Sunday, November 29, 2015

Enter Josephine Walcott

Josephine Walcott, 1860s

Both native New Englanders, they might have met in New Hampshire or Vermont. But John Walcott went out to Magnolia, Illinois, in 1848 to build houses and a full ten years passed before Josephine Butterfield joined him and they married.

John enlisted in the 77th Illinois Regiment and fought for the Union in Tennessee and Mississippi. Josephine made her way to Chicago to sit for a photograph. Three children were born during the war years: Earle, Mabel, and Maude.

The children were smart but Earle turned out to be sickly, so his mother taught him at home. The family moved to Santa Barbara in 1868, hoping the climate would improve Earle’s health. A precocious child, he founded and edited the Santa Barbara Weekly Tribune which he published for a few years. Josephine began to write poetry.

In 1871, a new magazine called Overland Monthly published her poem, “Almost.” Encouraged, she wrote more and also published under the name Cordelia Havens. Several anthologies included her work and critics considered her a California poetess. A review of her collection, World of Song, cited “clear thought, delicate imagination, good command of emotional sentiment and a felicitous Tersifloation.”

Tersifloation seems to relate to phrasing but that’s all I can figure out. A beautiful word, though!

It’s clear that Josephine pushed her children toward higher education. They enrolled at Santa Barbara College to prepare for the University of California, Berkeley, from which all three would graduate. Around that time, Josephine may have had an affair with William Hollister, owner of a grocery where John Walcott worked as a manager. Hollister or someone else may have been the father of Marion Queenie, Josephine’s fourth child who came along in 1882 in San Francisco. 

Several years after Queenie’s birth, John and Josephine filed for divorce but the relationship must have been very bitter because the court assigned a judge to referee. By then, she and her husband occupied entirely different worlds.

Josephine fit perfectly into her time or perhaps the time suited her especially well. How fortuitous that she arrived in California just as it came into its own art, literature, and politics: the emergence of a distinctive California ethos. For she was a seeker and it came naturally to embrace new ideas.

As an advocate of woman’s suffrage, Josephine wanted to shake off male domination. And, like many suffragists, Josephine was a late Victorian spiritualist. The two may seem incongruous. Yet one of the major ways to escape patriarchy was to step away from conventional religion. Historians have long explored how women spiritualists, while communicating with the dead, developed a commitment to social justice including the 19th century women’s rights movement. It is thought that public performance boosted their confidence, honed their speaking skills, and exposed them to issues involving women and children.

In 1874, Josephine co-founded the Freethought Committee of California. Freethought went hand in hand with spiritualism; its appeal to logic and reason excluded religious dogma. The same year, Josephine helped organize the Santa Barbara Spiritualist Association and became its vice president, bringing famous mediums to speak while the group was denounced for promoting fornication, suicide, desertion, adultery, divorce, dementia, prostitution, abortion, and insanity.

I guess it hit a nerve.

Josephine delivered a lecture, “The Truth Shall Make You Free,” before the Santa Barbara Spiritualist Association in 1876. An observer commented:

Of Mrs. Walcott, it was said that her enunciation was clear and pleasant, though a little too rapid for slow thinkers, for her grand ideas were clothed in so few words, and followed so rapidly, like booming waves, one after another, upon a storm-beaten shore, that there were some who could not gather, arrange, and enjoy the beautiful pearls as they fell from her lips.

Even at this distance, the lecture holds up. Citing Galileo, Luther, Franklin, Morse, Darwin, and Huxley, Josephine championed empiricism and declared: “Women are but dimly conscious of their power, so circumscribed are their limits. . . Woman must be free, independent, self-reliant and individualized.”

See also: November 4 + 11 + December 2, 2015 posts; January 12 + 16 posts.

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Mount Vernon Story

Postcard, A.B. Davis High School, Mt. Vernon, N.Y., 1920s

I visited Hamilton Grange, which was the 19th century home of Alexander Hamilton in northern Manhattan where the island narrows and the terrain slopes steeply down to each river. High above St. Nicholas Park, where the home is now located, looms a neo-Gothic fortress.

It is the City College campus, also known as CCNY, perched on top of the schist boulders that form the island’s bedrock spine. Along with Hunter College and Brooklyn College, CCNY is one of 11 senior colleges that comprise the City University of New York system.

