“So, how is he doing?” Walter would ask, often within just a few minutes of our reunions, even though, because I lived in Texas and Walter lived in Oxford, it was sometimes a year between our visits. Or, in our email exchanges of almost two decades, Walter would compassionately inquire, “How is he doing?” In 2003, a few months after meeting Walter, I learned that someone very close and important to my wife and me was caught in the stultifying ravages of addiction. There were many dark days—days of despair when I simply did not know what to do or how to be of help. Those who have had cherished friends or family members experience the grip of addiction can empathize with our feelings of helplessness or fear. Today, I’m happy to report, our dear friend is doing exceptionally well. Following his seventh rehab, and punctuated with several seasons of relapse, he now has a promising career, a beautiful home, and a healthy marriage, and he sponsors others in recovery. Yet recovery is an ongoing process. The last time I saw Walter in 2019, during our annual or bi-annual, visits to Oxford, Walter again lovingly inquired, “So, how is he doing?”
Walter Hooper, the preeminent C. S. Lewis scholar in the world, who knew how much I loved Lewis, and also knew that I wanted to learn about Lewis from him, was primarily interested in me and those whom I love.
I met Walter at an Oxford C. S. Lewis Society meeting in the spring of 2002. As a new Lewis scholar, visiting Oxford to do primary research in the Oxford University’s famed Bodleian Library, I was just orienting myself to Lewis scholarship. Yet, for some reason, Walter enjoyed visiting with me, and we became dear friends, as he did with so many others. Over the years we would meet annually and, in some years, more than once in Oxford, sometimes in his home, or at the Old Parsonage restaurant, where we met so often that we simply called it “Our Club.” There were other opportunities for visits. We saw each other when he came to the Wade Center at Wheaton College, or when he delivered a lecture at Texas State University and celebrated his 74th birthday in my home. We also exchanged email messages when we couldn’t meet in person. Although we did talk about C. S. Lewis, we talked more about our lives, hopes, and interests, and he was always interested in me. But I’m not alone in feeling that Walter took a special interest in my personal journey. Following Walter’s death on December 7, 2020, social media posts abounded with stories and photos of Walter’s friendship with so many people.
In addition to loving his friends, Walter also loved cats. His cat, Claret the Meek, was such a beloved pet that it was also Walter’s email address until the day Walter died. When I informed Walter about the passing of our cat, Bouncer, Walter wrote, “Do not imagine that I take the death of Bouncer lightly. My heart is sore for you and Sue and all who loved Bouncer. We ought to celebrate the wonderful companions they are—as I know you do. But my problem is that I love my cats either an inordinate amount, or almost an inordinary amount.” He added, “When Claret the Meek died, I asked Paulette [a friend who used to cat sit for him], ‘Why do I grieve more over my cats than the death of my human friends?’ She said, ‘I think it is because cats give us 100% of themselves, and people rarely do.’” Walter’s last cat, Blessed Lucy of Narnia, was also a special comfort to him. He would often end his email messages with “Blessed Lucy of Narnia joins me in sending you and Sue our love.” When he spoke to my C. S. Lewis class at St. Hilda’s College in Oxford between 2005 and 2017, I gave Walter a modest honorarium. After his first visit to my class, he wrote to say he had always wanted to have pictures of Blessed Lucy featured on a postcard, so he hoped it was OK to use his honorarium to make postcards featuring her. I’m smiling now as I’m looking at one of those cards as I write; there’s Blessed Lucy, playfully poised behind a plate with her head winsomely peeking around the edge.
Walter was compassionate not only about cats, but also with his friends and the many people who admired him. During the challenging years when I saw how the ravages of addiction could destroy lives, Walter offered great comfort and wisdom to my wife and me; he knew that addiction is a debilitating disease, rather than a reflection of one’s moral choices. He shared lessons from how C. S. Lewis responded to his brother Warnie’s alcohol addiction. “So how would Lewis deal with Warnie’s addiction?” I would ask, eager for an answer that would be of help to me. I’ll never forget Walter’s answer: “He loved his brother.” Lewis, although greatly stressed because of Warnie’s addiction, offered unwavering brotherly love and support.
Lewis also did not make Warnie’s addiction the central, defining aspect of his own life or his relationship with his brother.
He worked at not fostering a co-dependent relationship; he responded with both compassion and, when appropriate, assistance, while continuing his own work. Lewis’s response to his brother’s addiction had great merit; how to avoid co-dependency with addicts we love is the key mission of Al-Anon support groups. And then there were Walter’s prayers of support for my beloved friend, for me and Sue, and for my entire family. One of my cherished possessions is a rosary Walter gave me from one of his trips to Assisi. I was first attracted to Walter because of his unparalleled scholarship about C. S. Lewis, but it is his compassion, empathic love, and friendship that I will miss the most.
The first time I visited Walter in his home in Oxford, he told me that C. S. Lewis was the best listener he ever met. I remember thinking that although I would never have an opportunity to have a conversation with Lewis, my time with Walter was as close as I could get to having a visit with Jack. Walter was a compassionate and attentive listener who cared about his friends, during times of both celebration and sorrow. Oxford, a place that I love, seems a bit dimmer now. Walter’s illuminating friendship with me has ended. Yet when writing about or teaching interpersonal communication, I sometimes offer this maxim: “Relationships don’t end, we simply redefine them.” Whether separated by divorce or death, those who have been in our lives but whom we no longer see continue to influence us through thoughts and memories. Such sentiments remind me of one of Lewis’s friends, Sheldon Vanauken, who tells the story of leaving a meeting after visiting with C. S. Lewis at the Eastgate Hotel in Oxford.
As Lewis walked away, Vanauken said, “Goodbye, Jack.” Lewis continued to cross the High Street, then turned around and shouted over the traffic noise, “Christians never say goodbye.”
My relationship with Walter has not ended, but has been redefined. He may not be with us in person, but his affirming love and lessons of compassion, as well as his model of listening nonjudgmentally, is a model for us yet. I am thankful that my friend Walter lionized the legacy of C. S. Lewis. He also kindled memories that will continue to inspire, encourage, and invoke The Source of All Love.
The featured image of Walter Hooper and his beloved cat, Blessed Lucy of Narnia and the portrait of Blessed Lucy are courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and used with glad permission.
Steven A. Beebe (Ph.D. University of Missouri-Columbia) is Regents’ and University Distinguished Professor emeritus at Texas State University. He is the author or co-author of 14 widely used communication books, most of which are in multiple editions (including Russian and Chinese editions) totaling more than 75 volumes used by millions of students throughout the world, as well as 60 articles and book chapters, and more than 150 conference presentations. In 2013 Steve served as president of the National Communication Association, the largest academic communication association in the world. He has been a Visiting Scholar at both Oxford University and Cambridge University. He made international headlines while conducting research at Oxford University when he discovered an unpublished manuscript written by C. S. Lewis that was the partial opening chapter of a book to be co-authored with J. R. R. Tolkien called Language and Human Nature. His most recent book, C. S. Lewis and the Craft of Communication, was published in 2020.