years now, 'Here is a true gentleman in whom there is no guile.' 
    "I know of no greater compliment that can be ascribed to someone.
    "During our EfM sessions, Van always listened attentively and often would show more enthusiasm for 'God sightings' shared by others than his own reported sightings.  With a breadth of life experiences and honors earned enough for any two people, Van listened and commented - never judgmentally or even authoritatively.  It was often with some timidity that this true newsman/journalist/editor would speak.  AND ALL OF US LISTENED.  What a wealth of wisdom!  What a depth of spirituality that we could feel!
    "Now on a lighter note, I must add that Van contributed much more than wisdom and spirituality.  When responsible for 'treats' - that means refreshments for our group - Van, accompanied by Caroline, would deliver wine, fruit dishes, homemade bread slices and Caroline's famous beer cheese.  And for those of you not familiar with Caroline's beer cheese, I suggest you do whatever it takes - legal, of course - for the opportunity to sample it.  Van's pride of and love for Caroline beamed in his face with our childlike enjoyment of it.
    'What wonderful memories we shared with Van, during our EfM lives.  You know, the purpose of the program is as stated in the name Education for Ministry.  To Caroline, Anne, and Andrew and the EfMers who were richly blessed by Van's role in our lives, I have to believe that God has welcomed him home and most likely has said, 'Behold my servant in whom there was no guile.'"

Sunday, August 10, 1997
Farewell, Lehigh Valley, Thanks for the Memories
By Van A. Cavett, The Morning Call

A move to the Lehigh Valley was not one we expected to make. But The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times, my employers for almost 25 years, were sold. One day the new owners called me in and unceremoniously said, "We've changed everything else. It's your turn." They offered to pay me to go away, so I left.

