Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Lives of Christian Socialists

Syracuse University, 1928; Gordon and Helen
(first row, second & third from left)

They met at Syracuse University in 1927. The occasion was a joint meeting of the campus chapters of the YMCA and YWCA.

During the 1920s, many college students embraced the Y’s departure from its traditional emphasis on Bible studies and evangelism. The new movement, often called “Christian Socialism,” promoted universal brotherhood – peace, social welfare, social justice. The Y developed a reputation for liberalism that lasted about 20 years, now largely forgotten.

Gordon H., a third-year Syracuse student, became committed to the tenets of Christian Socialism and never let go.

The blue-blooded descendant of New York State farmers, born in 1905, Gordon planned to be a doctor but sacrificed much of his college coursework to the new agenda, giving speeches and attending conferences.

Gordon, front & center;
president of his high school radio club (1918)

Now back to the 1927 meeting, when he looked across the room and became captivated by Helen H., the unhappy middle child of a Syracuse family whose father was an alcoholic and mother a wounded Victorian matron.

He offered her a ride home in a taxi. When she accepted, he knelt to put on her galoshes. They were married in June 1928, on graduation day, wearing borrowed wedding clothes. That was in line with the Y’s endorsement of simple living.

Gordon and Helen had made plans to travel to the American University of Cairo where he would teach biology and she would work as a librarian. A series of events intervened. Instead, they became affiliated with the Methodist Church and left New York on the USS Pennland to travel to Lucknow, India, where they would spend four years mentoring Indian students at the Lucknow Christian College.

“We were firmly opposed to imperialism and the British Empire,” Gordon recalled later, “and harboring pretty poor feelings about missionaries.” Their thoughts were reinforced when an English missionary on board remarked as the boat crossed the Suez Canal, “Let not your voice speak what is in your heart.”

Pushing off, Helen felt absolute relief to be out of Syracuse, liberated from her grim family situation. Gordon felt himself to be an internationalist at last, on the verge of self-transformation. They were modern people who considered themselves equal partners (and used birth control, acquired at considerable cost, Helen confided).

The cause of Indian independence inspired the couple, who spent four years in Lucknow at the height of Gandhi’s leadership. The city turned out to be a hotbed of nationalism. Helen and Gordon became good friends with Sarojini Naido, India’s foremost national woman leader, and spent time with Jawaharlal Nehru. Their three children were born there.


In 1932, the Raj ordered the family to leave after Gordon wrote and published a manifesto about British imperialism, urging rebellion. 

By the time I met Gordon and Helen at their home in Vermont, they were in their mid-90s and had filled their lives with adventure and hard work. Gordon held 14 different jobs between 1934 and 1965, including community organizer, teacher, educational administrator, fundraiser, and entrepreneur. He always advocated for racial equality and international understanding. Their family included three highly accomplished children and several grandchildren.

So why was I visiting them, anyway?

See post November 2, 2016.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A Son of Old Vermont

Howard G. Spalding, late 1920s

Howard Gordon Spalding intended to be an engineer but decided against it during college. Instead he became an educational administrator. By the time he retired in 1966, Spalding had been principal of four public high schools.

His older brother by five years, John Ralph, also went into education; he became a high school teacher. Like Howard, Ralph – as he was known – graduated from the University of Vermont. The two overlapped because Ralph had served in the Great War.

Left U.S. July 5, 1918, he wrote in a petition to replace his record of service, which had been lost.

Served in France, St. Mihiel, September 12 to October 1, 1918; Meuse-Argonne October 10 to 14/15.

Decorations, medals, badges, and citations:  none
Wounds received in service:  left leg and hip Argonne Forest, October 14, 1918.
Physical condition when discharged:  poor

So Ralph fought in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the most important American battle of World War I, led by General Pershing. American losses totaled 117,000.

Warren, Vermont, late nineteenth century

Howard, Ralph, and their sister Clara Bell were born in Warren, Vermont, and grew up knowing the woods and rolling hills around the north-flowing Mad River. Their father was a farmer who later owned a general store.

The development of Sugarbush and other ski resorts occurred after World War II. Until then the beautiful valley was home to lumbering, farming, and maple sugar production.

In November 1927, a devastating flood caused $30,000,000 worth of damage to central Vermont, including Warren. In one of the largest projects undertaken by the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, the state built the Wrightsville Dam to contain future floods. Most of the workers were World War I veterans who desperately needed jobs in the early 1930s.

By that time, Clara Bell had married a Scottish minister nearly 20 years older than she, and both Ralph and Howard had left Vermont.  

The first place Howard landed was Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., with his new wife, Lillian, also a University of Vermont graduate. He taught there for a few years before becoming principal of Ticonderoga High School (N.Y.) near Lake Champlain.

At the end of the 1929 school year, the Kiwanis Club of Ticonderoga bid farewell to the man they called “Professor Spalding.” Howard was off to New York City to finish his master’s degree at Teachers College of Columbia University. Next, he and his family moved to the Panama Canal Zone where he worked as principal of the Balboa High School.