I flashed back to Ted K., an educator who started his career in the city of Mount Vernon, where I grew up. We met in the 1990s when he was an administrator in the school district where my family lived.

Somehow things always do get around to Mount Vernon. But first he talked about being a student at CCNY in the early 1950s. To make extra money, he worked part-time in one of the college offices where he occasionally walked by an open file drawer that contained student records. He noticed that some of the folders had red dots on them.

Sure enough, the marks indicated students who were thought to be affiliated with the Communist Party. Ted described how the realization that the administration was monitoring students’ activities truly shocked him. But he needed the job and kept his mouth shut.

He went on to get a Master’s that brought him into the field of high school counseling. He took a position at A.B. Davis High School, the precursor to Mount Vernon’s sprawling new high school which would be built on the north side of the city during the early 1960s.

Ted worked under the wing of Grace T. Lewis, dean of A.B. Davis. A descendant of Meriwether Lewis and daughter of a banker who served as mayor of Mount Vernon for two glorious years, Lewis still wore pince-nez and devoted herself to shepherding students toward college.

Things had changed a great deal – yet, in a way very little – since Dean Lewis arrived around 1920. At that time, the students at Davis were largely Protestant and Jewish and would complete the college preparatory course. The city had another high school: Edison Vocational and Technical High School, attended by black and working class students. Students were steered one way or the other.

Years ago, I interviewed a retired teacher who joined the high school faculty in the mid-1930s. “People would ask me whether I taught in the temple on the hill or the spaghetti factory in the valley,” she said.

It took nearly a decade to pass the referendum to build a new high school because of opposition to black students being bused across town from the south side. But eventually the progressives won. The new school was state of the art. Harvard president James B. Conant had recently proposed remaking secondary education with a consolidated curriculum, and Mount Vernon built the classic comprehensive high school with vocational courses such as business, auto body, and cosmetology. 

Ted K. became principal of Mount Vernon’s most prestigious elementary school. After a few more years, he confronted the superintendent about patronage and racism in the district and was punished with a demotion. After that, he’d had enough and moved on.

See post: 5/18/16

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Otto Luyties, Part 2

Patent, Otto G. Luyties

Otto Luyties’ younger brother, Henry, disappeared from New York City in September 1912. The men were ten years apart. Henry, who was deaf, worked at the Dabs Cigarette Company, which bought out their father’s wine and liquor importing business a few years after his death.

Otto contacted the police when Henry had been missing for ten days. He also hired a private detective. The police reported that Henry left his apartment with two suitcases and a pet Chinese yellow chow dog. He gave the dog to a friend and stepped into a taxi on Riverside Drive.

An orderly at St. Vincent’s Hospital said he saw a man who looked like Henry Luyties, seemingly deranged or drunk. A representative of the Kisko Chemical Corporation told Otto that it had received an order for face cream from someone named Henry Luyties who lived in Chicago.

Then came a report that Henry actually left the dog with a friend in Port Washington. The friend was Addison Mizner, a high-society architect who went on to greater fame and fortune designing resorts and mansions along the south Florida coast in the 1920s. After visiting Mizner, Henry strolled to the Port Washington train station with a man named Dodge. Henry was thinking about going to the Maine woods for a rest, Dodge told the police.

Four months later Henry turned up at a hotel in Denver. Otto told a reporter that the family had known where he was since October but had “not wanted any further publicity given to the case.” Otto’s explanation of what happened involved Pennsylvania Station, the Chicago Yacht Club, and much more.

“The whole thing was the erratic action of a man who was suffering from a nervous prostration and desired to get away temporarily from work,” Otto said. “In his state of mind he never looked at a New York newspaper and knew nothing of the stir his disappearance had caused.”  

Until the advent of Social Security, Americans could disappear easily without a trace.  Therefore the discovery of Henry was fortunate – although who knows if he wanted to be found? Either way, Otto managed the situation well despite his probable anger.

Meanwhile, Otto’s younger sister, Hilda Marie, struggled in her marriage.

In 1906, Hilda married Bernard H. Ridder, son of the publisher of the Staats-Zeitung. This paper was the largest German language daily newspaper in the United States. The marriage produced a son but proved to be a bad match. In 1914 Hilda filed for divorce.

