My father, Dr. Paul W. Leithart, died at his beloved home on Wednesday morning, May 29, 2019, at age 98. He spent his last few days in a hospital bed in the dining room, which was positioned to allow him to see the sun rise over the backyard.
He lived right up to the end. At 92, six years after my mother’s death, he married a woman who was a mere 88, and the two spent the next several years sharing senior outings. His mind never faded. A retired medical doctor, he understood what was happening to his body with unsettling accuracy. When we set up hospice care a couple of months ago, he instantly agreed to a DNR order. During his last hospital stay in April, doctors discovered cancer; he knew radiation would be as onerous as the disease and would extend his life only a few months, and refused treatment. A few weeks before he died, he hosted thirty friends for a Bible study at his home, and spent seven hours of the last Sunday of his life talking about politics and his faith with a steady stream of visitors.
I last saw him over Easter weekend. Just out of the hospital, he was too weak to get to church, so on Sunday afternoon my two brothers and their families gathered in my father’s spacious living room while I led an Easter liturgy. I read an old homily on Jesus’s Easter words, “Do not be afraid,” and we sang for an hour, with one of Papa’s granddaughters accompanying on the baby grand where my brothers and I grudgingly practiced our scales decades ago. It was the last time Dad participated in an earthly liturgy, and mine was the last live sermon he ever heard. It was a fitting message, since I simply repeated a lesson he was living every day. Dad said it was the best Easter he’d ever had.
As a boy, I sometimes spent Friday evenings sitting on the steps in the living room, watching grainy films of Robert Welch that my father showed to his John Birch Society chapter. Dad’s political conservatism expressed a deep personal conservatism. David Goodhart has distinguished between “Anywheres,” those who are unrooted cosmopolitans, and “Somewheres,” those whose lives revolve around home, familiar places, and old friends. Dad was a Somewhere if there ever was one. He lived most of his long life in Columbus, Ohio, resided in the same house for nearly sixty years, and died as a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, the same church where he was baptized almost a century ago.
But his settled life was anything but small. Columbus served as a launching pad for global adventures. Dad loved to travel, to see new places and people and taste exotic food. Before he married, he and his cousin went on road trips to New York and Chicago. He took our family to Europe three times while we were growing up, at a time when trans-Atlantic travel was still quite rare. Years later he visited Hong Kong to see his brother-in-law, a Lutheran missionary. His memory for restaurants and meals was prodigious.
Dad was a technophile. Years ago, he set up an editing workspace in a bedroom, so he could transfer reel-to-reel family movies to video. During my visit in January, we spent several hours chatting with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren over FaceTime. He had never seen FaceTime in operation, and was enthralled by a fresh technical miracle. His comfort with new things was one of the secrets of his longevity. He could wax nostalgic, but he always lived in the present and looked with childlike expectation to the future.
He spent decades as a General Practice physician, and everywhere he went in Columbus he would run into former patients, and the children and grandchildren of former patients. He was at it so long that he cared for some patients from their infancy into middle age. He seemed to remember every one of them, and could review medical history. Two days after his death, my niece gave birth to his sixteenth great-grandchild. It was an appropriate coda, not only because new life follows death but because Dad spent so much of his career bringing new lives into the world. By our unscientific estimate, he delivered over four thousand babies.
As a physician, he was old-school. He made house calls carrying a black bag, talked with patients during hour-long appointments, charged a few dollars for an office visit. As a young man, he had to decide between medicine and the Christian ministry, but in the end he didn’t really have to choose. He was pastor and confessor to patients who really just needed a sympathetic ear. Dr. Leithart was always ready to listen. In the last years of his active practice, he developed a specialty in drug and alcohol addiction, which afforded him even more chances to care for those in desperation. He knew congressmen and governors, but he always seemed most comfortable among ordinary people.
Dad didn’t leave instructions for an epitaph, and my brothers and I decided on “Beloved physician – Colossians 4:14.” It wasn’t an easy decision. How do you sum up a life of quiet greatness in words that can fit on a headstone? My brother Ted was concerned that “physician” was too narrow. Dad was much more, and even his medical practice was as much soul care as body care. I hope that people visiting his grave will be inspired to think beyond the words to Yahweh’s promise to heal all disease (Ps.103) and to Jesus as the physician of sinners (Mark 2:17). I hope they’ll realize that Dr. Paul Leithart—as doctor, husband, father, friend—was a blessed instrument of the Spirit’s healing power.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.