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Friday, March 22, 2013

If Any of My Children Become Ministers

The San Francisco Theological Seminary looks as cloistered today as it did in this evocative post card from the 1960s. Relocated from San Francisco to San Anselmo in the 1892, the seminary sits on a small hill nestled between Mt. Tamalpias and Mt. Baldy, to the left and right just out of view. The 14-acre site was picked in part for its monastic isolation, a characteristic which changed only gradually after 1937, when construction of the Golden Gate Bridge linked San Francisco to Marin County. At the very top of the hill is Geneva Hall, the centerpiece of a major 1950s building program that received financial support from Neenah's S. F. Shattuck, Sam Pickard and others. The gleaming purity of Geneva Hall bathes the building's entrance terrace in reflected sunlight, and on one of the railings in front of a breathtaking view hangs a plaque with a quote from Psalm 121: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help." The seductive power of the setting is made complete by the Westminster Chimes pealing from the tower, the sonorous dignity of the bells commingling with the languid scent of the redwood and eucalyptus trees, wafting effortlessly in an arid summer breeze that only California can produce.

NOTE: The posts in Chapter II follow the events leading up to my father's return to Neenah as I saw them. If you are just beginning to read this blog you may want to go back and start with the first post HERE. For those of you who are reading because they love stories about Neenah, I'm certain you'll find this chapter engaging and an important part of a moving human drama that has everything to do with Neenah, its history and the six degrees of separation that link link us all together.


I suppose one could say that what happened next was my fault - or that I was a key precipitate - for with me there were now five children living with two adults in a little three bedroom ranch house. Life could not continue as it had been for much more than a couple of years, nor could we manage with just a four-door sedan. The addition of a small family room in back off the dining room relieved some of the immediate pressure at home, but not enough to make remaining at 212 Brookside Drive a viable long term alternative. As for the car, Walt Lampson was successful in convincing Dad to buy a new Pontiac station wagon, which was no small task given that Dad had never purchased anything off the showroom floor, being a firm believer that the best deal was one where someone else ate the biggest piece of the new car depreciation.

For Dad this was more than a way of life, more than just about being frugal - and never about accumulating assets, or even achieving something so mundane as financial security. It was a game to him, a challenge to beat one's own personal best and see how little was really needed to survive in the modern world, much akin to backpacking up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. For Dad, he who ended up with the least had the most, and no amount of effort in achieving that end was too much. The station wagon was a case in point. As head mechanic at a Pontiac dealership, Walt was able to get Dad a good price and still earn a small commission, which Dad chose to see as the dealership getting less and Dad more - through a kind of payback to Walt for the bumper he replaced. The vehicle itself was insignificant, so long as it met only basic needs and was the cheapest model available, striped of as many amenities as humanly possible. Here that required a custom order to remove the radio and clock from the dashboard, replaced by a pressed metal insert with imitations of those features. "You don't need a clock if you wear a watch," Dad said. "That's just something they put in there to get you to spend more money."

As for finding a bigger house, that was more of a conundrum, but only up to a point. For my brothers Brookside Drive was the center of their lives, where their friends lived and where all their schools were. For Mom and Dad it was where they had established many of their most meaningful adult relationships - Walt in Dad's case, and for Mom most particularly Mrs. King, a professional seamstress and tailor, the first to welcome us into the neighborhood, who had helped Mom translate her need for artistic expression into a part-time job as an assistant. In the final analysis, however, it all came down to one thing. While there were larger houses near enough at hand, they were all considerably more money and required significantly more maintenance than Dad was either willing or able to provide - or pay others to perform if he was physically capable of doing the work.

The road in front of Montgomery Chapel was intended to serve as the seminary's original grand entrance, like many things a design that never came fully to fruition. Built as the burial site of founding donor Alexander Montgomery, the chapel stands as one of history's prophetic warnings. Montgomery, a ruthless money lender during the California gold rush, was unprofessed in any religion and at 58 had fathered two children with an underage girl. Prone to binge drinking, an intoxicated Montgomery was tricked into marriage by the girl's mother, whom he claimed had brandished two pistols and threatened his life. Although the marriage was later annulled, the couple subsequently remarried in an unsanctified service that was referred to back then as taking place by "common consent."  After much bitter and divisive debate the seminary's board agreed to accept the $260,000 offered by Montgomery to build needed classrooms, dormitories and faculty housing in San Anselmo. Another $175,000 was bequeathed to the seminary in his will in 1893, along with $50,000 to construct the memorial chapel, which under Montgomery's direction was in effect a Masonic mausoleum devoid of all Christian symbols. 

And so as it frequently happens in life, it was just at this point that Dad completed his doctorate and was formally presented with the symbolic hood that entitled him to the professorship President Baird had promised him almost ten years earlier. The hooding ceremony was a milestone for Dad and a proud moment for Mom, who was convinced that Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty had disapproved of her having so many children and holding Dad back in his career. So in spite of these and other obstacles, there beneath the towering eucalyptus trees on the seminary grounds, processing in full academic regalia, Dad at age 40 was now formally the youngest in a long tradition of  honored faculty professors, at once a product and a part of the graduation ceremonies, and now poised to fulfill an important role in the seminary's future.

As a full professor Dad was also eligible for a faculty house, more specifically the one being vacated by the retiring Clifford Drury, a somewhat peculiar old professor of church history, who had turned the front yard into a vegetable garden (and which the administration was anxious to turn back into lawn). The house itself was nearly made to order: four bedrooms, two full baths, a maid's room off the kitchen that Dad could use as a study, and - from the days when the seminary's facilities were more limited - a professor's library with private entrance for students, a room perfectly suited as accommodations for Grandma. And because it was seminary property, all repairs and upkeep were the responsibility of the maintenance crew at no cost, allowing Dad for the first time to be completely free of all household cares and responsibilities, a factor which trumped all other family considerations and which became a turning point in our lives - although not necessarily for the better.