Just around that time, Bernard met the woman who would become his second wife. She was Nellie J. Hickey, daughter of an Irish political boss from Mount Vernon, N.Y. Chaperoned by the wife of a Columbia history professor, Nellie attended a convention in Chicago sponsored by “Friends of Peace,” an organization that opposed American entry to World War I.

It’s easy to understand why U.S. citizens of German ancestry opposed a declaration of war against Germany. But many Americans of Irish ancestry also found repugnant the idea of the United States aligned with England. In fact, one reason why Congress voted down the League of Nations was fierce opposition from brilliant legislators like William Bourke Cockran who did not want England in the position of adjudicating international conflicts.

Back to Otto: in 1915, he charged Bernard H. Ridder and his father, Herman, with assault. They “struck and held him and inflicted bodily injuries upon him,” the action stated. Otto wanted $10,000 in damages. “In the first place, there was no assault,” Herman Ridder told a reporter. “In the second, I was not even present at a quarrel my son had with Luyties.”

Otto may have been attacking Ridder's pro-German views or defending Hilda's honor. One has to wonder, though, who assaulted whom.

Hilda was beautiful and vain and wore fake fingernails. Each morning she spent hours in front of a three-way mirror putting her long hair in pin curls. She raised chocolate poodles and entered them in shows.

Otto himself disappeared from the scene when he moved to Sharon Springs, a New York spa town that had seen better times. He died suddenly of appendicitis the day after Christmas in 1922, at age 41, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx.

Otto Luyties' gravestone,
Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, NY

See post November 18, 2015.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Otto Luyties, Part 1

Otto Luyties & his machine on the cover of Scientific American, 1908

Upon starting graduate school in 1997, nearly two decades after finishing college, I rediscovered academic jargon. Among the variety of new words and terms, one in particular really cracked me up and still does. This is the concept of “unpacking” an event, a tradition, an idea, a person’s life – anything that you want to take apart in order to understand it.

I’d just as soon explicate, deconstruct or interpret. But there is one case where none of those words will do. That is when I am unpacking Otto Luyties.

This is how I imagine it. Otto is tall and thin but somehow he has been fitted into a large black trunk. When he jumps out, papers fly everywhere including his patent applications for a self-bolting locknut and a non-glaring dome-shaped frosted car headlight.

Then there’s his article, “A Phenomenon Involved in the Nebulosity around Nova Persei.” His 1904 letter to the editor of Outing, the Outdoor Magazine of Human Interest, inquiring whether there is “an authenticated instance on record of salmon leaping a fall of ten feet?”

Not to mention sheaves of blueprints for the helicopter he invented, and a copy of the New York Times story in which he insisted that Congress must appropriate no less than $9 million if New York City could expect to stave off a sea attack by the Kaiser’s navy. 

The son of a German immigrant named Henry Edward Godfrey Luyties, who co-founded a vastly successful wine and liquor emporium in Manhattan, Otto grew up in high society. Unfortunately in 1905, on the verge of becoming a candidate for membership at the New York Athletic Club, Henry E.G. died of pneumonia.

On his deathbed, at least Henry knew that Otto had graduated from MIT and launched a career as an engineer. Between 1900 and 1908, Otto developed an “airship scheme” to build a “helicopter which belongs properly in the class with the aeroplane” according to a newspaper report.  

Autogyros, cyclogyros, gyroplanes – Otto’s rotary helicopter with canvas blades was one of hundreds of flying machines invented by Americans and Europeans during the first decade of the 20th century. Otto once wrote that the helicopter had been neglected as a superior alternative to the airplane since Leonardo proposed it around 1500.

Working with Professor Robert Wood of the Physical Department at Johns Hopkins University, Otto showed off his invention on a marshy inlet called Sparrow’s Point near Baltimore in 1908. It does not appear that his design won the award for gasless machines that he sought, but the story did end up on the cover of Scientific American.

A few months before the demonstration, Otto challenged a champion swimmer to a fist fight at the Baltimore Athletic Club. “You have been talking about me,” Luyties told the athlete, Roy Nelson. “We will have to settle this matter and there is but one way to settle it and that is in the brutal American style. I must have satisfaction.” After receiving a stiff punch in his stomach, Otto dropped his guard and went down.

It’s puzzling that Otto would display such animosity. Of course, some of the best-known inventors such as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison had notoriously bad tempers.

Soon after the fight and the helicopter demonstration, Otto left Baltimore and moved back to Manhattan where he consulted on various engineering projects. As head of the family since his father’s death, Otto would now devote time to his disappearing younger brother and sister's declining marriage.

