Dr. Melvin Fein succumbed to pancreatic cancer this past Monday morning, Aug. 26. He will surely be missed by many of his former colleagues at Kennesaw State University and many former students who had the opportunity to study under him, but perhaps even more by the many thousands of citizens in Cobb and Cherokee counties who looked forward to reading his editorial each week in the newspaper. Like two other local columnists, Roger Hines and Dr. Nelson Price, Dr. Fein was a gifted writer and a man who had accumulated not only great knowledge but wisdom through the years.
This past Thursday I was honored to deliver a eulogy at Dr. Fein’s memorial service. The following is my heartfelt tribute to this great and good man.
It is an honor to be here and celebrate the life and the considerable contributions and accomplishments of Dr. Melvin Fein.
Although I taught at Kennesaw State University early in my academic career, I only became aware of Melvyn a few years ago as a result of reading his weekly column in the Marietta Daily Journal.
I was – to say the least – pleasantly surprised to realize that this university professor of sociology was an ardent proponent of many conservative and traditional social, political and moral values. As he wrote in one of his books, “My goal [is] to make it clear that conservatism isn’t merely about preserving the past. It’s more about building on the past to make a better future.” This he did on the basis of what he called “five perennial principles”:
(1) personal honesty;
(2) personal responsibility;
(3) fairness (i.e., applying the same laws and rules for all);
(4) individual liberty; and
(5) traditional family values.
I wanted to get to know Mel personally, so we met for lunch one day. He immediately impressed me as a passionate and principled man who valued integrity, decency, and honesty. He was also a man of admirable courage who was unafraid to challenge many of the conventional dogmas in contemporary academia as well as any colleagues and administrators with whom he disagreed.
I later asked Mel to speak at an Areopagus Forum on “The Problem of Political Correctness in Higher Education.” His presentation was perceptive and forceful as he pulled no punches when it came to the threats to freedom of expression posed by left-wing ideologues on college and university campuses. Later, he attended a lecture I gave on “The History and Philosophy of Cultural Marxism and Political Correctness,” which became the basis for one of his subsequent editorials. As our friendship developed, it was based not only on mutual respect but mutual admiration.
Three characteristics of Mel particularly impressed me. One was his honesty. I never doubted that what he wrote and spoke were his sincerely held convictions. He rarely tempered his thoughts and speech in order to gain the approval of others. And although he was a proud man, he was not pretentious. In 2016 I invited him to participate in an Areopagus debate with a Christian philosopher on the topic, “Do We Need God to be Good?” Mel took the negative position, and afterward I informed him, “You lost.” He just smiled and nodded, “I know.”
Another characteristic that Mel exuded was courage. Mel was resolutely devoted to truth as he perceived it, and in his zeal he was fearless when it came to challenging the popular PC mentality that prevails on university campuses. In that sense he was a crusader for TRUE social justice whereby people get what they deserve in a fair and open society. He was committed to the principle that everyone should be judged on the basis of their accomplishments and the content of their character rather than their race, sex, religious affiliation, political views, social connections, or economic status.
The third characteristic that I admired about Mel – and this may not be so obvious to those who didn’t know and understand him well – was his love for others. Now, I’m not referring to “love” primarily as physical attraction or some kind of sentimental affection. I mean “love” in the sense that the Greeks spoke of storge – a genuine concern for the well-being of others. In that regard, Mel was passionate about truth and devoted to sharing it with others. He expressed this kind of “love” in the ways in which he taught his students and the ideas he conveyed in his writings.
This was apparent to me the first time we met. He told me at the time: “I tell my students in my first lecture every semester, ‘I don’t give anyone a grade. But if you’re willing to put in the necessary time and effort and work hard, you can earn a good grade. But I don’t ‘love’ you, and you aren’t entitled to anything.’”
I told him, “Mel, I think you really do love your students. Not in the sense of some kind of emotional affection, but certainly in terms of wanting them to know the truth about the present state of our society and culture – including the political challenges we face. I think you also sincerely want them to live a decent and honorable life by making a positive contribution to the lives of others.”
Although Mel demurred, it was obvious that he did in fact love his students. He cared about them to the extent that he labored conscientiously to be the best scholar, teacher and writer possible so as to broaden and deepen their understanding of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful – in particular, the basic principles of justice, decency, civility, and personal responsibility on which civilized society depends.
Mel also loved America. While honestly acknowledging its past and present flaws, he understood that America is a unique and exceptional nation. It is, as Wilfred McClay has written, “arguably the most aspirational nation in human history.” In that regard Mel believed that anyone fortunate enough to live in America is in a sense “privileged.” America is, and always has been, a land of opportunity. For the most part, those who succeed or fail do so on the bases of their character, their values, and their priorities. Furthermore, he believed that every American has a moral responsibility to convert this privilege into service to others as he emphasized in his book, Social Individualism. That is what he passionately believed, and that is what he devoted his career to advancing as a professor and a writer.
The admiration and respect that Mel earned over the years was exemplified so poignantly in the many letters that poured into the Marietta Daily Journal once he announced that he had inoperable pancreatic cancer. Among the comments that most caught my attention were...
“I cannot believe the MDJ will be without his words of wisdom and calm debate of complex topics.... Dr. Fein, your columns have made the MDJ a better paper, and by reading them, you’ve helped me become a better person and a better researcher, thinker, and debater.”
“His columns... have been a beacon of light and common sense in this time of anger and unreality....”
“I want you to know how much you have contributed to the understanding of life, politics and humanity through your writings. You are truly a remarkable thinker and writer....”
“As our culture seems to be self-destructing at an ever-increasing peace, your columns were a source of wisdom, reason and comfort.”
“Though I have never met Melvyn Fein, I feel I am losing a friend.... You are intelligent, articulate and insightful. Thank you, Dr. Fein, for the outstanding contribution you have made in bettering this world.... You will be missed.”
And this from his fellow-columnist, Roger Hines: “His quick mind, piercing questions, and astute observations about American society were astounding.”
As he wrote about in his autobiography, Too Lazy to Chew, Mel’s life was far from idyllic, and for many years he struggled to overcome the debilitating psychological effects of his early home life. Thankfully, he was able to do just that. Then, rather late in life, he encountered Linda Treiber. In his book he writes endearingly of their professional relationship that evolved into mutual attraction, then deep friendship, and finally into love and marriage. After years of intense emotional struggle and pain, God blessed Mel with a true soul-mate. It was a classic love story... and it was even true! I was moved nearly to tears just a few days ago as I visited Mel in their home and observed just how sensitive, patient and kind Linda was in attending to his needs.
Mel was not perfect – none of us are – but I have to say that I rather enjoyed his direct approach and his occasionally confrontational and even abrasive nature. I am a Christian, while he was an ambivalent agnostic, which made for some very spirited exchanges. But his honesty, his courage, his concern for others, and his determination and perseverance in the midst of great adversity throughout his life and academic career should serve as an inspiration to us all. In that respect Melvyn Fein was a man worthy of honor, admiration, and respect. I certainly thank God that I was privileged to know him and regard him as a dear friend.