An Incredible Life and Legacy: Remembering Charles Wiley
He was a patriot deeply in love with America and its historical freedoms.
By Dr. David Ayers
My old and dear friend and mentor, Charlie Wiley, passed away in his sleep this week. He was 95 years old. If living a long life with your mind intact, your interest in life and its affairs still intense, your oldest memories as keen as yesterday, and then dying peacefully in one’s sleep is a reward from God for a life well lived, then Charles Wiley is most surely an example.
Moved to write a tribute to him, how do I know where to start?
I remember the last time I saw him alive. His rumpled brown overcoat, patch on one eye, World War II veteran’s baseball hat, sneakers, and everything he traveled with in something like a grocery bag as I dropped him off, shaking his hand for the last time, at the Pittsburgh airport in April 2019. With the onset of COVID, his April 2020 speaking trip to Grove City College had to be cancelled. That was a rare spring at the college without Charlie — he had visited the campus consistently almost every year since 1997. He would arrive Sunday evening and stay until Thursday morning, with a big evening talk on Monday, lectures to several classes, and wrapping up on Thursday with a talk at George Junior Republic and then sometimes Rotary.
After seeing off Charlie at the airport in April 2019, there were just the regular long and warm phone calls, Charlie passionately analyzing the world in light of everything he had been saying to me and anyone else who had been listening, for several decades. I had enjoyed Charlie calls since the 1980s.
I remember the first time I saw him, at about age 60, in the basement men’s room of the college where I was teaching, about 1987. He was applying ointment for a skin condition he had picked up, he said, in the South Pacific. A skin condition that accompanied him on trips to virtually every place in the world after that, through one war after another, and hundreds of speeches yearly well into his 90s. Two things were obvious right off the bat: He had a strong ego, but he also did not have a pretentious bone in his body. He was absolutely confident, with a high but accurate opinion of himself, and afraid of nothing. But he was honestly interested in, and concerned about, everyone, high or low. I liked him instantly.
How do you summarize a one-in-a-million person like Charles Wiley? It is easy to focus on his amazing experiences and accomplishments, so full that even after 35 years he could surprise me with some new story. A child actor who performed in the first staging of Our Town, from a family of actors from New York City who traveled the country, he served in the USO after failing to get into the Marines when lying about his age a couple of days after Pearl Harbor. As soon as he was legally able, he joined the Navy, and pestered them until they gave him a combat assignment. He was a gunner on the first ship to dock in Japan following the surrender and was on the team that evacuated people ahead of the first famous atomic test blast at Bikini Atoll. Later, NYU tried to deny him his bachelor’s degree in journalism when the dean discovered that, due to his enlistment, he didn’t have a high school diploma. His straight A average, rare at the time, and while employed full-time, convinced the dean to back down. I don’t think he ever graduated high school, but he graduated summa cum laude from NYU.
Charlie became a war correspondent, among other things, with at least four tours in Vietnam, including Tet. Where do I begin? The last journalist to interview Malcolm X, in a restaurant in NYC, a few weeks before his assassination. His hunger strike in a Cuban dungeon, daring Fidel Castro to let an American journalist starve to death rather than knuckle under. His deportation from the USSR in 1962 ordered personally by the head of the KGB, whom he later met with for over five hours in an apartment in Moscow, with a picture to prove it. His trip to the Soviet border with the Red Army back in the 1970s, for which Soviet spotters retaliated by shooting two Chinese soldiers. The letters of testimony and notes of thanks from Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, the former president of South Vietnam, General Westmoreland, the captain of the ill-fated Pueblo, the leader of the Cuban patriots who were slaughtered at the Bay of Pigs. There was his time with Gloria Steinem when she was a CIA agent posted at an Eastern European embassy or chatting with someone who appears to be then-Mujahideen soldier Osama Bin Laden on a mountain side in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. Watching Humphrey Bogart waiting for his girlfriend after rehearsal for a stage show Charlie was in. Hanging out with a fellow USO performer named Bob Hope when they bumped into each other in Hong Kong. His friendship with Mike Wallace and conversations with Charlton Heston. The hardened African American gang member at our local George Junior Republic rehabilitation facility hugging Charlie after his talk there and then bugging the staff for over a year to bring him back. (Charlie literally had tears when he told me about it.) And best of all, Charlie and Alice selling Tony Randall his prized poodle. Pictures with Robert Dole, Edward Teller, Gerald Ford. Our own J. Howard Pew personally writing and handing him checks to fund his work infiltrating communist youth congresses in Eastern Europe during the 1950s and 1960s.
Charlie used to say that the only thing that had kept him from visiting almost every country on the planet was that they kept creating new ones. He spent a lot of time in the Ukraine, for example, and loved the Ukrainian people dearly. But it wasn’t a country then. Ditto lots of others.