See subsequent post, 11/21/16.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

First Lady Afternoons

First Ladies Hall pamphlet, 1968.
Note that Mrs. Johnson's gown, far left, is the most recent dress on display.)

She must have been in her early 50s but seemed ancient to me with her gray hair, wavering voice, and thick eyeglasses.

I’m sure that she offered a snack but the real treat lay spread out on a large table: intricate drawings of the First Ladies’ gowns, which were then displayed on mannequins in vast glass cases in the Smithsonian Institution, along with the muslin patterns she was creating.

Going back to a 3rd grade homework assignment, First Ladies completely, utterly fascinated me. But during the 1960s, just a few anthologies contained brief sanitized biographies of the women. Bottom line: if you were interested, it was largely about the gowns.

Mrs. Sally Taft had been commissioned by the collection’s curator to preserve the designs and details of the dresses that were starting to fall apart after years of being exhibited under bright hot lights. A very fine seamstress, she had worked in couture at some of New York’s best department stores. Her correspondence with the curator, which resides in the Smithsonian’s archives, suggests that she came to the project through a mutual acquaintance at Julius Garfinckel’s, an exclusive women’s clothing store in Washington, D.C.

One of my mother’s friends had arranged the visits with Mrs. Taft. Thrilling! Every few months during my last years of elementary school, instead of walking home from school I went over to her house. I knew a great deal about the First Ladies and she knew everything about the dresses. We found lots to talk about. 

The ladies who followed Eleanor Roosevelt into the modern era, along with Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolly Madison, held little interest for me. They were far too popularized. But the mournful mid-19th century women whose husbands were military heroes (of a sort), who never wanted to come to Washington, rarely saw visitors, holed up on the dark second floor of the White House – very intriguing. Perhaps unbalanced, too, although I didn’t quite know the word.

One of my clearest memories is of Mrs. Taft describing how the gowns exuded the ancient odor of perspiration.

So many years later, the Smithsonian’s exhibition smartly focuses on role and image with minimal whitewash. Some gowns and memorabilia are also displayed. The staff includes experts in chemistry and textiles as well as historians.

Sally Taft’s muslin patterns are history, too. It’s hard to argue with technology. What I love most about this story, though, is that in 1966 the Smithsonian curator didn’t think the job called for an academic. She was just looking for the best dressmaker she could find.

*Mrs. Sally Taft was not related to President Taft.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


"Winner of a prize in the Mitchell Hill Owners Hill Climbing Contest
and Scene at Start," San Francisco Call, July 4, 1908

You were “Queen Marion Walcott” in the emergency passport application dated 1924. But two decades later your death certificate from the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, France, stated that you were “Marion Queen Walcott.” And in 1895, when a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle described how you rode a bicycle “so blithely over the smooth park roads,” he referred to you as “Miss Queenie Walcott.”

What on earth were you doing in Villeneuve-Loubet in February 1944? The French General Philippe Petain, a hero of the Great War (the “Lion of Verdun”), went to live in this Mediterranean village soon after the Versailles Treaty was signed. He considered it his home through World War II when, as a Nazi collaborator, he served as Prime Minister of the Vichy government. 

It looks like Queenie may have gone went south in search of a cure.

Why else might she have left Paris, where she moved in the early 1920s to teach wealthy young women how to ride horses? It made sense; for years she worked as a riding instructor at the Del Monte Hotel in Monterey, California. That was after a decade spent racing up and down the Pacific Coast in a Mitchell roadster, winning first prize in 1908 and 1909 for finishing a mile in one minute, 34 seconds, at Arum Rock in San Jose. Her stenography business also drew attention. "She incidentally solicits a large part of her business with the help of an attractive automobile of silver hue,” the San Francisco Call reported. 

It’s interesting that Queenie, figuratively born on wheels, ultimately devoted herself to the animals that cars replaced.  

She was the youngest of four children born to John and Rebecca Josephine Butterfield Walcott, New Englanders who moved to the farm town of Magnolia, Illinois, and then to Santa Barbara because the weather would improve the health of their oldest child, Earle. (See November 4 post.) Earle, twenty years older than Queenie, pursued life as a writer and civic official. His sisters – who ended up being the ones who died young – became teachers. Queenie, who arrived in 1879 when the three eldest were preparing to enter Berkeley, would not be . . . well, bookish.

