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Inside NCR

Tributes unpaid at life’s sudden end

On Aug. 18, one of the biggest hearts I have ever known stopped for good.

For years Harry James Cargas phoned me regularly. Always on NCR’s dime, the cheapskate. The conversation would be heavily larded with mutual insults. Male putdown humor, somebody here called it. Now there will be no more insults. I will miss them.

He sent me his resume, as it turned out just in time for his death. He wanted the record straight because I kept threatening to write something about him. What I had in mind was to use him as a subject for our occasional feature “Illuminations.” You would search far to find a more suitable subject. I didn’t tell him that, though. I was waiting, as usual, to have the last word.

“Let me know if and when,” his letter said. As usual, in jest, he signed it Anonymous. But I put the visit off as spring passed into summer. Carpe diem is a fine idea that often remains only that, leaving regret in its wake. I never seized the day.

Harry’s was not an average life. He was born in Michigan, I would have written, but most of his life was lived in St. Louis where, among other things, he taught at Webster University for 25 years. He wrote 32 books and countless articles, many for NCR. I rejected some of his stuff, did him no special favors. He would complain of course, give me hell. His writing was all over the place. He had opinions on everything. NCR couldn’t keep up with all of them.

At the heart of his life’s work was the Holocaust and what it did to the world, the Jews, the Catholic church. Most of his books were about this. He took on his big shoulders the Catholic burden borne too cautiously, he believed, during the evil Hitler years. “Much of Christianity’s soul died at Auschwitz,” he once said. His Shadows of Auschwitz: A Christian Response to the Holocaust is a searing account of that tragedy and the too discreet response of the church.

He wrote in the introduction: “The reasons for my own personal conversion from one Christian church to Roman Catholicism at age 19 are not important. The act of commitment is decisive, however. I wished to share then, as I do now, in the many and great glories of that institution. I think it proper to say that I was obsessed with becoming as good a Christian as I could.” Then he stumbled on the enigma caused by the Holocaust. “A post-Auschwitz Catholic,” he called himself.

Other Cargas books ranged from Exploring Your Inner Self to Religious Experience and Process Theology to English as a Second Language. And more.

I feel him looking over my shoulder, ready with ridicule. Harry saying, “You’d better get it right.” He was only 66 when he died of a brain hemorrhage, that seems safe to say. He is survived by his wife, Millie, six children and several grandchildren. His life was a gift. I couldn’t bring myself to say that to him when he was alive, even when he grew more ill.

“Tell them about my 25 years on the radio,” I can hear him agitate. One can only imagine the dust he stirred up. For a long time, he did sports on the radio, too. Worse yet, he was athletic director at Webster University for years. If he were here, I’d remind him how pathetic the Webster program must have been. He once sent me a profile done with a local columnist, very witty, in which, as I recall, he confessed that the highlight of Webster games was the meal shared afterward with opposing -- and usually winning -- teams.

An “Illuminations” column might have mentioned how he traveled the world as a speaker. He visited 38 nations -- he put that in his résumé -- for every reason under the sun, no doubt. He just wanted to fix the world and set every head straight. And laugh. Harry and I would laugh like fools on the phone even though the world wasn’t yet fully fixed.

I’d tell, too, about the 5,000 trees planted near Jerusalem in the Harry James Cargas Parkland. I’d tell about the 16-part TV series he produced about the Holocaust. I’d tell how he was always working on half- a-dozen projects. One always felt it would be indecent of God to take him before the work was done. And until now God obliged.

I met Harry Cargas only once. For an hour at lunch. We talked about serious stuff, laughed less than on the phone.

When you get settled, Harry, call me.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998