The first Westerner I ever got to know was Brian Leverich. He lived down the hall from us in Hurlbut Hall, that “…dorm full of eccentrics, misfits and savants…” where I first encountered so many of my best college friends. Brian’s family was from Oklahoma, or Colorado, or some other vague place west of the Eastern Seaboard that I couldn’t quite place. Having spent my whole life in the New York metropolitan area, at first I couldn’t figure him out at all – he talked slowly and softly, with significant pauses, when you couldn’t tell if he was done speaking. In my world, talking in this manner was generally taken as an indication of mental deficiency, but after a little while hanging out with Brian, I realized that he was actually very smart, and often subtly funny. In retrospect, being friends with Brian was the beginning of the acculturation process that prepared me for marrying a woman from Kansas, and spending most of my adult life in Oregon.
The other weird thing about Brian was that he was a conservative, a Goldwater Republican. Even though I came from markedly Republican stock myself, this was the mid-1970s, at Harvard, where the acceptable range of Republicanism ran from the patrician Cabot Lodge pole to the liberal Edward Brooke end of the spectrum. I had never before met an actual, libertarian-leaning, Western Republican, and I began to suspect he might have fired a gun at some point in his life. But just as I came to understand his intellect, I also learned that his political beliefs were reasonable, in that they derived from reason, and not just a knee-jerk anti-gummint answer to every question in life. Brian didn’t unthinkingly parrot the beliefs of his tribe, in an era when dogmatic certainty was the norm. (Once, when I had the audacity to question some left-wing shibboleth in a letter to the Crimson, an angry response referred to me as the “Spiro Agnew of Harvard.”) Brian was comfortable and rational in his opinions, and enjoyed poking at the liberal verities with which he was surrounded.
Sophomore year we moved into different Houses, and saw each other intermittently throughout college, then completely lost touch afterwards. Brian continued his studies in engineering at Stanford, but after a few years there realized it wasn’t a good fit. However, while there he did meet his future wife, Karen Isaacson, who was also a grad student at Stanford, so those years were not wasted. Brian began a career which I can’t comprehend in detail, but it involved working as consultant on public policy / engineering-related issues (often defense policy), flitting in and out of the Rand Corporation, and at some point getting his PhD from the Rand Graduate School. These were the heady years of the Republican ascendancy, and Brian was there as the New World Order led to the End of History.
During this period, Karen had developed an interest in genealogy, and she and Brian were perfectly situated, as engineering nerds with a clear understanding of the potential of the emerging interwebs, to be among the first to see how genealogy could be brought into the modern world of technology. They were living in their little cabin up in the mountains of southern California, from where they were able to put their work up online. A major commercial genealogical venture, Ancestry.com, was developing at the same time, but Karen and Brian seemed to be able to do on their own just about what Ancestry was doing with a big company. Tired of the pesky little competitor, Ancestry bought out their company – Rootsweb.com – and Karen and Brian moved on.
They eventually settled in San Luis Obispo, and a few years ago bought a fantastic place about two miles south of downtown. It sits up on a little ridge in the middle of farmland near the airport, with panoramic views in every direction.
Here they continue to pursue their many interests – genealogy through their new venture, Linkpendium.com, and participation in genealogical associations, extensive hiking in the mountains of the West, ham radio activity (Brian is currently trying to figure out the precise best place for a 60-foot aerial on their ridge), and hanging out with their huskies. Pictured above are McKinley and Denali, two charming dogs who are very highly placed on Greta’s list of Best Vicarious Pets of the trip, for their combination of liveliness and calm. Unfortunately, Denali died suddenly shortly after our visit, and Brian and Karen are now up to their eyeballs with a new huskie puppy.
As with many of my long-lost friends whom we’ve visited on this trip, Brian and I reconnected through Facebook several years ago. I’ve really learned a lot from his posts in recent years – he understands the worlds of economics, public policy and politics as a professional, and amazingly after all his years in the trenches, he still has the same integrity and thoughtfulness I noticed over 40 years ago. Brian has stayed true to his core principles, and has been aghast as the Republican party has marched off the cliff into know-nothingness and licking the boots of the Masters of the Universe. His arguments are about the most cogent I’ve seen in any online discussion – not assertions of moral superiority and self-righteousness, but clearly-reasoned positions based upon a wide-ranging base of facts and knowledge. He hasn’t quite converted me to being a Goldwater Republican, although I have come to recognize that I’ve always been an Eisenhower Republican at heart (and hence almost a Socialist in our current mileu.) As a way out of our current horrific political polarization and stalemate, the best option I’ve been able to come up with is to put Brian in charge.
Greta has always enjoyed my nerdy and amusing college friends, so she was really looking forward to meeting Brian and Karen. We had a great time with them, hanging around drinking and eating, seeing the sights of the greater SLO area (including our first sight of the Pacific in eight months at Morro Bay and Montaña de Oro State Park). But perhaps the best group activity (certainly for the nerdy end of the spectrum) was going to the movies. Greta had been counting the days until the opening of the Captain America Civil War movie, but our plans to see it the opening weekend in Bakersfield were dashed by the blown-out tire in the Mojave. When we inquired about possible movie venues upon our arrival in SLO, Brian’s eyes lit up. He too had been eagerly anticipating the movie, but despaired of finding an appropriate viewing companion, one who would have the requisite detailed knowledge and appreciation of the complex Marvel movies universe (MCU), and so be able to meaningfully participate in the critical post-movie analysis and discussion. We all enjoyed the movie (sitting in our electrically-controlled chaise-lounges with drink and popcorn holders, ahh California!), but the young and the old nerd were in heaven, continuing the discussion into the next evening back at home, when other DVDs in the series were pulled out, to bring the complete experience to a sense of closure.
Karen grew up in Oregon, and her mom lives in Vancouver, Washington, so they do pass by our neck of the woods from time to time. We’re counting on seeing them again soon (just as we hope all of the friends we visited will now come see us), perhaps coordinated with the release of the next Marvel movie.