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Click HERE to see what the Wisconsin Historical Society has to say about “An American Downton Abbey.” You can also read about our inclusion in the society's 2010 publication, "Wisconsin's Own: Twenty Remarkable Homes," by clicking on the book's cover on the right below.

Jen Zettel's story for Gannett Wisconsin Newspapers generated a huge increase in page views! See what she wrote and follow the links to view clips of the interview HERE.


Friday, April 26, 2013

This Was The Big Time

This photo was taken during the summer of 1963 when we were back living on Bolinas Avenue after Dad's sabbatical at Stanford University. I don't know if there was an occasion, but Grandma, Mom's sister Angela and her husband George McParland were visiting, along with their daughters Carol Ann and Janet, Mom's much beloved and adoring nieces who would always entertain us by singing the latest Broadway show tunes with remarkable skill and panache. Standing in back from the left are Dave (17), Bob's wife Marilyn Patterson (23), Bob (24), Bill's girlfriend Ann Hommowun (18), and Bill (20). Sitting in front are Carol Ann (15), me (9), Janet (13), Steve (14), and my sister Bonnie (about 6 months and using Steve's head as a conga drum). 
 At this point Dave was preparing to start his freshman year of college, Bob and Marilyn were expecting their first child Linda (who would be 9 months younger than her Aunt Bonnie), and before the year was out Bill and Ann would elope. Within the next several years Dave would go to medical school, Bob's career would evolve into  cryptography, and after a number of false starts - and with Ann's determination - Bill would build what would become a solid career for himself as a highly respected and accomplished architect. Somewhat further down the line, those of us in the front row would uniformly follow less standard career paths that changed from time to time and ran the gamut of acting, teaching, journalism, historic preservation, retail, hospitality, organ building, estate management, art, animation and wellness consulting. This differentiation reflects the changing times in which we lived and resulted in the emergence of two highly distinct families within the one. In spite of these differences Mom repeatedly insisted as a matter of fact that her children were going to change the world. Looking back at us 50 years later I wonder how she ever got such an idea into her head.

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.


A month or so after returning from our 1962 cross country road trip back east (which included the stop in Neenah) we got startling news.  Mom, at age 46, was pregnant once again, a fact which came to her initially as an unpleasant shock, having planned on using her newly found free time to finish the art degree she had abandoned decades before when she married Dad. Also embarrassing, as Mom had been addressing the wives of seminary students on the importance of deferring pregnancies until their husbands' degree work was completed. In addition to this (and the larger issue of having child so late in life), the timing couldn't have been worse, for along with his demanding responsibilities as director of the seminary's new Advanced Pastoral Studies program, Dad had committed to taking a nine-month sabbatical to pursue a second doctorate at Stanford University. As part of the plan Dad had worked out an exchange of houses with a seminary student so that we could all move down to Palo Alto with him for the school year. That arrangement, however, did not sit well with my brothers, especially Dave, who was starting his high school senior year. Furthermore, unbeknownst to either Mom or Dad, Bill was planning to elope with a pretty young coed whose disapproving parents just happened to live not far from the house we were to occupy that year.

In addition to all this, Mom and Dad were going through their own personal upheavals. For Mom, having focused much of her energies as a mother on the challenges of raising Bob, she was left to deal with a vast emotional void when he and Marilyn married and moved to Los Angeles in 1961, an emptiness which Dad had hoped to occupy in part through the trip back east. While Mom had always wanted a big family, she never gave much thought to the inevitability of them growing up and leaving home. The idea of finishing her college work was the first glimmering of a possible life after children.  As for himself, Dad was being internally pulled in multiple directions. Accustomed to being the center of attention as the seminary's young Turk, his role had been usurped by the flamboyant President Gill, a circumstance in which Dad found himself uncharacteristically aligned with the older, more stodgy members of the faculty, whose focus was on the ministry as a profession and not on purely academic theology. At the same time Dad's pursuit of a second doctorate was an attempt to beat the seminary's new power base at its own game, a degree from Stanford being his trump card. And while the directorship of the new program would thrust him onto a national platform, he was constantly talking about leaving the seminary by any means open to him, including an obscure pastorate in Alaska.  

And those weren't all the problems. While there was much excitement when Bonnie was born (my brothers were allowed to pick the name over Helen Elizabeth as my parents had given up on having a girl), in the midst of this happiness Dad's sister Mary and his half brother George both got divorced, each after several decades of marriage, creating emotional turmoil in their families that spilled over onto ours. And then at the end of Dad's sabbatical, after our return to Bolinas Avenue, Mom organized a renewal of her Thanksgiving extravaganzas, only this time in addition to the usual assortment of aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and various cousins, one of the relatives brought a large and ungainly German Shepherd that Mom insisted be kept outside in the back yard. Unaccustomed to such exclusion and confinement, the dog yelped and whined and chased around the small enclosure, becoming even more agitated as relatives came in and out with food scraps. Eventually the beast got in past Dad's half sister Dorothy, and proceeded directly to the living room, where it peed on the expensive wool carpet that had been a gift of Great Aunt Nell and Great Aunt Betty. 