Just up the road from Montgomery Chapel at 118 Bolinas Avenue, hidden behind the seminary's delineating perimeter of laurel bushes, is one of two nearly identical faculty homes built by famed California architect Julia Morgan, the first woman accepted into  l'École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and best known as the architect of William Randolph Hearst's La Cuesta Encantada - or simply Hearst's Castle - at San Simeon. In designing these two much simpler seminary homes (constructed in 1921 while concurrently working for Hearst) Morgan was reputed to have employed the look and arrangement of a carriage house in their design. This one became our home in 1956, while its twin was occupied by Francis Bouquet, the brother of Rev. John Bouquet, who was at that same moment serving as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Neenah and living behind my great aunts on East Doty Avenue. In his retirement Professor Bouquet lived in a small apartment off campus which was on my paper route. I remember him as an infrequent but generous tipper who always spoke fondly of my parents, especially Dad.

For as it also so often happens, other unseen forces were already at work. With its massive building program now complete, the seminary was entering the next stages of what would become an even more radical transformation, intended to raise the institutional standing of the seminary but which ultimately divided the faculty into camps of open warfare and undisguised hatred, bringing the seminary to the very brink of extinction. On the one side were the teaching pastors with limited academic credentials but who served as professional mentors, passing on years of experience and wisdom to new generations of clergy. On the other side was a new breed of ambitious academics hired with little or no experience in the pulpit but who brought with them prestigious degrees from Stanford, Princeton, Oxford, and the universities of Zurich and Basel, and who were scholars of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Camus, or at the very least devoted followers of Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other even more esoteric theologians whose names generated awe only among other scholars who had little or no knowledge of - or for that matter interest in - those who sat in the pews on Sunday and put money in the collection plates.

And so it was into the very center of this battlefield that Dad unwittingly brought his family, taking them from the comfortable working class obscurity of Brookside Drive and plunging them head first into the rarefied goldfish bowl of faculty life, where neighbors would never replace your rusty bumper but were increasingly poised to use you in any way they could to advance their careers, increase their status, or massage insatiable professional egos. It was a place where in the years that lay before us, Dad would come home at night, spewing invective against the men he had to work with during the day, men who might be living next door or down the block, often the fathers of my friends and playmates. "He's the only man I know who can strut sitting down!" Dad shouted on one occasion about my friend Steve's dad. Another time he reported with disgust how a group of the new faculty members had set a whispering campaign in motion on how another new rival professor (this one from Switzerland whose son Theodore was in my class at school) had been a Nazi sympathizer. It was all, to say the least, very confusing and ultimately more than Mom could take.

"If any of my children become ministers," she said, "I'll consider myself a failure as a mother."

CHAPTER II continues HERE.


  1. We were good friends of the Bouquets in Neenah, and even visited them when they had retired to a Presbyterian Retirement center in San Jose. John Bouquet suffered similar problems in our church. Those who thought nothing should ever change, who slapped the hymn book shut if the tempo disagreed with them, and sent notes around if the choir's anthem didn't suit their idea of church music. Living in a Church community doesn't guarantee Christian fellowship. But we enjoyed the church and were active there. I was like your father, always chaffing at the bit. I organized art shows in the gallery between the chapel and sanctuary. I started a high school class that had visiting lecturers from colleges etc, at the time when the Good News to Modern Man and other books were being written. I even had the high school write and enact their own 7:00 Easter Morning Service, sermon, music, etc. I raised some eyebrows. So I loved reading about your father. What a guy!

    1. I can just see the hymn book slapping shut! The seminary story will get more coverage in upcoming posts, but I have to make sure the tail doesn't start wagging the dog. That's the greatest challenge in getting this all down as posts - on the one hand I have to remain very focused to keep the story moving forward, and on the other there are a wealth of stories that are fascinating in an of themselves - providing there's sufficient set up to show how they relate to the whole. The trick is in picking the stories that keep up the tempo. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Being neighbors and friends also, I never knew that John had a brother in San Anselmo? After they retired and moved to California we had breakfast together at our Hotel in San Francisco on the way home from Hawaii in 1988. We also drove back to Neenah each time John and Margaret came back for a visit, and John and I corresponded until his death, after they moved to Medford, Or. for Margaret's health problems.
    My brother graduated from St. Olaf in 1965, married his long time sweetheart that summer, and they drove off to San Anselmo just before the fall session where he earned a "graduate" degree to be a minister while his wife taught biology in a private school nearby. So I especially like reading that part also.
    I dated the youngest Courtenay boy and the oldest Bouquet son, both several years older than me, and was introduced to Kierkegaard and attended a lecture by Tillich on Paul at Vanderbuilt while in Nashville for a college dance. At age 16
    I found understanding both was far above me. None of the sons of both pastors went on to become ministers.
    I can imagine from what I have read so far that it must have been a real shock to adjust to such a change in neighborhoods, from middle class friendly to the academic " offishness" from those of "higher learning." I would imagine it would affect your mother and you kids even more than your dad? But that will most likely be unveiled in your next chapter? Sue

    1. The seminary had a profound affect on all of us - but not without its lighter moments - which I'll be laying out in the next several posts, because all of it relates directly to our return to Neenah. As I mention in the above reply, there are countless stories to recount about the seminary - for instance, the push for an international presence by hiring professors from Switzerland and Germany, as well as a converted Sikh from India and (closer to home) a Jew whose father was an early comic for Manhattan's Yiddish theaters as well as the Zigfield Follies - the problem is remaining on task!

      P.S. It is something of a relief that both Kierkegaard and Tillich escaped you. I have read snippets and thought, "Huh?"