Col­le­giate Scholars visit the Russell Kirk Center in fall 2017. Annette Kirk is seated on the far right. | Facebook

On a recent trip to Hillsdale, Annette Kirk, the wife of famed his­torian and author Russell Kirk, men­tioned what she deemed “a Kirk revival” on campus. She said she saw many stu­dents who didn’t know about Kirk are starting to learn about who he was. And they’re becoming excited.

Oct. 19, 2018, marked the 100th anniversary of Russell Kirk’s birth — and in recog­nition, his family, pro­fessors, and stu­dents at Hillsdale College warmly remember the legacy of a man who loved Hillsdale College and greatly altered and defined 20th-century con­ser­vatism, earning the name “The Father of Modern Con­ser­vatism.”

Kirk’s daughter, Cecilia Kirk Nelson, said Kirk was a very kind father, who played with his daughters often and loved to take walks with them, plant trees with them, and tell them stories before bed.

“He wasn’t a hands-on dad, but he was very good with kids,” she said. “He was very kind.”

Nelson went on to describe how her father’s life and his work were inter­twined. “One thing I really want people to know is that he was an inte­grated man,” she said. “Ded­i­cation and faith­fulness to his family were a part of his phi­losophy. He was a very con­sistent man, and it is important that people know that about him.”

Having Kirk as a father, however, altered her youth. “We had lots of people vis­iting all of the time. There were lots of sem­inars with stu­dents. Many Hillsdale stu­dents visited even before the Kirk Center was founded. It’s always just been there, even since I was young.”

As for Mecosta’s various vis­itors, Nelson says there have been many throughout the years. She remembers one par­ticular Croatian pro­fessor who came to Mecosta as a refugee when she was a child. Kirk let him stay at the house and study with him, offering him a place to stay and to raise his family. The pro­fessor stayed with them for some time, and his son, Ivan Pon­gracic, would later go on to teach eco­nomics at Hillsdale College.

Pon­gracic, cur­rently a pro­fessor of eco­nomics at Hillsdale, remembers the time well. He said that his father had spent most of his life in Croatia (then Yugoslavia) dreaming of moving to the United States, and Pon­gracic shared that dream. It wasn’t until Pongracic’s father attended a con­ference at Grove City College that he finally met Kirk. Prior to trav­elling to Penn­syl­vania for the con­ference, Pongracic’s father had dis­covered Kirk’s books and articles, which made a pro­found impact on his thinking and person.

Pon­gracic said that when his father spoke to Kirk, an invi­tation to stay for a week turned into an offer for Pongracic’s father to study at Mecosta, leading to the family’s move to the United States. Pon­gracic called it the most pro­found and impactful moment of his life. And although he wasn’t old enough to appre­ciate Kirk as well as he wished he would, he says he doesn’t remember ever being intim­i­dated by Kirk.

“He was a funny and somewhat mis­chievous man, taking any oppor­tunity to come up with a clever joke in response to what someone said, fol­lowed by a big smile or a laugh with a twinkle in his eye,” Pon­gracic said. “Dr. Kirk made it pos­sible for my family to become Amer­icans, and for that he will always have my deepest grat­itude. I will always remember him as a supremely kind and gen­erous man. He was one in a million.”

It is because of this lovely and almost mys­tical char­acter of Kirk that Mecosta, some­times referred to as “Piety Hill,” is so magical. Alan Cornett, a his­torian and former assistant to Russell Kirk, said, “Entering Piety Hill has been well described as walking through the wardrobe into Narnia.”

Cornett went on to say, “Russell Kirk was not only America’s foremost expositor of con­ser­vatism, he was the very living embod­iment of it. For Dr. Kirk, con­ser­vatism was not an ide­ology, but an incli­nation, a turn of mind and dis­po­sition. Piety Hill itself was an organic expression of Dr. Kirk and his vision of what con­ser­vatism should be.”

For stu­dents who don’t know of Kirk’s legacy, the Dogwood Society, led by senior Kaitlin Makuski and sophomore Isaac Kir­shner, is raising awareness of is raising awareness of Kirk on campus. Lecture series, articles, and word-of-mouth has spread news of Kirk around campus like subtle wildfire.

Isaac Kir­shner, Vice Pres­ident of the Dogwood Society, spoke about the recent res­ur­rection.

“The Dogwood Society has been here at Hillsdale for 26 years now, and what we’re seeing now is a rean­i­mation and ele­vation of the American Studies major that has oth­erwise been dormant for a while now,” Kir­shner said.

The Col­le­giate Scholars Program travels to Kirk’s home in Mecosta each fall.

Started by Pro­fessor of History Richard Gamble, who is friends with Russell Kirk’s wife, Annette, the Mecosta trip has been an ongoing part of the Col­le­giate Scholars Program for a long time. Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Classics Eric Hutchinson, the director of the program, has con­tinued the tra­dition in his three years as the director thus far.

“The trip is one of the real perks of being in the program,” Hutchinson said. “I look forward to it every semester. It’s great.”

For four days, stu­dents attend a total of six sem­inars over the course of two days. Although the lec­tures do not center around Kirk, Hutchinson says that they try to incor­porate some of Kirk’s works into the series. The real fun of Kirk in Mecosta, Hutchinson says, is the time the stu­dents get to spend with Annette Kirk.

“They get con­nected with her and get to hear a lot of stories about his work,” Hutchinson said. “They love it.”

Isaac Kir­shner, vice pres­ident of the Dogwood Society and a student who is trav­eling to Mecosta, said he loves Piety Hill and the Kirk family.

“The Kirks’ home of Piety Hill is the closest place to Rivendell that I can think of. There, stu­dents can spend ample time learning and med­i­tating on the great ideas of the West and their gra­cious champion, Russell Kirk,” Kir­shner said.

Cen­tered around a central theme which governs con­ver­sation, the sem­inars are an hour and a half each and require no paper or exam to follow them. This is some­thing Hutchinson loves and thinks is really important about the program.

“It makes the lec­tures fun because people are doing the work simply because they want to,” Hutchinson said. “There is nothing else to get out of it other than what it can give you.”

Hutchinson says that the program is about more than just becoming better stu­dents. Rather, it is the pursuit of becoming self-edu­cators and gaining knowledge that pushes the indi­vidual towards virtue. As Kirk says in the “The Imag­i­native Con­ser­v­ative,” the purpose of a liberal edu­cation should be to cul­tivate the individual’s intellect and imag­i­nation for the sake of the person.

Hutchinson agreed.

“One of the things a good edu­cation will do is help the student who has expe­ri­enced it learn how to learn. That’s what’s really important. If the student can learn how to do that, the world is their oyster.”

As for the lasting impression and con­tinued edu­cation that Kirk and his ideas leave on stu­dents, Michael Luc­chese ‘18 was deeply affected by Kirk as a student. Luc­chese said he now attempts to live his life in accor­dance with Kirk’s prin­ciples.

“In this period of late modernity, everyone seems to be living rootless lives,” Luc­chese said. “Russell Kirk is important for young people now more than ever because he can teach us how to lay down lasting roots, both in his schol­arship and through the example of his life.”