May 26, 1918 – May 5, 2006
Jack E. Phelps
Otto Scott walked this earth for nearly 88 years. Born at the end of the Great War, he passed into the presence of his Maker on May 5, 2006. During those nearly nine decades, he influenced many people, including a large number who never met him, was respected by his peers, feared by leftists of all parties, and dearly loved by those who knew him best.
Otto’s life was as varied as it was fascinating. He grew up mostly in New York, but lived for some time in South America, including Caracas, where his father was an important official in the Venezuelan government. His father secured for him dual citizenship, which he retained all his life, believing that, as his father had said, “Someday it might be useful.” As a young man, he worked as a roustabout, a coffin maker and at various other occupations. He once told me that a number of his friends decided to go off and fight in the revolution in Spain and urged him to go with them. While he never lacked a sense of adventure, he decided that an internecine squabble in Iberia was none of his concern, so he stayed in America.
When his own country was threatened, however, it was quite another matter. He spent the dark years of World War II serving with the Merchant Marine, making several perilous crossings of the Atlantic during that conflict. He was on convoy in a North Sea storm, under threat of German attack, when, he said, the fierce forces of nature first caused him to realize that “God is no buttercup!”
In the Merchant Marines, Otto worked among a tough crowd. He spoke once about a certain first mate on one of his ships. The man was a bully. On shore leave, Otto offered to fight him over his treatment of the men. The fellow had two friends with him and Otto said, “I knew I was in for a beating.” But, in the face of Otto’s determination the three backed down and he had no further trouble with them. “Bullies are such cowards,” he told me.
Long time friends of Chalcedon will, perhaps, best remember Otto as a regular voice with R. J. Rushdoony on many Easy Chair tapes. With his business background and his vast array of life experiences, Otto provided a fascinating counterpoint to the profound theological and philosophical thinking of America’s pre-eminent 20th century theologian – Rush and Otto made a perfect pair for the types of discussions common to the Easy Chair chats in those days. Many affectionately referred to the productions as the “Rush ‘n Otto Show,” a comment that elicited a hearty laugh from both men. That their differing perspectives often had the effect of sharpening the thinking of each of them, there can be no doubt. But that the listeners also benefited greatly is likewise certain.
Otto Scott spent little time in formal schooling and never attended college – yet he was among the most educated of men. Early on, he found he could learn more by talking to adults and reading at the public library than from sitting in a classroom. Once, he was headed down the road to go fishing on a school day. The sheriff pulled up along side him and asked where he was going. He said, “I’m going fishing.” The officer told him to get into the car and Otto figured he was to be again confined in a schoolroom. But the sheriff drove to his own home and told Otto to wait in the car. He emerged a few moments later with his own pole and together they went fishing.
Otto was delighted by the growth of the home school movement. He saw its great benefit to families, but more importantly he saw it as the means to wrest the education of children away from the gruesome professionals who harm rather than improve the minds of the young. When he spoke to home school parents, he urged them to read broadly and to expose their children to good writing. He pointed them to authors like James Anthony Froude. Froude is often looked down upon by “professional” historians as being too simplistic. But Froude saw history through Christian eyes and to Otto that was of supreme importance.
Otto was a man of great energy, but he was also one of determined focus. After Buried Treasure was published, I pointed out to him that, in a way, it formed an interesting sequel to The Exception. Not only were some of the same people involved, but the story of Arch Minerals began in 1968, the same year with which he had concluded the narrative of Ashland Oil in the former book. He was surprised and said, “I hadn’t noticed that.” Not one to dwell on his accomplishments, his mind had already moved on to the next project.
Then there were the missed opportunities. Not situations passed over by Otto, but by men who lacked the vision and foresight to act when presented with an opportunity. Shortly after the first Gulf War, Raytheon was making headlines with the success of its Patriot missile. After discussing it with Otto and securing his permission, I contacted the upper management at Raytheon and suggested they hire Otto to write a sequel to Creative Ordeal. I pointed out that it would be good for the company and its shareholders and that if properly approached, the market would respond favorably to such a book. At the time, however, there had risen to the company leadership a “pharaoh who knew not Otto.” The suggestion was ignored.
The “sacred fool” books need hardly be mentioned. In Christian circles, they are the best known of Otto’s works. While he was never fully satisfied with Robespierre: The Voice of Virtue, it is among the most important of many volumes written on the tragic events of the French revolution because it unveils the stark insanity of the anti-Christian instigator of the Terror. Likewise, no one can read James I and ever again wonder at the steep decline of English civilization between the end of Elizabeth’s reign and the rise of Cromwell. And who can think the same about the origins of the War Between the States after reading about the collusion between the “six New England idiots” and John Brown?
In the past few days, as I have thought about my friend’s life and work, I have tried to isolate the most important lesson we can learn from him. I thought about his work ethic, his careful, Christian analyses of human events and foibles and his fierce determination to combat false ideas and the immense stupidity in the modern polis. Finally, I settled on the one thing that stood out above all the rest. Otto Scott taught us how to think about history as Christians and the importance of doing so. History is not, he believed, merely a long string of events, interconnected somehow, but random. It is, rather, the unfolding of the purposes of God, directed by His determined hand toward a final goal. He taught us also that men play an important role in the course of history – that a small number of determined people, dedicated unwaveringly to the cause of Truth can and will give the law to the many. We must heed this lesson.
Over the years, I had the privilege on several occasions of introducing Otto to various audiences. The first of these, in the 1980s, was at the Northwest Conference on Christian Reconstruction which, in those years, was held annually, alternating between Seattle and Portland. At the time, I recalled that G. K. Chesterton had once written about “men with chests,” by which he referred to men of purpose, character, strength and moral courage. Sadly, such men are all too uncommon today, even in Christian circles. But Otto was such a man, and as such I introduced him on that occasion. To this day, I believe it was a most fitting approbation.