Someone deposited her at the Irving Institute, a boarding school for young ladies in San Francisco, but she did not complete the course.

By the time Queenie died, only her nephew remained to be notified. I wonder whether Willard Walcott Beatty, an eminent progressive teacher and administrator with a deep understanding of child development, ever reflected on how his aunt educated herself. 

Queenie's death certificate, France 1944

See also: November 4 + 29, December 2, 2015; January 12 + 16, 2016 posts.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Young Businessman, Father of Two

Flyer mentioning Kyrle Elkin, 1951
(Brooklyn College Archives)

Through one of those surprising historical leaps, while growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., I conversed occasionally with a man who had known and worked with W.E.B. Du Bois.

This man was a good friend of my parents named Kyrle Elkin, tall and soft-spoken with a large mustache; always wore a black suit. He lived with his wife Lillian – elegant, thin, long red hair in a braid – in a Dutch Colonial house set on a slight rise up from the street. Both were born in New York City in 1915, which made them just over a decade older than my parents give or take a few years.

W.E.B. Du Bois, born in 1868, wrote The Souls of Black Folk in which he famously declared, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” The first African-American to earn a PhD from Harvard, he co-founded the NAACP and edited its journal, The Crisis, for 24 years. Until his death in 1963, Du Bois challenged racism and poverty all over the globe and advocated for human rights and world peace.

I didn’t know about Mr. Elkin’s connection to Du Bois or frankly much about Du Bois until many years later when the second volume of David Levering Lewis’s biography of him won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. Then my father told me he remembered his friend’s involvement with Du Bois but said they hardly spoke about it. By that time his friend was dead. 

Kyrle Elkin grew up in Queens, Brooklyn, and The Bronx, the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant who worked as a salesman and later owned a hardware store. His mother, born in the United States, was a bookkeeper. They must have been enormously proud of their son when he was admitted to Harvard in 1936. I speculate that his pacifism and commitment to social justice emerged during the late 1930s although Lewis states he came to organized politics through Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign.

In 1950, Du Bois agreed to chair a new organization called the Peace Information Center whose five officers included Kyrle Elkin as treasurer. The group’s first task was to promote the newly-written Stockholm Peace Appeal which petitioned the United States to undergo nuclear disarmament. We were barely into the Korean War.

After Secretary of State Dean Acheson denounced the Stockholm Peace Appeal as Communist propaganda, the Department of Justice demanded that the PIC register “as an agent of a foreign principal within the United States.” At that point, Du Bois and his four colleagues decided to dissolve the PIC but the government would not permit it. Indicted and arraigned in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, each would pay $10,000 and serve five years in jail if convicted.

With the formation of the National Committee to Defend Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and Associates, support grew for the principals of the now-disbanded PIC. Albert Einstein, for example, testified on behalf of Du Bois. In November 1951 the charges were dismissed.

By the time my parents met Kyrle Elkin, a decade had passed since the PIC trial. The former defendant was now a successful hardware manufacturer. Since we didn't have a television, my family went to the Elkins’ house to watch President Kennedy’s funeral. 

I remember Mr. Elkin sitting on his screened porch just before a summer thunderstorm while the war escalated in Vietnam and Mount Vernon’s residents battled over integrating the city’s public schools.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Buffalo Timekeeper

In 1901, the year my husband’s grandmother was born, someone brought the baby girl a green leather change purse from the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Atlanta, New Orleans, New York, and other U.S. cities hosted fairs that displayed important examples of industrial invention. The most soaring of these were the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and Chicago’s 1893 World Columbian Exposition. It is impossible to do them justice in a few paragraphs. Many books and articles attest to their grandeur as well as the racism and sexism that pervaded fair politics and exhibitions.

Just past the turn of the twentieth century, here came Buffalo with its dazzling illumination of the fair’s elaborate white buildings: behold the future of hydro-electric engineering generated by the power plants of Niagara Falls. However, the thing that Americans remembered most about the fair, at least for a generation, was the assassination of President William McKinley as he stood shaking hands with visitors outside the Temple of Music.

President McKinley is not often cited. But in his last speech, soon before the assassin stepped forward with a gun swaddled in a handkerchief, he delivered a quotable quote: “Expositions are the timekeepers of progress.” That dusty remark seems worth noting.

