Some years ago, a curmudgeonly sounding so-and-so phoned me while I was still in the newspaper business.
"Is this THE Wayne Hoffman?" inquired the unfamiliar voice.
Turns out the guy on the other end of the line was one Ralph Smeed, a person whose name I had heard from time to time but never had the pleasure to meet. Smeed was calling with a critique of one of my news articles, I don't remember which. The conservation, shall we say, "evolved" from there. We spent some time discussing the propensity of the news media to promote "statism," a term of which I was unfamiliar. Smeed prodded me, and said I and others in my profession were systematically promoting big government.
"I'm different," I resisted, confidently.
"No you're not. I'll bet you lunch," Ralph offered.
"You're on," I said. We laughed and said our goodbyes.
It was the first of many, many conversations with a man who became one of my dearest friends. To reinforce his point, he loaded me up with books and essays, phone calls and faxes, imparted wisdom, coached, corrected, admonished. He was right, I came to find, about journalism, about its tendency to promote government solutions (sometimes without even realizing it), about statism, and indeed, about me.
I found myself, over time, questioning the credibility of the news media, lamenting the fact that conservatives and libertarians are mocked, scorned or dismissed more commonly than not; that reporters and editors didn't understand or want to understand the folks on the Right; that every good story has a victim, hero and villain, and those who believe in less government play almost always play the heavy opposite the cape-wearing statist who wanted to comfort the afflicted through the creation or expansion of one government program or another.
I paid my lunch to Ralph, although over the years, he paid for more than I ever did. Some years later, during yet another lunch, this time with friend Maurice Clements, Ralph encouraged me to help start what became the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a successor to the organization Ralph and Maurice started in the 1970s, the Center for the Study of Market Alternatives.
He was confident that, more than ever, the time was right for free market ideas.
"You have something we didn't have," Ralph would tell me. "You have Obama!"
We continued to talk almost every day. He'd give me more books, more articles, encouragement and healthy doses of criticism when my vocabulary failed to properly deliver an idea. And when my words landed a punch, and Ralph let me know it, I couldn't be prouder.
This summer, doctors diagnosed Ralph with pancreatic cancer, and our time together was shortened.
"I wish we had more time to talk," Ralph told me a couple of weeks ago, the day he was hospitalized for the last time. Me, too.
Ralph was never comfortable with expressions of gratitude. It would choke him up a bit. I'm certain he wouldn't like this column, as much as it is hard for me to write it. But Ralph, you were a great friend, a giant among men. Thank you for being an unflappable defender of freedom; for being an inspiration, for your encouragement, for standing tall and for making a difference. I love you very much, and we will make sure no one forgets you. Goodbye, my friend.