I’m saddened this evening to hear the news of the passing of Walter Hooper. If you’re not familiar with Walter, it’s largely due to his influence that C.S. Lewis’ nonfiction books remain in print and continue to have an outsized influence on Christian discourse decades after his passing.
I once spent an afternoon with Walter at his home in Oxford, just after Christmas 2004, and if you’ll indulge me in more than a little nostalgia, I’ll share the story.
A dear friend of my family’s from Western North Carolina (Anna Barry, who has also now passed away) knew Walter when they were at UNC Chapel Hill together in the 1950s. She had been an avid reader of and correspondent with C.S. Lewis, and connected with Walter over his work. She encouraged him to write to Lewis, and, based on that correspondence, Walter went to the UK to meet Lewis and ended up becoming his literary secretary near the end of Lewis’ life, and later the trustee of his literary estate. He never returned to live in the US.
Miss Anna stayed in touch with Walter through the years, occasionally visiting him in Oxford with her family and hosting him at her home on visits back to the U.S. Through him, she connected as well with the Tolkien family, who were close friends of his. In the summer of 2004, Priscilla Tolkien (J.R.R.’s youngest daughter) paid the Barry family a visit in North Carolina, and Miss Anna convinced her to have a little reception and give a talk for our county homeschool co-op. I was a sophomore in college by then, but came along with my family. Coming on the heels of the Lord of the Rings film franchise, this was a big hit with a bunch of young nerds like us. Pricilla was charming, and more than kind to put up with the mountain of questions and photo ops we subjected her to.
Later that year, I had the opportunity to spend Christmas break in the UK on a fine arts tour through my college. We had one free day in an otherwise full schedule, so I contrived a plan to visit Oxford, eat at the Eagle and Child, and (hopefully) wow my friends by taking them to meet Priscilla. Miss Anna graciously reached out to Priscilla on my behalf, but she declined to see us, citing ill health.
“There’s someone else there you should meet, though. Let me give you his information,” she said, and wrote Walter Hooper’s name and phone # on a piece of paper for me. At that time, I hadn’t read much of Lewis beyond the Narnia books and Mere Christianity, and was only vaguely familiar with his impact on popular Christianity in the West. I’d certainly never heard of Walter.
Upon arriving in London, though, I dutifully phoned him (back then, kids, you didn’t call people from another country on a whim—it was so incredibly expensive!), and he was quite excited to to host some friends and me on our day in Oxford.
We took the bus and, after some obligatory sightseeing—Radcliffe Camera, the University church of St. Mary the virgin, the OUP bookstore—we walked 2 miles or so in the spitting snow to his townhouse. He welcomed us in, made tea, and intently listened to our stories about what we were studying, how we’d found England thus far, etc. And then I started looking around his house.
There was a large photo of Walter standing with C.S. Lewis hanging over the mantelpiece (Walter lived alone and never married, so aside from old family photos from the U.S., this one was most prominent). By the stairs was a picture of Walter with Pope John Paul II! It began to dawn on me that this must be a special guy who had lived quite the interesting life.
Once we had all been introduced and finished chitchatting, he started to tell his story. Walter made the connection for me of how he knew Miss Anna (he himself was a son of rural North Carolina) and then related how he came to know Lewis and become a British citizen. He’d actually lived for some months at the Kilns with Lewis and his brother, & inherited a good bit of their furniture, which he showed us. He told some classic Lewis stories about their first meeting, including the “Bathroom” anecdote that appears in his introduction to The Weight of Glory, and a story about Lewis’ giving change to a panhandler (he was chided by a friend, “He’ll only spend it on drink!” and retorted, “Well, that’s what I was going to do with it.”) that I’ve often retold when talking with Christians about erring on the side of generosity.
Walter then shared his faith journey, from his American upbringing (Methodist, if I remember correctly) and his studying for the Anglican priesthood, and his eventual conversion to Catholicism in the 1980s once he grew disillusioned with much of Anglican politics and cultural captivity (“The only real Christians in Oxford,” he said with a smile, “are in the RCC! Who knew?”). Time flew, and soon we’d been there talking of politics, eschatology—a particular comment of his about imagining the resurrected body being a bit like “Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his prime,” had us all in stitches— and so many other things for three or four hours. By then it was getting dark, and time to catch the bus back to London.
He sent us off warmly, and gave each of us his personal e-mail address (on AOL!) and an invitation to write anytime. When I arrived home, I sent him a note of thanks, and he wrote back promptly. We ended up corresponding for many months. I still have all the old e-mails, and looking back over them tonight, I am astonished at the time and care he took to write so faithfully. He even read and interacted with my paltry articles from the student newspaper! Eventually the conversation trailed off, though owing to my end rather than his, as I graduated, got married, got a job, and got too busy to keep up with old friends—to my great shame and lament.
Here is an e-mail from him (dated 5/17/2005) that I am still humbled by, especially given my lack of professional credentials or relevant projects of any sort and his incredibly full life. I’m sharing it here as a testament to the type of person he was.
Dear Justin—you are a good man for continuing to write. I like very much hearing from you, but I realise you have no idea of the strain I am under. After five years of unremitting hard work on the first two volumes of the Collected Letters of C.S.Lewis, I was hoping for a break. But because the big film of Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has its premiere in December 2005, the Estate of C.S. Lewis and the publishers have been pushing me very, very hard to complete Volume III (the final volume) so it can be published before the film. I work seven days a week, and I have had one day free since November 2004. Recently I’ve been getting up at 5 so as to try to get more done.
