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Father Daly, Kilmer, and Campion
They both loved the simple things of life and sang of them sweetly and sublimely – Joyce Kilmer of “Trees” and Father James J. Daly of the little town with the musical name of “Boscobel.” It was appropriate that their first rendezvous would be among the “Trees” at Campion, where the Wisconsin River runs past “Boscobel” into the Mississippi. It is a spot filled with the romance of history. It was there that Father Marquette, a hundred years and more before the Revolution, discovered the Upper Mississippi.
The warm friendship between Father Daly and Joyce Kilmer began with an exchange of letters in 1912. The letters grew in number and in the warmth of friendship. The natural result was a visit to Campion and Father Daly. It was a day of Campion’s glory with her “million dollar faculty.” With that genial host, Father Kister, as rector, were Fathers Daly, Pernin, McNichols, McClorey, Kleist, Blackmore, Boylan, Brockman, Donoher, and Hamill. Kilmer took to them; and they to him. The feeling was spontaneous.
Perhaps the friendship with Father Daly was one of the graces leading Kilmer to embrace the Catholic faith. In any case, a year after their friendship began, Kilmer and his wife, Aline, became Catholics. The faith was a gift for which Kilmer was always humbly grateful. His faith was everything to him. In one letter he wrote: “Pray that I may love God more. It seems to me that if I can learn to love God more constantly . . . absolutely nothing else can matter.”
Campion meant much to Kilmer. He was a guest there on four different occasions. He always came with joy, stayed as long as he could, and left with a promise of return. He enjoyed his walks and talks with Father Daly, Father Kister, and the rest. He enthused over the happy, family spirit of the boys. He wrote to Father Daly: “I am deeply grateful to Campion for its gracious and genial hospitality. I had a most delightful time and retain enjoyable memories.” And again: “I feel like an alumnus of Campion.” His last visit to Campion was memorable. As a soldier in the First World War, he returned in uniform to give the Commencement address on June 15, 1917.
Kilmer’s determination to volunteer for military service had posed a problem for many of his well-meaning friends. He was thirty, over the first draft age, and was exempt from call for the added reason that he was married and had four small children. He told his good friend Father Shyne, that he realized the situation, but he felt obliged in conscience to fight himself for his family and his country. True to that spirit, he was transferred at his own request to the famous 69th Regiment of New York because in his own words: “It was Irish and Catholic, and would go to France sooner.” He was right. The Regiment sailed for France in a few months. Within a year Kilmer was dead, killed in action, July 30, 1918. He was buried, where he fell, a hero, in the Wood of the Burned Bridge.
Campion lost a son, an adopted son, as Kilmer liked to call himself. And Campion wished to remember him, always. But how? Father Pernin, who inherited a sizable sum of money, thought of the most fitting memorial – a library in his honor. The idea was perfect. Kilmer’s wife, Aline, wrote “The Library at Campion is, I believe, of all the memorials the one Joyce would have loved best.” On the feast of Christ the King, October 31, 1937, the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Library at Campion was dedicated. There in the special display case are many personal mementoes of Kilmer. Among them are forty-eight of the personal letters which Kilmer wrote to the man who meant so much in his life, Father James Daly.
Kilmer died a young man. Like Rupert Brooke, the young English poet who died as a soldier in the same World War, of whom he wrote the words, Kilmer died “with half his songs unsung.” His own glorious epitaph might well be the words of tribute of his friend, Robert Holliday: “Ten times thrice blessed is he, the rarest of men, who like Kilmer never penned a line or said a word or did a deed that can arise to bring confusion to those who love him.” Or the eulogy of the Literary Digest: “The world is poorer for the loss of a very gallant gentleman and a poet who never wrote a line that was not pure and sweet and clean.”
Long years later, a few months ago, Father Daly died at the age of eighty-one. The last chapter on earth of Father Daly, Kilmer, and Campion! Kilmer sang of soldiers and died a soldier’s death. Significantly one of the finest, and the longest of Father Daly’s poems, sang of soldiers, soldiers in the army of Christ. It is called “The Grand Review” – the passing in review in heaven of the black-robed soldier sons of the soldier saint, Ignatius. Commanding one division is the Blessed Edmund Campion. And if sons by adoption march, there too is Joyce Kilmer. He would like it that way – beneath the banner of Campion, and shoulder to shoulder with Fathers Daly, Kister, Pernin, McNichols, McClorey, Kleist, Blackmore, Boylan, Brockman, Donoher, and Hamill. And when the last flag is furled and the command is “at ease,” they will look down with happy heart and eye upon the place of their first rendezvous where in the song of Father Daly
“The summer night is starry and still,
Reprinted from The Jesuit Bulletin*, Vol. 32, No. 6, December 1953. * The Jesuit Bulletin was the predecessor to the The Jesuit Blackrobe.