Remembering Cousin Robert, My Political Pen Pal

Founder and Editor-in-Chief Joe Schuman remembers his cousin Robert Wilkes, Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall.

A Tribute to Robert Wilkes, Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall

By Joe Schuman – Divided We Fall Founder and Editor-in-Chief


My cousin Robert was 50 years older than me and was actually my dad’s cousin, which technically makes him my first cousin once removed, but that was never an issue for us. Robert was a brilliant and original thinker, a voracious reader, and an autodidact who went to a small engineering college that no longer exists. He was a Navy veteran and claimed to be one of the only Jewish Navy fighter pilots in the Vietnam War. He loved playing tennis, practicing French, his dog Golda, and his wife Nancy. He was also a conservative Republican who voted for Donald Trump twice. 

My cousin Robert always had high expectations of me. When I was seven, he took me skiing down a double black diamond in his home state of Washington, for which I was certainly unqualified, resulting in me walking my skis down the mountain and him receiving a scolding from my mother. He would always send me books—the longer the better; biographies of his heroes like Douglas MacArthur and Winston Churchill, who soon became my heroes as well. He sent me “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion,” one of my favorite books of all time and the inspiration for Divided We Fall. He encouraged me to join the military with old war stories and sent me a commissioning pennant that hangs above my desk today. Never one to pass on an opportunity to give you a reading assignment, he bought me subscriptions for several of his favorite magazines, even when I didn’t have the time to read them, proudly mailing them to “Lieutenant Schuman.”

My cousin Robert voted for Trump twice. He was a staunch Republican and self-described Burkean conservative. He defended Trump and attacked Biden. He opposed reparations, impeachment, Supreme Court expansion, and filibuster reform. He attacked climate science and the mainstream media. He was a strong supporter of Israel and donor to AIPAC. 

Yet my cousin Robert was also the inspiration for Divided We Fall. Starting in high school, I would email Robert with my thoughts on the news of the week and he would respond with his or vice versa. His responses never ceased to challenge my assumptions, prompt further investigation, or force me to get out a dictionary to look up words like “Manichean” or “insouciant.” We would often go back and forth and a debate would begin to form, interspersed with questions about family, travel, and other general niceties, of course. We would rarely concede a point, but over time we developed a respect and understanding of one another across the vast chasm that currently divides our politics, in a way that far too few people have or could even comprehend today. I launched Divided We Fall to share that experience with others. He continued to write for Divided We Fall through two years of chemotherapy and until his last weeks, so now countless others can learn from my cousin Robert like I did.

My cousin Robert is why I have absolutely zero patience for anyone who dismisses or demonizes Trump supporters, Republicans, or conservatives. All I can think is: Clearly you don’t know my cousin Robert. And if you just knew him, you couldn’t say something so obtuse and uninformed. You couldn’t write off 74 million Americans. Yes, Robert had strong views. Views that most people in blue America would disagree with. But, when you peel back the layers, you might be surprised at what you find. He was a strong supporter of the state of Israel. But he also took it upon himself to defend Israeli LGBTQ+ activists from being disinvited from a speaking event in Washington, resulting in the Seattle Times unironically labeling him a “gay rights advocate.” He was a frequent member of Jewish discussion groups with Palestinians and African Americans—not just because he’s quite the talker, but because he wants to listen too. He changed his mind on the Iraq War, encouraged his fellow Republicans to get vaccinated, and was married to a retired Planned Parenthood medical director. In short, he contained multitudes. 

My cousin Robert was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020 and given 30–40% odds to survive. He battled through surgery and months of grueling chemotherapy to beat back the cancer but was re-diagnosed around Christmas 2021. He quipped that based on his war experience he was going to be “hard to kill,” always stoic in the face of uncertainty. He recently celebrated my sister’s wedding surrounded by his loving family, as the self-described “black sheep.” You wouldn’t know it, though, unless you started talking politics…

My cousin Robert’s greatest gift to me has been his belief in me, whether it be on the ski slopes (albeit, perhaps believing in me a bit too much), my reading list, or my military career. He believed in Divided We Fall and supported our work through those early days as one of our first contributors. He was always ready to debate anyone on anything, eager to come up with ideas for new articles and improvements for the website. I wish more people had cousin Roberts in their life. I think our country would be just a little bit more peaceful, useful, prosperous, and happy.

My cousin Robert kept a quote book like I do. Or perhaps I keep one like him. One of his favorite quotes is by Pauli Murray, who said: “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them.” When I am at a loss for words, I often find myself searching through my quote book. Today, I found this dedication by Fr. Aaron Wessman in his new book “The Church’s Mission in a Polarized World,” which seemed appropriate for my cousin Robert: “To those who are family to me: givers of life and love, sustainers of vocation, inspiration for learning, fonts of wisdom and joy, reasons for existence.” 

My cousin Robert passed away on Veteran’s Day Weekend. He will be missed.


 

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Joe Schuman is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Divided We Fall. He works to set the vision of the organization and to build the team to meet that mission. Joe works as a civilian for the Department of Defense promoting innovation and emerging technology. Joe is also an Officer in the Air National Guard and a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his spare time he can be found reading non-fiction, playing piano, and running triathlons.

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