Longtime First Things readers have heard, no doubt, about the “Rockford Raid.” How, on the morning of May 5, 1989, when Richard Neuhaus was head of the Rockford Institute’s New York Center on Religion and Society, he and his staff of four were ambushed at their offices, fired, and forced out onto the street.
It was a rainy Friday morning. I was a new employee of the center, working directly for Jim Nuechterlein, the new editor of the center’s journal This World. Jim and I had just started in January and were barely finished setting up our offices on the fifth floor; Richard and his associates Paul Stallsworth and Davida Goldman were on the twenty-fourth floor of the building, in the center’s main offices.
At 9:20 on the morning of May 5, the door of our suite opened and I was surprised to see Allan Carlson, then president of the Rockford Institute, based in Rockford, Illinois. He walked in, along with a very large young man in a suit, stood at my desk, and said he was sorry but the executive committee had instructed him to shut down operations, and I should gather my personal things. In disbelief (but already angry) I started organizing things, as Allan went into Jim’s office to tell him the same. I naively thought we’d have a day or so to pack, so I began closing files on my computer, but Allan came back, stood over me again and said, with agitation, that we had to shut down now. Then in walked Michael Warder, the executive vice president the Rockford Institute, who first shook my hand (I’ve always regretted shaking back), and then demanded my keys, even though a locksmith was already busily changing our lock. I turned to use the phone to call upstairs, but our phones had been unplugged.
When Jim and I got our things together and arrived upstairs, we encountered quite a scene. The Santini moving brothers (so known by their uniform shirts) were carrying out computers and there were large, unfamiliar young men standing around mutely, obviously meant to intimidate. Paul and Davida had been trying to call Richard, but their phones were also unplugged. And then Richard came in. As he delighted to recall in subsequent years, Paul, a quiet tower of strength, greeted him with glorious understatement: “Richard, I suppose you’d like to know what’s going on.”
Richard said he would, Paul filled him in, and then Richard and Allan Carlson spoke privately. Richard wrote a memo about it all that June, in which he recalled: “It occurred to me to challenge the legality of what they were doing, but then Rockford did have the title of the property and it seemed that calling in the cops would only delay their enterprise by a few hours. As for physical resistance, they had us out-muscled by far . . . . Perhaps I was wrong, but my intuition was that something so mad and outrageous was underway that the best thing to do was to let it unfold, and let the record be clear on who did what to whom.”
I recently found the notes I’d jotted down on the evening of that day, describing what happened next: “Davida came in and I have hardly ever seen anyone so angry. We closed ourselves off in RJN’s office and she let loose with a very impressive stream of expletives. She cleared the air and said what the lot of us were thinking. Davida and I put RJN’s personal things in boxes, which we carried out, even though one ‘suit’ stood in front of Davida and asked if he could see what was in them. She said ‘Hell no!’ and he backed right off. Yay Davida!
We went down in the elevator together, with our things in black garbage bags and those few boxes, and stood on Madison Avenue in the rain. After hailing a cab, as Richard wrote: “We then gathered at my place on Nineteenth Street, reconstructed what had happened, tried to convince one another that it really had happened, and then decided that we all deserved a nice lunch at Capucine’s, the Italian eatery on the corner.”
This is what strikes me as I remember that day. Richard, who had to be reeling from such a shocking event created (with much energy and expense) specifically to humiliate him, behaved first and foremost as the pastor of our little flock. He was calm and concerned about keeping us calm (I remember he took my hands and said “one could weep, but now is not the time”). He cajoled us into that lunch at Capucine’s, which turned out to be strangely festive. I suppose we all knew we needed some fortifying fellowship to deal with the repercussions of the morning. What we didn’t know was that, out of the sour note of the raid, our luncheon already marked the beginning of a great new symphony. Paul went directly from the restaurant to pound the pavement looking for new office space, and the rest of us agreed to be at work as usual on Monday morning, at Richard’s house. Although we had all suddenly lost our jobs (and Jim had made a big move from Valparaiso to New York to take his), Richard encouraged us to trust that things would work out.
As they did. Any justification Rockford claimed to have for such an event was soon exposed as unfounded, and the raid as pretty ridiculous; Richard’s supporters rallied around him, and the Institute on Religion and Public Life and the monthly journal First Things were born. We moved into our new (much nicer) office building in July.
At the first anniversary of the raid, we had a luncheon at Capucine’s, remembered the events of that day, and marveled at how far the new institute had already come in just one year. And after that the “raid luncheon” became an honored tradition.
Every year Richard would take his current staff, and any former staff who could make it, to Capucine’s, where the conversation was invigorating, hearty laughter frequent, food delectable, and wine flowing. Inevitably, we would have some moments to recall the events of 1989. Richard loved to bring up Paul’s composure and the fact that he coped with only a soft drink; I enjoyed remembering Davida’s resoundingly appropriate expletives.
This May will be the twentieth anniversary of the Rockford raid. We talked at lunch last year about how to make the milestone special. Davida and I joked with Richard about having a gala. How could we have known that cancer would ambush our beloved host and take him from us with such awful speed? The table will seem empty without him, but we will be there this May, to mark the anniversary, and most of all to remember Fr. Richard and the great adventure it was being in his company. We will raise our glasses upward, where he is, we trust, enjoying his greatest adventure of all.
Maria McFadden Maffucci, the editor of Human Life Review, worked at First Things from 1989 to 1990.