It hearkens back to the years when most Americans had to travel somewhere in order to see big advances in technology, medicine, communications, and the like. Since then, for a very long time, innovation has come right to our door or perhaps during a visit to the Apple Store. A public exposition where people go to find out about new things -- obsolete.

So what is today’s equivalent of a timekeeper? I’ll venture that it could be something small that looks back instead of forward. Perhaps it’s not about the future; it’s of the past. For me, the Buffalo change purse, once a child’s souvenir, is keeping time well beyond its century.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Autumn Space

Trees bare, early darkness: as the year winds down for me, it turns toward childhood. Much more than recollection, deeper than memory; walking home from school young and impatient day after day, while each day takes forever – yet mature enough to understand childhood’s constraints.

During the 1960s, a full-page ad for something very glamorous ran every week in the New York Times Magazine. The ad made a strong impression on me. The tagline was “By this time you should have quite a past.” Until today I remembered it as an advertisement for Blackglama mink but it turns out that the mink tagline was, “What becomes a legend most?” So that was not it.

Perhaps the quote came from an ad for perfume? Scarves? Anyway, I can’t retrieve it.

What I know is that waiting and walking, shuffling through leaves, I would say to myself: “By this time you should have quite a past.”

The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote exquisitely about childhood, reverie, and space. By space he meant the places with which we have an affinity, where we daydreamed as children; places thick with association. Bachelard referred often to the childhood home as one of those places.

For me that walk from school in early autumn, filled with longing to be older with the mystery of a past, is a space that I go back to year after year. 

Collage by Claudia Keenan

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Superintendent Beatty

Willard W. Beatty, 1936 Bronxville High School yearbook

Rebecca Josephine Butterfield Walcott came roaring out of the internet bedecked with nineteenth-century spiritualism and suffrage. I did not expect her. It was her grandson for whom I’d been searching for nearly two decades. He had been superintendent of schools in Bronxville, N.Y., between 1926 and 1936.

The village’s old-timers recalled the former superintendent as controversial and brilliant. “There were rumors that he was a little pink,” an elderly alumna said, sipping iced tea on her porch.

How incongruous it seems now: the staid square-mile village 30 minutes north of Grand Central Station welcoming a reformer during the 20th century’s most conservative decade. Yet the school board composed of Republican businessmen hired him precisely to make a break with conventional schooling. They wanted their children to be well-educated and happy. 
I encountered the superintendent while researching a history of the school, looking for a few personal details about the man with a whiff of radicalism who had stepped onto the local stage 60 years earlier. So I wrote to the former superintendent’s son whose name appeared in his father’s obituary. The story was ¾ of the way through a reel of New York Times microfilm that snapped and crackled through the groaning machine. 

In the meantime, a school administrator unlocked a closet where old photos and records were stored. Several pictures showed the superintendent in meetings and posing with the faculty. A retired teacher pointed him out. He appeared modest, with a small build and glasses.  

But in 1936, the yearbook editors grandly dedicated a full page to the departing superintendent, whose “assumption here ten years ago marked the beginning of a new era in the world of education.” The accompanying photograph startlingly resembled young FDR. I couldn’t wait to hear back from his son. 

Finally a response arrived. “His mother died when he was six and shortly after his father left San Francisco,” the son wrote of his father. “He was brought up by an uncle from his mother’s side of the family who lived in the city. He had no siblings.” It sounded like a rough start. I concluded that the superintendent overcame a childhood of hardship and struggled to get to college and navigate the world. This turned out to be completely wrong.

Willard Walcott Beatty became the ward of his uncle in 1901, the year he was orphaned. A better guardian could not have been found. Journalist, novelist, social observer, and city official, closely involved in San Francisco culture, Earle Ashley Walcott would see his nephew through grammar school to Lick High School to the University of California, Berkeley, and beyond.  

Lick-Wilmerding High School yearbook, 1909

It was impossible to know this in 1995 because the internet had not yet the habit of yielding obscure documents. Just a year ago, it threw up the fact that Earle – a sickly boy – was the reason his parents left rural Illinois for Santa Barbara. Then Willard’s mother Mabel, his aunt Maude, and father William stepped out of the pages of college yearbooks. And with sufficient poking, the internet revealed that the boy’s grandmother, Rebecca Josephine Butterfield Walcott, harnessed the late nineteenth century like it was her own wild ride.

