The Enormously Important Lesson That Kate O’Beirne Taught Me

I don’t remember exactly how I met her. All I know is that she was in my orbit, and I in hers, before anyone really knew who Kate O’Beirne was. It was probably Reagan events, or close friends. There was always a group, and she was the person you most wanted to be near. I was her junior, but never felt like it. That was Kate. Making everyone around her feel as if she were the focus of her attention.

Then one day she arrived at the Heritage Foundation and this friend was suddenly my boss. I was used to working independently. Her job was to corral us all. I am not easy to corral. The Savoy Hotel in London would finally break the logjam.

Education was to be the subject of the Windsor Castle program that year for Heritage donors. It was equivalent of the grim reaper program for donors. You come to Windsor Castle for environmentally rich intellectual stimulation, and after you’ve been dazzled with brilliance, the development people convince you to put Heritage in your will.

Kate’s perfect Irish humor — and luck — were with us from the beginning. We arrived at the airport and first were told our seats had been misassigned and they were occupied. “That’s too bad,” she says. “You’re putting us in at least business class then,” she said, with that wide toothy smile. Yep, that’s what happened. As we unpacked our little packet of booties, toothpaste and various sleep accouterments, she quipped, “This is awful. I’ll never be able to fly coach again.”

After arriving in London, we would meet Holly Coors, who offered us a ride to the Savoy. “That's so thoughtful of you but we need to be with the Heritage staff at another hotel,” Kate says, so diplomatically. Off we went to our very basic hotel, I nearly eight months pregnant, and Kate concerned I might give birth any moment.

I couldn’t forget the idea of the Savoy Hotel when I arrived at our Hotel and nauseously smelled the freshly painted halls. I suggested we combine our two rooms and get one at the Savoy. “Oh Jeanne, could we?” She thought I was kidding. My Italian upbringing always encouraged me to push the envelope. Her Irish upbringing required much more subtlety and finesse.

Kate was most generous in her praise of my “brilliant” idea in the taxi then, and for years after. Yet it was her charm upon our arrival that transformed our simple room into a two-bedroom suite. The favor of the idea was returned, and the cost would remain the same.

I was proud to have Kate’s affirmation then, just as I was proud to have it at every special event in one of my kids’ lives, or when I would appear on some minor news program as compared to her major appearances, and she’d find a way to shower me with praise for a comparably insignificant achievement.

As an early board member of the organization I founded, the Center for Education Reform (CER), Kate was intensively dedicated to CER (even though education reform wasn’t the issue that grabbed her most). She was steadfast in her commitment to conservative principles and never hastened to argue, with great diplomacy, that focusing on only certain segments of society for educational choice ignored the hard-working middle classes who also deserved to have choices (prescient for 25 years ago, no?) She’d say she was not so helpful to me when she always was. Kate was a servant leader (how I wish I could say “is.”)

It was her faith. God gifted her at birth with humility, wisdom and that witty and bountifully brilliant conversation that drew you in to Kate O’Beirne’s broad and ever-open circle of humanity. No professional affair, simple work encounter or dinner table conversation was absent her skillful but unobtrusive management — for your benefit, not hers. “I’d love you to tell everyone what you just shared with me” (she’d say to the table about the person she’d just met sitting across from her). In a crowded event she could skillfully maneuver people at her heels wanting to talk to her, and still manage to move onto the next hive, without seeming uninterested or rude (a rare feat in politics and DC).

Few knew that Kate was actually an introvert, and that such graceful conversation and engagement with people was actually not her preference. She would much rather enjoy the quiet and comfortable confines of her personal intellectual, spiritual and familial pursuits.

Kate’s conservative and moral values were her most prominent assets and the reason behind the thousands of remembrances happening right now all over the country. She was resolute in her beliefs and clear in her values. She didn’t speak without knowing her stuff, and she didn’t condemn others who disagreed. She just argued her case, and if you were wrong, the encounter was firm, polite and always deeply grounded.

And then there were her personal interests. She’d remember everything you last told her about your child, your mother, a friend. She’d not allow the conversation to turn for too long to her interests, her loves, her children, her world. What a role model, in a world that offers us so very few.

While I spent precious time with her over the years, it wasn’t nearly enough in more recent times. I always had something happening at that moment that deterred me from calling, something that got in the way. And she was busy, anyway, with lots of stuff, especially her dearest possessions — her children and grandchildren.

With her family and dear friends surrounding her in her last hours, it was so clear that Kate was no ordinary mortal. She was their center, their rock, without ambition to be so. So many of us take for granted those we know, we enjoy, and rely on. There is always “later,” “next week,” “next month.”

No. There is not.

So, Kate, thank you once again for teaching me something enormously important. May God’s warmth and love reward you, until we meet again in a spiritual Savoy.

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