At first it surprised me that he took the position, but then I saw that Balboa’s students were overwhelmingly American; the children of engineers, doctors, lawyers, and bankers representing nearly every state. And if Principal Spalding would have the opportunity to Americanize a few Panamanians, well then so much the better.

Howard G. Spalding, 1931

On the first page of the school’s 1931 yearbook, The Zonian, Spalding’s photograph shows a serious man with large ears. On page two, a feature entitled “Impossible. . .” lists each teacher with a description of something that he or she would never do:

Mr. Spalding . . . . . Not on the war path.

That tells you something.

While Howard laid down the law at Balboa, his brother Ralph taught social sciences at a Connecticut high school. He married a woman named Annie Todd, whom he met at the University of Vermont. 

Annie has an interesting little story. She had attended college for just one year before boarding a boat to Puerto Rico to work as a teacher under the auspices of a Congregational missionary organization. She went back and forth for three years, and published at least one article about her work at the Blanche Kellogg Institute in Santurce.

A girls’ boarding school for grades 8-12, it offered training in housework “from the making of nine loaves of excellent bread each day to sweeping and cleaning of all kinds,” a report stated. The students also studied English, history, and Bible.

It looks like Annie never taught again.  

Howard returned from the Zone in the mid-thirties. After the war ended, the superintendent of schools in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., hired him as a high school principal. Howard spent the rest of his career there, trying to maintain authority while social and cultural change swirled around him. He struggled to be nice. That’s what people told me.

I admire how Howard and Ralph set sail on the sea of American opportunity.

The brothers probably never felt the tug to return to the small town where they grew up. 

Because it was always 1900 in the farmhouse on South Hollow Road, with Ralph underfoot and Clara Bell trying to read the Bible, and two grandmothers named Mary and Augusta telling the farmer’s wife to relax because Howard could be born any moment now.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"R" -- a Story about Sal Salasin

Frontispiece of a book of poems by
Salasin, published in 1988

In January 1969, about 400 students at my alma mater occupied the administration building and staged a two-week sit-in. The students were protesting the denial of tenure to an assistant sociology professor named Marlene Dixon.

Ultimately, whether Dixon had been turned down because she was a feminist and / or a Marxist (or unworthy of tenure) became part of the larger issue of student participation in decisions by the university. Often cited were the lack of student representation on advisory committees, the necessity of more women professors, and the effect of the university’s urban renewal initiative on poor blacks.

Of course student occupations and strikes occurred all over North America and Europe during the 1960s. But since I was a student at Chicago, this sit-in was particularly interesting.

Besides, my friend Andrew and I were in the habit of flipping through old issues of the college newspaper and came upon the 1969 story about six months before its ten-year anniversary. We thought that our student paper should run a retrospective and I would write it.

Outside the administration building
during the 1969 sit-in

How long ago this seems now. The sit-in had occurred just a decade earlier. The past was nearer then.

In 1979, plenty of people on both sides of the sit-in still lived in the neighborhood. As I started to contact them, each led to another and then many others. Someone referred me to a former student who had been expelled and I wrote to him at an address in Asia. The letter was forwarded two or three times.

Finally a reply from “R,” as Andrew and I came to refer to him, arrived from Japan. R never gave us his first name. The letter was hand-written in cramped script on six onion skin pages. We eagerly deciphered it together.
Now, thanks to the internet, I know who he was. But at the time, Robert Alan Salasin desperately wished to remain anonymous. He believed that at least two federal agencies would love to get their hands on him. However, he could not resist telling us about the sit-in, his two expulsions from the university, and how it was better to work around an FBI plant than to out him and have to figure out the identity of the new guy.

Immersed in ideology, R reflected on the failure of student movements:

The problem was that we were terrible Marxists—we didn’t practice the logical implications of our own analysis. What we should have done was organize slowly and carefully to enter into struggles of the university workers and local black community, an effort of several years at least . . .

R also expressed acute paranoia that Andrew and I had trouble comprehending. But his “ultra-Leftist adventures,” as he described them, had continued after he left Chicago and went on to Drake University where he earned 23 court injunctions. So it made sense that the U.S. government kept an eye on him.

Poem by Sal Salasin

What we did not know, though, is that R was a poet whose work appeared regularly in San Francisco Poetry Journal, the Poetry Project Newsletter, and other alternative reviews. A founder of RealPoetik Magazine, he published several collections of poetry under the name Sal Salasin.

One of his poems, “Radio City,” begins:

When I was six my parents took me to Radio City to see Esther Williams
in Dangerous When Wet
and I thought that’s a funny name for a girl,
Wenwette.  .  .

Andrew and I never would have guessed that R might have a sense of humor.

In the mid-1980s, R came back to live in the United States. He returned to Chicago and other places where he had been young and angry.

