Eulogy on Joseph Bookstaber during a memorial service at Yale, November 17, 1997

The task before me is impossible. I can’t begin to express what I know and feel regarding my closest brother and best friend, or truly reveal to the collective body before me what was lost on November 7. Joe’s life and plans extended far beyond the mission he was serving. He had no desire to die, but at the same time could not have been more ready. It is troubling to contemplate the hole left in his place, but in this brief moment I will try to show you what was there from my unique perspective.

From as early as I can remember we led a strong sibling rivalry and would often play alone while at the same time making sure the other wasn’t getting a leg-up in anything. I know this was truly distressing to my parents, but it served to take two children, identical but for a year and a half age difference, and lead them to different niches in the same tree. As a preschooler, for example, I remember that Joseph prided himself on the fact that he could be counted on to keep track of little things. When we went out, Mom would hand him something to hold onto and many hours later find him still dutifully carrying it around. In early grade school, he developed a map-drawing ability that I was never able to match, except by deceit, and would routinely alleviate his boredom and get attention by drawing freehand complete and detailed maps of the United States, including state boundaries. [Visual aids: map, solar system (not to scale), commercial airline cockpit.]

Our naturally curious minds were indulged by our father, who as soon as we could talk would lie down with us before tucking us in at night and do arithmetic, or talk about some fascinating scientific principle or piece of technology, albeit in terms a preschooler could appreciate. As we grew up, we each latched onto certain of these things. Joseph especially fell in love with Physics and wanted to eventually get his doctorate and be a researcher. We all share the critical Bookstaber mind, but Joe developed a penchant for trivia. In the last letter he wrote to my Dad, we have Joe’s response to a magazine clipping sent to him, which I would like to read because it is so characteristic of his thinking: “That Life Magazine list of important people was very strange. My favorite line is, ‘Westerners, often borrowing ideas and technology from other peoples.’ I also find it subtly humorous that even the liberal media when faced with the facts can’t help but concede that Western Civilization dominates in everything. Practically the only names I didn’t recognize were the non-western ones—I don’t hesitate to say that they probably don’t even belong. I honestly don’t think my life would be much different if Zheng He or Zhu Xi had never been born. I could be wrong, though.” He continues, “However, the list still has major problems. Beethoven certainly belongs, but Bach should be there, too, seeing as he had a much greater effect on Western music. Edison does not deserve 1st place—I would put Newton there instead. However, I won’t go into the great detail about the numerous changes I would make. To answer your question, Mary Wollstonecraft (better known as Mary Shelley) wrote Frankenstein. I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out that all 15 people below her made much more significant contributions than that. I suppose it’s just a pathetic attempt to make the list more politically correct.” I think this passage also shows Joe’s sincerity.

As soon as we were able, our Mom put us on a strict regimen of musical instrument study. None of us liked practicing as children, but gradually each of us developed an enthusiasm for classical music and our growing abilities to play it ourselves. Joe and I really discovered classical music at the same time. Joe said in his mission-farewell address, “About six years ago, I decided that I wanted to be able to play the music that I enjoyed listening to, which of course was much too difficult for me at the time. So, I began practicing three hours a day. I entered competitions in order to perfect my performance skills, and also began playing in recitals. I didn’t win any of these competitions, but I kept practicing hard—during summers, I had more time, and would add on several hours a day to my practice schedule.” Joseph reached a phenomenal level of musical achievement on the piano, able to sight-read and learn the most difficult pieces as if he were drinking them in. Before he left, his piano teacher declared that with one single exception he was capable of playing any piece written for piano. However, due to the strain of all-day practice schedules on the most difficult pieces, Joe did begin to suffer from the musician’s nightmare, tendonitis. Even in Thailand, where he was reduced to playing simple hymns on a small electric organ, this tendonitis caused him pain. A journal entry on this from his last week reads, “The thought of not being able to play the piano fills me with inexpressible horror.” However, on his last day, we are told by his missionary companion, they came upon a piano in a shop and Joseph gave his last, magnificent performance to one young man from Montana and a few startled Thai workers.

He always insisted that his musical ability was more a manifestation of work than of talent. In his farewell address, he said, “I am always somewhat frustrated when, following a performance by a superb musician, I hear comments such as, ‘What a talented musician,’ or, ‘If only I were as gifted as he is.’” For Joe, talent was secondary to diligence.

The path of Joe’s life is so complete that one can’t help but think that he took it point by point down a course God himself charted. A great man who spoke at Joe’s funeral on Thursday reminded that there can be no great happiness without great sorrow. What makes Joe’s death so sad is what happiness was forgone. In his journal he reminisced on his Freshman year here at Yale as the happiest of his life. He cared about his siblings and even from his mission wrote letters of advice and said how heart-warming one letter from our sister was. His example and conduct were pristine. His Salutatorian address at Millburn High School 2 years ago treated the theme of building a strong moral character. “Millburn High School [and he would just as eagerly say this of Yale], has the potential to teach both academic proficiency and strong moral character development. It has faculty and students of the highest caliber. But we, along with the rest of the modern world, seem thoroughly confused about how to develop a responsible and truthful soul. We all bemoan the corruption and criminality that characterizes our society, and yet we become timid at the thought of exacting high standards of behavior from ourselves and each other.” Joseph lived and gleamed perfection of character.

Joe was optimistic. I am deeply cynical, but we could talk for hours on any subject and find ourselves in joyful agreement. He and I had a saying: “In life there are no real problems.” Death wasn’t a problem either. He wouldn’t have expected death, coming as it did a week before his 20th birthday. But he couldn’t have been more ready, and I know that he is enjoying his newfound liberty.

David Bookstaber