See other posts: November 11, 2015; January 12 + 16, 2016; August 3, 2016.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Gates of Kansas

In 2000 my family left New York and moved to Kansas for three years. Yesterday, the state with the magnificent motto, per aspera ad astra (“to the stars through difficulty”) was on my mind, for the Royals just won the World Series and my memory of Kauffman Stadium happens to be very clear. During the first game we attended there, Buck O’Neil – one of the great players on the Negro American League team, the Kansas City Monarchs – threw out the first ball. He died in 2006. By that time we had left Kansas.

We'd lived in Johnson County, right on the state line with Missouri and the most liberal county in the state. At the turn of the 21st century, this area was in the throes of residential and commercial development. Mega-churches and Walmart proliferated. Townhouses rose quickly on land where bales of hay were scattered . . . just the day before yesterday, it seemed. Evidently the development continued although corporations (like Sprint) did not deliver the jobs.

As an Easterner, I was fascinated by the new five-lane asphalt roads heading south, dwindling to four lanes and then two lanes and ending in dirt roads that trailed off into towns that looked like 1913. Along one of those roads I snapped the photograph above. Someone planned a mansion but for whatever reason had started the construction with iron gates. I have often wondered what happened next.

Photo, Claudia Keenan, 2003

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Principal

Martin H. Traphagen School, Mt. Vernon, N.Y., 1950s

Sometimes on the verge of sleep, I imagine myself back in elementary school in Mount Vernon, New York, specifically in the auditorium with the canvas shades lowered over the windows and the darkened room full of whispering children. It seems an unlikely juxtaposition – the twitchy anticipation of children and an adult’s drowsy calm. Yet both places are evocative, the edge of sleep and the vast dim space, filled with memory and slivers of light.

Red velvet curtains conceal the stage; the podium is set at the perfect height for the tall white man with a white pompadour: the principal. As we spill into the auditorium he directs the classes into rows and warns everyone to behave. The teachers snap and wag their fingers when we laugh and squirm. Finally, when silence fills the room, the principal presents the program. Perhaps we are going to watch a postwar film entitled “Corn for Life,” or the police chief will lecture about delinquency, bringing us to the present year – 1967.  During the show the principal stands watch. Occasionally he spies a disorderly child. His arm appears to reach halfway across the auditorium to pluck the student and deposit him in a far corner where the teacher will handle things.

It is an American tradition that elementary school principals will lay down the law in hallways, playgrounds, and other venues where any challenge to their power must be stamped out. Some principals are able to enforce rules in a way that is compelling rather than threatening. My elementary principal evinced neither. Even as kids we recognized that he sought the reflected glory of a perfectly ordered school. His authority seemed not that of an educator but rather of a proprietor.
Ironically, the principal sought to impose order on a school that possessed its own serenity well before he came on the scene. Little has been written about the architecture of schools erected by communities during the interwar period when public education merited – well, frankly, it was thought to deserve – beautiful even grand buildings. Built in 1925 of limestone bricks, the Martin H. Traphagen School rose three stories between a crabgrass field and a parking lot. We boys and girls invaded the school through separate entrances. Light filled the tall classrooms; the water fountains were mosaic. We hung our coats on brass hooks and shoved our rain boots into mahogany cubbies. The entrance hall, wide, polished, and used almost exclusively by adults, had long been the province of the P.T.A. Election Day Bake Sale: tables loaded with cakes and pies, surrounded by the fast-talking women who ran it. But that was just one day of the year. Otherwise the school held its composure, imperturbable.

With 100% membership, best in the state for many years, the Traphagen P.T.A. was one of the principal’s prized delights. Led by a coalition of busy women who chaired dozens of committees, arranged multitudinous meetings, booked speakers, and chaperoned field trips, the P.T.A. served as a pacifier, making it possible for all kinds of mothers to support the school even if they didn’t always enjoy each other. They could still work genially around the hostess’s dining room table, admire her decorating, and compliment her coffee. But how could they possibly share one view of public schooling?  Though most were white and natives of the New York metropolitan area, they ranged from lower-middle class to upper-middle class and across ethnic and religious lines. Yet everyone was polite.