There were some of my favorite “Charlie sayings.” “Life is hard, but it’s a lot harder if you’re stupid.” “Not enough of our people in charge have learned to look at things from the other’s guy’s point of view.” “Being old is great, except you die a lot sooner.” “When I was a kid, I never heard FDR’s name in my home. To my father, he was just ‘that son of a bitch.’”
Charlie was the most intelligent and interesting man I have every known. He was deeply loyal to his friends. He was madly in love with his wife Alice, and his family. He was a survivor of personal tragedy, losing his first wife young, and a son to drowning. He was a patriot deeply in love with America and its historical freedoms. He was a passionate and effective Cold Warrior, but always a happy one. He never talked to me without expressing a serious interest in how I was doing and how my wife and children were. By the way, my kids adored him and were in awe of him.
When I remember Charlie speaking at our college, I think of the “donut.” What’s that? The donut of students around him at the end of his talk, speaking with him and firing questions and laughing, often for a half hour or more until I would literally drag him away. I saw that donut in three states and as many colleges, dozens of times. I used to joke with him that he was the Pied Piper.
Charlie revolutionized the way that I think, the way I analyze things. I have read incredible books, had amazing professors, met some real geniuses, but no one like him. What did I learn that I have and will continue to try my best to apply, but without the benefit of his unique mind, inductive logical ability, encyclopedic memory, and passion?
First, without prejudice, look at reality from the other person’s point of view. If you want to understand Mao, or Stalin, Putin, the average Russian, the average Chinese loyalist, Palestinians, Biden, Trump — anyone — get into their heads. More importantly, what would you do if you were them? How would you think and feel about this if you were them? How does the world look to them?
Second, acquire new knowledge and integrate it with your existing knowledge, constantly. In doing so, learn from everyone. Listen to people you don’t like. A sworn enemy of communism, he read and saved every issue of the Daily Worker for many years. During the 1930s, Charlie found ways to get translated broadcasts from Germany. As a boy he listened to and read Hitler speeches back when Chamberlain was still trying to appease him. He read and clipped news from everywhere, box after box of it, and especially tuned into and read non-American news sources daily, right up to the end.
Third, after doing all this, set aside your prejudices and ideology, and let the facts speak to you whether or not you like what they tell you. For example, the person you hate may be evil, but he may also be incredibly smart, not crazy. Yes, winning that war might be easy, but can you hold what you win? Charlie’s predictions were almost always accurate, given well in advance, and frequently defied popular conservative wisdom. His uncanny gift of induction based on an incredible grasp of facts fitted to other facts, free of ideological blinders, was his secret.
Fourth, never stop growing and improving. Let me illustrate this from two things I observed. First, when Charlie forgot some fact, even in his 90s, he refused to “Google” it. He just kept thinking until he remembered it. Charlie told me that this kept his mental connections fresh, kept his brain from getting lazy and stale. Second, a stellar and riveting speaker, he always insisted I ask students to write up honest evaluations of what they liked and didn’t like about his speech. He said he was most interested in reading the negative comments, because praise didn’t help him improve.
Finally, fight for what is true and good regardless of whether you are on the winning side. Charlie used to often remind me that Whittaker Chambers, in renouncing his loyalty to communism, said clearly that he chose what he believed at the time to be the losing side in order to choose truth rather than live by lies under communism.
The last time I spoke to Charlie was about a month ago. I expressed despair over seeing the gradual victory of everything I have fought against and cared about for most of my adult life. He answered, “Dave, I have fought on the losing side my entire life.” Even the defeat of Soviet communism and the Iron Curtain — something he had sacrificed to see for decades — had been, as he saw it, squandered by the feckless, clueless foreign policy of both parties since the close of the Reagan era. Charlie often reminded me that he had been a conservative activist when you could fit all the champions of true conservatism in a phone booth, during the early days of William Buckley.
And in that, he reminded me, as he had many times before, that I need to do more than just fight, more than just stand for truth. I also need, as he did, to not let all those evils and disappointments befoul my private world, to wreck the peace or warmth of my marriage and family. He lived that, relying on his wonderful and beloved wife Alice every day, calling her at least once a day on the road, talking everything over with her, his partner in every way. He talked about the joy and accomplishment he got from his son and daughter and grandchildren and in-laws. He nurtured and protected his private world and the people and friends he loved, and this gave him strength to engage the public world through one losing battle after another, right up to the day he left us.
Charlie, your leaving has left a big hole in my life and a lot of others. But I am grateful to God for having known you this well and this long. I appreciate your loyalty and how you always had my back. I know you did everything you could to make sure Alice was taken care of, that she will miss you terribly but will be okay. Yours has been an incredible life and legacy. You lived well. You died well. May you rest in peace.
Dr. David J. Ayers is the Fellow for Marriage and Family with the Institute for Faith & Freedom. His latest book is “Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction.”
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