No Ordinary Joe - Dartmouth Alumni Magazine
One of Joe Rago’s greatest pleasures in life was staying up all night with his Phi Delta Alpha brothers and then heading to Lou’s for an early morning breakfast. It was a tradition he began as a student and continued as an alum up until his final visit to the iconic Hanover restaurant a few months ago.
Joe was in town for reunion weekend. His waitress that day was Becky Schneider, a woman who’d served him so often through the years that the two of them had become friends. He ordered his regular breakfast of two eggs over easy with dry wheat toast, dousing his food with hot sauce, a condiment he applied as liberally to a greasy breakfast plate as to a fancy dinner of seafood. Before he left, he took Becky’s hand and made her a promise. He said he’d do everything in his power to help her publish the memoir she was working on.
Sixteen years earlier, Joe had come to Hanover as a gangly college freshman. His friends would tease him affectionately for looking like a “baby giraffe” and an “unmade bed.” Now, he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.
The following month, Joe died suddenly and unexpectedly. The cause was a rare inflammatory disease called sarcoidosis, which is fatal in only 5 percent of cases and often goes undiagnosed. No one, not even Joe, knew he had the disease. When he didn’t show up to work on July 20 and was unreachable by phone and email, police were sent to his Manhattan apartment, where they found his body. He was 34.
In the days following his death, it became clear just how many lives Joe touched beyond Becky’s. Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan said, “Joe Rago was a brilliant talent. Gone much too soon. He will be greatly missed.” Yuval Levin, writing online at National Review, commended Joe’s genius, adding: “But he was most extraordinary for his decency. Joe was utterly unpretentious and instinctively considerate.” Roger Kimball, editor of The New Criterion, praised Joe’s “allegro spirit.”
Joe never talked about his relationships with leading figures in American politics and letters. He never talked about his Pulitzer. Downplaying his own talent, he often said he “caught a break” getting into journalism—a statement that reveals his characteristic modesty.
It’s true that luck plays a role in the unfolding of each human life, but Joe was also a preternaturally gifted writer who excelled at almost everything he did from a young age. “I don’t think I even understood how brilliant he was,” says Paul Gigot ’77, Joe’s boss and mentor at the Journal. Few people did. Joe was multifaceted, but he compartmentalized the different parts of his life. His family and childhood, his career at the Journal, his continued involvement with two Dartmouth institutions that profoundly shaped him, Phi Delt and The Dartmouth Review—he kept each of these spheres of his life walled off from one another.
But when those walls come down to reveal the full man, Joe emerges as one who contained multitudes. He was a sardonic writer, but also a thoughtful artist. He was an intense polymath, but also a playful frat boy. He was nostalgic for the past and all things “Old School,” but also found joy in the world as it was. His life was short, but he lived more in less than four decades than most people do across the span of nine. One of his favorite words—appearing frequently in the marginalia of his books—was “hilarious.” His motto: “What’s the point if you’re not going all out?”
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