In the mid-sixties, however, when Mount Vernon faced the possibility of desegregating its public schools, the P.T.A. shed some of its veneer of gentility. The women began to express their views strongly. The principal observed it and felt disturbed. Accounting for every red rubber ball after recess – he had done well with such challenges. But as mothers ventured into the political realm urging or opposing open enrollment and busing, the principal surely recognized that the proprieties of the school community and his own ability to maintain order would decline.

A native Kansan, the principal came to Mount Vernon in 1947 armed with a Master’s degree in education from the University of Iowa. Born in 1908 in a small town just south of the Santa Fe Trail, he was the oldest son in a Mennonite farm family whose father emigrated from the Crimea and helped introduce Russian wheat to the American plains. Despite drought and grasshoppers the town flourished enough to establish a small college where the principal studied for two years before the Dust Bowl, depression, and war stalled his plans. Between 1929 and 1939 he worked on the farm, attended summer sessions, courted and married, and taught. He knew by heart the sandstone schoolhouses, luminous in the spring sunshine, for he spent nearly a decade crossing the same dirt roads through the central Kansas prairie.    

Surely when the principal first visited Mount Vernon, at the behest of its new superintendent who had known him at Iowa, he felt that he had landed in another tranquil place closer to the nineteenth than the twentieth century. At that time, Mount Vernon was still governed largely by Protestants and known as “The City of Homes,” its broad streets lined with overarching elm trees and houses embellished with turrets and verandas. On a deeply snowy evening, the city resembled a New England village; on a languid August afternoon it guarded its stillness like a Southern town. The city had a habit of making its middle and upper-middle class residents feel like they fit well into their own time and place – not necessarily the case for the African-American community that inhabited “the South Side,” formerly home to many of the white people who lived on “the North Side."

A deep cut had bisected the city since 1895 when immigrant Italian laborers finished lowering the tracks of the New Haven Railroad. During the 1930s several enlightened residents proposed using W.P.A. funds to construct a building over the tracks but nothing came of it. And so the four-square mile city gradually became a wreck of intentions, the opposing dispositions of race, religion, and ethnicity. The railroad cut lay at the center of the community’s hope and anger. School integration, perhaps an imperfect solution to the divide, stirred optimism and fear as local residents aligned themselves pro and con, attendance surged at school board meetings, campaigns became combative, and letters to the editor spilled onto two or three pages. Years of debate, disappointment and resentment, petitions, a lawsuit, would ensue. The pro-integration parents, eager for reform, felt impatient with the principal who clung to his faith in the power of the picture-perfect school. He continued to fuss with organization: new rules for overdue library books, improved scheduling of parent-teacher conferences. Meanwhile, the fight over desegregation dragged on.

Yet, infuriating as it was, the principal’s behavior can be understood. Considering the social distance that he traveled during his lifetime, perhaps his response reflected bewilderment more than resistance. He valued quiet hallways and chairs pushed neatly under desks partly because he was infatuated with decorum but also because that is what he was taught. Educational administrators who earned their degrees during the postwar era did not learn much about educating students; they learned the business of education. And nowhere in his experience were parents the “troublemakers,” a label he had long used for their disobedient children.   

Therefore his 1970 retirement was timed perfectly. At our sixth grade graduation, we honored him by singing one of his favorite songs, “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” composed by George M. Cohan in 1906. How funny we found its jaunty tone; how old-fashioned! 

Ev'ry heart beats true
‘Neath the Red, White and Blue
Where there’s never a boast or brag…
Some four decades later, I realize that the principal probably heard the song first at a bandstand in faraway Kansas, a small boy squinting into the sun, and for the last time in the darkened school auditorium as time ran out on the idea that the very best school was the one that stood still. 

See posts December 21, 2015; May 18, 2016.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Way leads on to way

My passion for historical research started while I was in college. During the 1970s and '80s the pursuit of information often occurred in library stacks where it was possible to sit on the floor and page through dusty volumes of journals, many titles long forgotten. When one uncovered curiosities that fit a thesis or backed up a hunch, there were feelings of elation and triumph. But nothing I recall has ever come close to the exhilaration of coaxing the internet to reveal the past. For this reason, Robert Frost's line in The Road Not Taken runs through my mind every single time I go back for more: "Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back." In this blog I sift through the centuries, re-imagining and evoking people and places I've met along the way. 

The Little Time Traveler

  Last fall, my adorable grandson, halfway between two and three years, was finally tall enough to look at the family pictures arranged on a...