WASHINGTON -- Monsignor Peter J. Vaghi recalled Friday how relentlessly inquisitive Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak was when Novak was studying with the priest to become a Catholic.
Novak brought the "classic work ethic that defined him as a reporter" to his Catholic conversion, said Vaghi. Week after week, he would ask "very challenging and complicated questions of me. At times I thought I was on 'Crossfire'."
Vaghi's quip came at Novak's funeral at St. Patrick's Church, a simple, very religious send-off for one of the nation's most influential print and broadcast journalists. About 500 people filled the 26 rows of wooden pews, with extra chairs set up for the overflow crowd. The downtown church was stuffed with reporters and broadcasters with familiar names and political figures -- including Karl Rove -- but two priests who knew Novak well were the only ones to speak. That's how Novak, who died Tuesday morning after a struggle with brain cancer, wanted it. He was 78.
Novak relished his nickname, the "Prince of Darkness," so much he used it as the title of his memoir. Monsignor Salvatore A. Criscuolo told the crowd of Novak's friends and family, "You knew the other, the real" Robert Novak, who "would always, always light up when we would talk about the family, especially the grandchildren."
A quick recap of Novak's rise to conservative icon: Born and reared in Joliet, he attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, served in the Army, worked for the Associated Press and Wall Street Journal, and on May 15, 1963, teamed up with the late Rowland Evans Jr. to write an insiders political column. The Sun-Times had been Novak's home paper since 1966. In 1980, he joined CNN when the cable network launched.
Novak, born Jewish, was baptized by Vaghi, who also made reference to Novak's nickname and memoir when he riffed that Novak probably was already reporting somewhere in heaven on the sequel. "It would not surprise me that Bob, already using his considerable shoe leather, is already at work on his second edition of his memoirs" with the title of the edition, said Vaghi, "Child of Light, a Life of God Forever."
The funeral drew a who's who: many of Novak's print friends in the Gridiron Club; a large contingent from CNN, including Dana Bash, John King, CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton, David Bohrman, CNN's D.C. bureau chief and Sam Feist, CNN's political director. Plus, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, host of "Hardball"; Betsy Fischer, executive producer of NBC's "Meet the Press"; Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard; the Capital Gang -- Al Hunt, Mark Shields and Kate O'Beirne; conservative Pat Buchanan, plus Democratic strategists Robert Shrum, Donna Brazile and Paul Begala.
Rove figured in Novak's biggest controversy, where Novak disclosed the identity of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA operative, in a column that sparked a long federal leak investigation.
On the steps of the church after the funeral, I asked Rove how he remembered Novak.
Said Rove, "I think of the Bob Novak I had breakfast or lunch or dinner with around Christmas time in Texas for 25 years and a guy who was relentlessly interested in news and facts and story and politics."