Fortunately about that time in 1989, The Morning Call was seeking an editor to oversee its Comment Pages. Larry Hymans, then the executive editor, and Gary Shorts, the publisher, to my undying gratitude, were willing to take a chance with a 56-year-old who told them he had eight to 10 good years left in him. Eight and a quarter years later, circumstances dictate that it is time to move on into the unknown of retirement. For the first time since 1970 --with the exception of two months in 1989 -- my name will not appear on the masthead of a daily newspaper as either an editorial writer or editor.
Our move from Kentucky to Pennsylvania was, in a way, a return to roots. Moses Cavett, who, if I have counted my generations correctly, was my great-great-great-great grandfather, was born in 1734 in Paxtonia or Paxton Township in what was then Berks County. Moses and his descendants ventured ever southward; I reversed the course, from Mississippi to Tennessee to Kentucky and then to Pennsylvania; to borrow a phrase from Mississippi writer Willie Morris, "North Toward Home."
There were things in my past that, looking back, were omens. My Army basic training was at Ft. Jackson, S.C., with Pennsylvania's 28th Division, activated during the Korean War. When I was shipped to Germany, I was assigned to the 831st Replacement Company, a Scranton-Wilkes-Barre reserve unit that had likewise been called up and made part of the build-up leading to the activation of NATO. Caroline and I, Civil War buffs, had spent our honeymoon exploring the bloody fields at Gettysburg. On trips to the East, we had come to dread the times AAA's TripTiks put us on Rt. 22 through the Lehigh Valley.
Once here, we quickly learned that Rt. 22 is the Valley at its worst. There are other downsides, but, for the moment, I prefer to dwell upon the up sides:
*The folks in the newsroom at The Morning Call, especially my Comment Page colleagues, Eric Chiles and Glenn Kranzley. They are Valley boys who patiently schooled me in local foibles. Editor Roger Oglesby has been especially tolerant of my shortcomings.
*The congregation and clergy of the Cathedral Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, who immediately gave us a sense of belonging. As a result, our spiritual lives were deeply enriched.
*The abundant outpourings of the Allentown Fairgrounds Farmers Market and the friendly service of its merchants. To think that I will never again have an ear of succulent, fresh sweet corn from Kunkel's or bite into some of Mr. Bill's chicken and turkey specialties is almost enough to send me into a state of depression.
*The quality of medical care. My Cavett genes, so my mother, a healthy 92, says, provided me with a bad heart. Dr. David Carney monitored my blood pressure and cholesterol levels carefully for four years, then in the nick of time in 1993 recommended a heart catherization. The tests showed severe blockage of my arteries; I was clamped into Lehigh Valley Hospital in Salisbury Township and five days later underwent a quadruple bypass. Four weeks later, I was back at work. The hospital's cardiac rehab center has since provided an enjoyable way to keep the heart healthy.
*A gaggle of excellent restaurants. Their offerings make it difficult to stick to a heart healthy diet. But I found I could while eating well with Eleanor and Carl Anselmo at the Blue Orchid Inn and Shirlee and Al Neumeyer at the Inn of the Falcon. They provided many memorable meals. Before it shut down, Fred Parks's seafood house on North Seventh was a convenient stop when the yen for oysters or fresh fish became overwhelming.
*The diversity of peoples in the Valley. None of the cities where we had lived contained the ethnic mixture that we came to appreciate here. Now when I look at the names on the walls at Ellis Island, I can say that I know some of their children and grandchildren. I almost feel ashamed now, when asked where my ancestors came from, to admit that I don't know because, to my knowledge, they all were in the colonies before the Revolutionary War. It won't seem right, when on the street, to hear only English, even though some of it is so mangled as to be almost a foreign tongue.
But there have been disappointments. At times, Pennsylvania seems to be frozen in a time warp. If it was good enough for Billy Penn and Ben Franklin, it is good enough for the 21st Century. The failure to throw off the colonial heritage has led to endemic parochialism. There is an appalling lack of intergovernmental cooperation. There is no effort -- as there was in Tennessee and Kentucky in my earlier journalistic years -- to abolish some of the archaic and overlapping government structures and combine them into efficient, metropolitan entities. Sometimes I think that most municipal and school board officials believe that the world is flat and ends at their jurisdictions' boundaries.
Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, mature cities, struggle while surrounded by prospering suburbs, yet no one discusses what some decaying central cities and their suburbs have done: shared the proceeds of suburban tax growth.
Pennsylvania's 503 school systems are at least 250 too many. But that would require 250 fewer superintendents at a minimum of $100,000 a year -- a savings of $25 million up front. It would enrich the talent pool for school board members by reducing the number of school directors from about 4,500 to some 2,200. My observation over the years, as occasioned by the seizure of the East Penn, Saucon Valley and Northampton school boards by know-nothings, is that becoming a school director brings out the worst in many people.
Pennsylvania must do better by its public education. It is not so much a question of money, but how and where money is directed. There is no justification for my taxes in Parkland to be about 60 percent of what they would be were our house in the Allentown district a few blocks away. Other states -- Kentucky comes to mind -- have acted to end those disparities. But Gov. Tom Ridge -- like Bob Casey and others before him -- and the Harrisburg political establishment continue to act as if the problem will go away. It won't.
There are some bright spots. There is hope in charter schools. The proposal by Bethlehem Supt. Tom Doluisio for a Valleywide business-oriented high school seeks to cut across district lines. The school districts should be taking a lead in forming charter schools catering to parental and student interest and needs. Ideally the Valley could support, in addition to the business and performing arts high schools already proposed, a fine arts high school, a science and math school and others. The districts shouldn't be waiting for someone to come along and propose them; they should be taking the lead in cooperatively promoting them.
The joke in Kentucky was that the Legislature, limited to meeting 60 days every two years, should meet two days every 60 years. Pennsylvania's professional legislators meet year round. They could accomplish what they do yearly in one day, by lining up and assenting to what the Governor and their leaders have agreed upon. But that wouldn't give them enough time in Harrisburg to be wined and dined by lobbyists while shaking them down for funds for their next campaigns. They have to give the appearance of being busy in order to justify their $57,400, indexed-for-annual-increases salaries and generous perks. As far as the General Assembly is concerned, Pennsylvanians are being had. It is an overpaid, underworked, non-deliberative body.
Besides, they call themselves Republicans and Democrats. That is a fib. They are Socialists who continue to tolerate Pennsylvania's liquor monopoly. The Liquor Control Board is the last great socialistic enterprise. Until the General Assembly gets out of a business it shouldn't be in, none of its members can say he or she believes in a market economy. I was shocked when I found that I could not buy a six-pack in the grocery store and even more shocked when I discovered that my local beer outlet only dealt in cases. So I have been a lawbreaker, smuggling in six-packs on trips out of the Commonwealth. But if the Commonwealth really enforced its archaic liquor laws, it would probably have more citizens behind bars than outside them. Then who would pay the bills for the expensive General Assembly?
There are other complaints. Allentown's failure to fluoridate its water also came as a shock. The debate over fluoridation ended at least 40 years ago with fluoride the solid winner. Why the community allows itself to be held captive to a handful of 19th Century minds is a mystery.
The lack of public health departments I also have had trouble dealing with. I attribute that to the impotence of county government. But as a child in the 1930s in darkest Mississippi, I remember the county health department for its efforts against malaria and typhoid and other diseases. The public health is best cared for on the local level, not by Harrisburg. County Executives Jane Baker and Bill Brackbill, as part of their re-election campaigns, should push for a Valleywide public health department.
My credo as an editorial writer has been the same as that of a good preacher: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. How well I have done that is up to the readers. But the work has been good to me. I have been vastly enriched by travel across 23 of the world's 24 time zones, by venturing deep into the old Soviet Union, journeying across the Middle East, meeting Yasser Arafat in a post-midnight press conference in Beirut, examining Southern Africa on a trip that included the contrast of moving from a pig farm in Mozambique to a luxury suite in Johannesburg in a few hours. There was a memorable lunch with the governor general of Hong Kong, Sir David Wilson and his wife in 1987, and heated verbal duels with Soviet aparatchik during a 1983 tour in the wake of the shooting down of KAL 007.
Seven years later, we returned to the same room where we had heard justifications for that tragedy and, as they say, things had changed. Our hosts couldn't have been more welcoming. KAL 007 wasn't mentioned.
The world has changed in the 40 years since journalism became my full-time occupation. Perhaps it has passed me by. Regardless, this seems the time to go. So to the Lehigh Valley, it has been wonderful. Thanks for the memories.



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