Most of those to whom I mention the letters imagine a little paperback, which they feel they could polish off in a weekend. But I am talking about a volume that is essentially a thousand pages of text and notes. Most of the 2000 or so notes in this volume have cost me many hours of research in the Bodleian. So, while this may be a job that could be polished off in record time by some people—I am not one of them. Besides all this, I get hundreds of visitors every year, and about 1000 letters to answer. So my work on the letters has to be sandwiched in between all these visits, all these letters. Nowadays when people make an appointment to see me I agree only on condition they not stay beyond an agreed on time. Otherwise, people will stay until they are ready to leave—which may be six or seven hours. They have nothing but free time, and I have none. I only have until the middle of June to complete the biggest task I’ve undertaken in my life, and the doctor is having to treat me for stress. So, the reason it is hard for me to be a good correspondent at this time—and until this job is behind me—is that I simply have to work ALL the time. I never have time off. I hope I can survive long enough to complete this volume, but if the presume keeps on building up I don’t know what I will do. I may simply have to ask the Lewis Estate to let someone else complete this volume. The problem with that is that it would be very difficult for anyone else to know how to finish it.
It’s a curious thing, which I can’t explain, that nearly all those who are constantly on the phone, or in letters or in emails, begging to see me, do not have the slightest notion of what I’ve spent the last 41 years doing. “What is it you do?” they are sometimes led to ask. I tell them, and they’ve forgotten five minutes later. Perhaps this is good for my soul, for I’m never given a reason to be vain. But it’s not good for my health because while these people have endless time, I have to either get up with the chickens and stumble into bed in the wee hours.
This is not meant to make you ashamed of having written—but merely to explain. I’m hoping good friends like you and your classmates will not write me off because—God willing—when this huge task is behind me, I want to keep up our precious correspondence. What I’m describing is not something new. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t one of God’s jokes that, while there are a few people in the world who actually know what I do, almost none of the people I know has the slightest interest in what I’ve being doing in Oxford for more than half my life. It makes me wonder why they are so keen to spend so much time with me?
On my precious day off—last Thursday—I went up to London with two friends to see the exhibition in the National Gallery of the paintings of Caravaggio. I am a member of the Athenaeum Club in London, but I am there so rarely I have to prove my identity when I go there. Anyway, I gave my friends Cyrus and Iain lunch there, and then we saw the paintings. It was wonderful to have a day out, and to see those marvelous pictures.
The other big change is my life is—Blessed Lucy of Narnia! Have you heard? I have a new cat. The Fathers of the Oxford Oratory would not give me a moment’s peace after Claret the Meek died. They felt that I needed another cat, and one of them dragged me off in search of one. Eventually, we found Blessed Lucy of Narnia in a little animal rescue place in Oxford. She’s a little over a year old, is a combination of tabby (which means rings) and tortoise (which means bright spots). She is very affectionate, and I worship the ground she walks on. But, Lord! What a merry dance she is leading me! She sleeps all day and is very busying during the night catching mice and birds. One night last week she brought me four mice. Not all together, but one after the other during the course of the night. If I’m lucky enough to get the mouse away from her undamaged, I fling it out the window. In fact it has just occurred to me that on that particularly night she might have brought in the SAME mouse four separate times. The same with birds. I take them from her, and put them out the window. This breaks poor Blessed Lucy of Narnia’s heart.
When she comes in from outside during the night she rushed to be with me. I have to turn over on my back because, while I can’t sleep unless I’m on my side, she can’t sleep on top of me unless I’m lying flat. So I lie flat, with Lucy of Narnia on my chest, and when she falls asleep I gently lift her onto the bed, turn over and go back to sleep.
But you must be bored with all my ramblings. Please, would you do me a favour? We often ask people to pray for us just to have something to say. But I am worried about the project I’m working on, and I’m worried about my health. Would you please pray hard that the Lord will give me the strength to complete this task? Next time I’ll tell you why I am so very, very happy that the world has Pope Benedict XVI, but by this time you are tired of sitting at your desk, and tired of my voice! So, God bless you old friend, from Walter the Slow.
How do you respond to this? I’m sure I was more than sheepish, but we continued to write even so. Miss Anna was always also a faithful correspondent, sending me countless books, articles & longhand letters until her death in 2018. Among the many volumes on my shelf from her (always with lengthy introductions inside the front cover that showed her intimate knowledge of the text in question) is J.B. Phillips New Testament in Modern English (see article linked to in the first paragraph for the significance of that).
I was certainly a different person as a 20-year-old tourist wandering off the street into a busy man’s home than I am now, but Anna and Walter’s caring attention sparked a love for good books in me that hasn’t abated. Their nurturing correspondence with a young nobody is an example of faithful discipleship modeled by Lewis. It’s a level of willingness to pour out encouragement on others to which I still aspire.
Though I hadn’t spoken with either of them in a long while, I’m always grateful for their time and effort, and looking forward to reunions in glory. Rest well, friend.
Image: All Souls Quad, Oxford University. From ox.ac.uk.