When Clarence Thomas Came for a Visit
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By Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson
On Tuesday, November 15, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas visited Grove City College. I had a choice to make--whether to meet him or attend to the tons of work I had to finish before several looming deadlines.
I don't share our society’s fascination with famous people. I never go out of my way to meet them, and when I do meet them, I don't ask them for their autographs like some starry-eyed teenager. The father of a close friend once told me that every man, regardless of how important a position he may hold, puts his pants on one leg at a time. A person and the position that he or she holds are two different things, and the office does not automatically confer greatness.
I decided to set aside everything to meet Justice Thomas. This man has bravely and heroically defended the U.S. Constitution for the last two decades, and for this alone, he has earned my gratitude. It would have been selfish of me not to have taken a couple of hours out of my schedule to express my appreciation to him for his valiant efforts--especially since I would probably never have another opportunity to do so.
I arrived early at a private luncheon for the Grove City faculty and Justice Thomas. He arrived early, too, and since I was the only one there at the moment, he came up to me and we introduced ourselves. That was the beginning of an uplifting, inspiring day for me.
I can attest that Clarence Thomas is a warm, down-to-earth, personable man. The first question he asked me, when I told him that I taught economics, was whether I was familiar with the work of Ludwig von Mises. When I replied that I had earned my doctorate under Hans Sennholz, who had earned his under Mises, we were off to the races.
Besides economics, we compared notes about our upbringing. I had read part of Justice Thomas’ autobiography and was amazed at some of the uncanny parallels in our lives. Both of us were raised not by our fathers but by older, stern male relatives who practiced “tough love” and even kicked us out of the house during our rebellious, angry, cheap-wine-drinking, socialist-leaning college years. As young men, we both had our Christian reawakenings. I should mention that my youth was not nearly as challenging as his, because he had to deal with the cruel racism that permeated the Deep South when he was a boy--an awful burden that he has transcended, largely through the Christian grace of forgiving those who had done wrong.
Justice Thomas is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. Indeed, I am groping for words that do full justice to the impact that Justice Thomas had on those of us who listened to him in the intimate setting of small classrooms and other occasions. I wish you could have seen the way our students’ faces lit up while listening to him. We have very mature, attentive students at Grove City College, but I have never seen them as rapt as when Justice Thomas was speaking with them. He shared wisdom, personal vignettes, historical perspective, and helpful insights, but there was another level of communication going on that transcended his words:
It may sound corny to say this in this cynical day and age, but we were blown away by the sheer goodness and virtue of this man. I truly found Clarence Thomas to be the epitome of humility, integrity, public service, and faithfulness--both to God and to the solemn responsibilities of his important office. In regard to the latter, Justice Thomas was always discreet, carefully withholding his personal opinions whenever a question was asked about an issue that the Supreme Court would be adjudicating. He reiterated that his job was not to make rules for the rest of us--to presume to judge whether a law or application of a law was good or bad, wise or imprudent--but simply to determine whether it was constitutional.
Before meeting Justice Thomas, I respected him immensely. After meeting him, my admiration grew exponentially. Again, call me corny, but I was affected in a spiritual way--like I was a better person for having been in the presence of this good man. I don’t feel that way often.
Godspeed, Justice Thomas. And thank you not only for what you are doing but also for who you are.
-- Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.