Some of that anger persisted in the poems which he continued to write and publish until his death in Berkeley in 2009, at the age of 61.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Dress Shop in Chicago

North Michigan Avenue 
(Illustration from Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1916)

Mme. Marguerite always said that she arrived in Chicago as an understudy to the French actress Sarah Bernhardt. When the theater company returned to Europe, Marguerite decided to part ways with the Divine Sarah.


It was 1910. She stayed in Chicago and became a modiste – that’s a word you don’t hear anymore. It means a designer and purveyor of fashionable women’s clothing. Between 1912 and 1948, Mme. Marguerite reigned over the wardrobes of the city’s wealthiest women.

Her first shop, House of Marguerite, opened on North Michigan Avenue to the delight of Mrs. Armour, Mrs. McCormick and other ladies who wanted custom-made gowns.

Their husbands and fathers were industrialists, bankers, entrepreneurs; perhaps the heirs to great fortunes. But when it came to fashion, Marguerite was the authority:

“I’m pleased to say, not a chi chi dress in sight!”


“There was white satin at all of the important French collections last spring.”

Wedding gown by Mme. Marguerite, 1916

Except during wartime, Mme. Marguerite traveled to Europe twice yearly to see the shows in Paris. She became very successful. By the early twenties, she had three shops, three cars, a chauffeur, and a country home in Michigan.

Around that time, Marguerite married for the first time. Henri Farre also was French, although it’s not clear whether they met in France or Chicago.  

A painter and aviator, he had held an unusual position during World War I. Just after Farre enlisted, the Governor of Les Invalides (also director of the Army Museum) asked him to serve as a military artist.*

Farre would “paint certain phases of action, so as to immortalize on canvas true pictures of fighting in the field,” the governor told him.

When Farre explained that he was an aviator as well as a painter, the governor said:

Eh bien, c’est parfait; I had not thought of the fifth weapon. Would you like to be a painter of aviation?

He immediately appointed Farre to the first group of French bombing squadrons: 1eGroupe des Escadrilles de Bombardement.    

And so Farre flew through the war, capturing the shattered landscapes and bursting bombs in pencil and paint. He watched and sketched over Metz, Verdun, Zeebrugge, the Somme, and the North Sea. He also painted many officers’ portraits.

In 1918, Henri toured the United States with a collection of his war paintings entitled “Sky Fighters of France.” The Art Institute of Chicago presented a major exhibition of his work. His visit was said to be a propaganda mission because Farre and other officers asked for more American planes and ships. But the tour also raised money for the American Fund for French Wounded.

After the war, Farre received the Legion of Honor and Croix de Guerre from the French government. He and Marguerite married in 1922. Settling in Chicago, Farre continued to paint – the Chicago River Bridge, football games at Soldier Field. The Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum owns 75 of his World War I paintings. He died in 1934.

An Aviation Fight at 12,000 Feet, painting by
Henri Farre that was exhibited in New York, 1918

One year later, Marguerite married Dr. John F. Pick. Born in Austria, he would become a leading plastic surgeon in the United States. He studied at Rush Medical College in Chicago and at the University of Prague, where he became an assistant to Professor Frantisek Burian. This was a great honor, for Burian is considered one of the founders of plastic surgery. 

Back in the U.S., Dr. Pick developed a theory about recidivism. He believed that performing plastic surgery on the faces of prisoners, to correct features that were deemed irregular or unattractive, would give them the confidence to reinvent (to borrow a twenty-first century word) themselves upon release.

Between 1937 and 1947, Pick worked at Stateville Prison in Illinois, where he performed 663 surgeries on 1,376 inmates. Of those discharged, 1.7% became recidivists. Pick published his results in medical journals, insisting that “the correction of physical defects would mentally straighten out many inmates.” The theory never caught on.

In 1949, Dr. Pick’s interest swayed from plastic surgery to cancer when he and several colleagues became obsessed with an anti-cancer drug called Krebiozen. A Yugoslavian doctor, Stevan Durovic, created it and brought it to the U.S. that year.

A prominent physician and vice president of the University of Illinois, Dr. Andrew Ivy, became convinced of the drug’s effectiveness. Others, including Dr. Pick and the eminent Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois, joined him.

There were clinical trials, and hundreds of physicians nationwide tried the medication for their patients. But the claims proved unsubstantiated and Krebiozen was discredited. The Krebiozen Research Foundation, led by Dr. Ivy, later accused the American Medical Association and American Cancer Society of subverting data. Lawsuits and trials would follow into the mid-1960s.

Brochure promoting Krebiozen, 1950s

In 1952, John F. Pick announced that he had treated his wife, Marguerite, with Krebiozen during the last 15 months of her life as she fought breast cancer. She had died one year earlier with four society dames at her bedside.


*The details of Henri Farre’s experience appear in his book, Sky Fighters of France, Aerial Warfare, 1914-1918.

July Night