When the time comes to downsize, as it inevitably does for all of us, how do you say goodbye to 3,500 beloved books? How does one ensure the old friends will receive the love, the care — and the reading — they deserve?

Ross Mackenzie is the longest-serving Editorial Page editor in the history of Richmond newspapers. At the helm for more than 38 years, he is also the only person to serve as editorial editor of both The Richmond News Leader and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

During his years at the newspapers, Mackenzie wrote more than 20,000 editorials and columns. (His nationally syndicated column was a much appreciated link to common sense and to River City for this homesick Richmonder stationed far from home across the span of 23 years.)

Ross retired in 2006. He and his wife, Ginni, remained at their beautiful home in Goochland for another 12 years. But now they’ve moved to new digs, closer to the city, with more compact dimensions and less land. Which meant having to leave behind the books’ repository — a quiet, 16-by-20-foot woodland study built by Ross himself decades ago.

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When Ross talks about his books, his eyes light up, much like a parent speaking of his children. He describes his library as a “3,500-book collection put together over a lifetime. Perhaps the longest surviving original is Ted Lawson’s ‘Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,’ one of the old Landmark books for children, about 10- to 14-year-olds. So the collection spans about 65 years. But of course, the titles span thousands of years, from Plato and Cicero to Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, Washington, and Grant biographies, and Gordon Wood’s ‘Friends Divided.’ It’s a lifetime collection, and so eclectic — one individual’s chosen books.”

His favorites? “Shakespeare of course, not only for his insight into man but for the rhythm of his prose, which has influenced how we speak and write more than any author. Socrates, which means Plato. Xenophon. Tolkien. The Cranmer Episcopal prayer book. Tom Wolfe and Charles McCarry. Strauss. Madison and Lincoln. Whittaker Chambers. Jack London. Daniel James Brown’s ‘Boys in the Boat.’ Frost. The Merriam Webster Second International Dictionary and the second (and last) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.”

These, says Ross, are the authors and titles most responsible for shaping the man he became.

“The collection has many themes. But the dominant themes are America and the American character. There are a lot of titles related to the Founding, a fascination of mine since graduate school with Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago. So, yes — America: what America means, and what it means to be an American.”

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Where does one find a caretaker who will give these old friends the home they deserve? Enter Christopher Newport University President Paul Trible. Divine providence must have had a hand in arranging this merger of school and books.

When Trible, a former U.S. senator from Virginia, took over the helm at CNU in 1995, it was a sleepy little school attended by mostly local students. But in the 23 years under his guidance, the school has seen an incredible awakening. U.S. News & World Report just named CNU one of America’s “schools to watch” for making the “most promising and innovative changes in academics, faculty, students, campus, and facilities.” As Trible rightfully proclaims, “No school has come so far, so fast.”

Trible has overseen a magnificent $1 billion upgrade to the university. Majestic new buildings stand proudly — a testament to the aspiring thoughts and higher education happening there. The just-completed, $74 million library, the new home for the Mackenzie collection, is the heart of the campus.

Ross says giving these books to CNU was kismet. “Paul Trible has built a school based on the values of honor, leadership, and service. Those also are crucial themes of my collection. Shared values. So merging CNU and these books was a natural — seemingly almost fated to happen.”

As Ross explains, “Here’s a school, a campus, in a digital — and erasable — hour still committed to acquiring and housing the unerasable permanence of bound volumes of the printed word. Gotta love it. Print volumes are a finger in the eye of Big Brother, who had minions daily rubbing out history. It’s a lot easier to rub out pixels than ink.”

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On the ground floor of the library’s East wing is located the Ross Mackenzie Special Collection Reading Room.

It’s a lovely room of deep, rich paneling, thick carpet, and shelves of books written by some of the finest minds in history.

It’s a room that invites students to find a seat, get comfortable, and spend the day immersed in great rhetoric.

Faculty, staff, and students are delighted with the new addition. Dr. Elizabeth Busch, professor of American Studies and co-director of CNU’s Center for American Studies, says, “This invaluable collection contains a host of books ranging from philosophic works that informed America’s founding generation to contemporary issues in American civics and foreign policy. Housed in the exquisite Mackenzie reading room, this collection will inspire students of all majors for generations to come to ask the enduring questions of the human experience.”

On the desk in the new room sits a framed copy of a letter to Ross from Dan Hales, a lifelong friend he grew up with in Illinois.

In the letter, Hales acknowledges the scope of this gift, calling it one of trepidation but also of joy. “Joy — because you have found a place for your treasured library that will be of great and immeasurable benefit to future leaders of our country as they learn why America has been the greatest repository of skill and spirit in world history.”

Hales writes that Ross’ gift is a weapon “stronger than any nuke in the long run,” a gift of lessons never dated and history that will “keep the torch of freedom burning while leading the way.”

He closes his letter with two words: “Nice shot!”

Ross Mackenzie’s generous gift will continue to inspire and inform generations of students. A nice shot, indeed.

mberes@timesdispatch.com (804) 649-6305 Twitter: @RobinBeres

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