Under other circumstances - and had the dog pee not left a permanent stain in the middle of the room - the incident would have ordinarily been forgotten. In our family, however, the Thanksgiving of the Dog was a turning point, not because of what happened, but rather because of what was said after the last of the guests had departed. We were all of us helping to clean up, bringing mountains of dirty dishes into the kitchen where Mom was manning the sink, when Dave came in and said, "You know what Mom? You're a chump." In the general silence that followed he went on to point out that with one or two exceptions none of our relatives had ever brought any food, helped to clean up, or had reciprocated by inviting us to dinner at their own house, let alone at a restaurant. While this may have been the resentful perspective of a typical middle child (of which we now had four) it was not one that Dad contradicted, having endured strained relations with his own siblings for years. As a consequence the moment was electrifying. Mom decided then and there that she would not host Thanksgiving the next year and some days later sent a note around to that affect so the other members of the family would have plenty of time to pull together an alternate plan. Only no one ever did. And instead of realizing that these dinners were her one great contribution to family cohesion - never mind that no one could hope to match her organizational skill and prowess in the kitchen, or that she thoroughly enjoyed the process of playing hostess - Mom instead felt crushed and betrayed. And she never fixed Thanksgiving dinner again. Not even for us.

During Dad's two year assignment with the National Council of Churches in Manhattan we lived just outside New York City in suburban New Jersey, the first year in a house arranged for by the council, the second in a house we bought ourselves and planned to sell when it came time to return home to California. In this 1967 picture, taken with my little Instamatic camera, are Mom, Dad, Steve and Bonnie in front of an empty farmhouse we came across while exploring the neighborhood of the  house we had just purchased in Wyckoff for our second year. Surrounded by acres of rolling pastureland, and for years occupied by one of the town's founding families, all of us - even Dad - became so enthralled with its picturesque setting that we immediately called the realtor and arrange for a showing, which only fanned the flames of our collective irrational fantasy.  Nothing came of it, but the experience was a transformative moment. For here was something we all instinctively wanted - not just Dad but all of us still at home and together as a family  -  to build a new life in a place where we could leave our past behind and  embrace another one that was in some deep and mysterious way, resonant and familiar. It was the stuff of daydreams - and a foreshadowing of things yet to be.

As all this was going on the seminary's president Theodore Gill had a nervous breakdown and resigned, escalating the power struggle that had been building for years. And instead of digging in and protecting his turf, Dad packed us up again, this time to live just outside New York City in suburban New Jersey. Under Dad's leadership the APS program had attracted the interest of Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Congregationalists and other Protestant denominations around the country, which in turn brought Dad to the attention of the National Council of Churches, then viewed by many in this country to be an emerging Protestant Vatican. The Council was headquartered in the newly constructed InterChurch Center (aka the "God Box"), a multimillion dollar gift of the Rockefeller Foundation located on Riverside Drive next to Riverside Church and Union Theological Seminary, the center of liberal Christianity in the U.S. and an affiliate of Columbia University. How it all came down I don't know, but in the end the Council wanted Dad on loan for two years, which given the prestige that came with this request the seminary was only to glad to make possible. 

For Dad this was the big time. As for the rest of us it was a fantastic return engagement of the great fun we had on 1962 driving trip. From where we were living in Bergen County (the first year in Glen Rock, the second year in Wyckoff), you could actually see Manhattan on the horizon, at night the skyline a vibrant mass of twinkling lights, its shear proximity a daily presence in our lives. For unlike our isolation in Marin County, where even San Francisco and major events around the globe had the relevance of a distant shooting star, here the very world was at our front door. Every day in the New York Times there was some new global crisis impacting the city, or the arrival of visiting potentates, or the opening night of star studded plays and musicals - all  within miles of our house. And then every time we had visitors from California our guests were taken on tours of Manhattan, with stops at the United Nations and the Empire State Building, and at Radio City Music Hall to see the newest movie and a show with the Rockettes. 

On top of all that there were the truly magical occasions, like the afternoon I went to Lincoln Center for Leonard Bernstein and a "Young People's Concert," or the night Dad took Steve and I to see the smash hit musical, "Mame," at the famed Winter Garden Theatre.  We had the cheapest seats in the last row of the balcony (my feet actually hung over the stairs leading up to our row), but unlike everyone else in the theater that night, we got to go backstage to see Steve's Festival Theater friend, Jane Connell, who was playing the role of Agnes Gooch. Allowed in through a stage door entrance that could have easily been a movie set, we squeezed our way through the narrowest of hallways past a scowling Jerry Lanning who was talking on a pay phone (we had seen him on The Dick Van Dyke Show), and from there on up to a stairway landing and Jane's incredibly shabby dressing room (complete with huge curls of peeling paint). What was said in the few minutes we were there with her I can't recall, but afterwards we were taken out on stage between the rolling spiral staircase, the grand piano and other pieces of the sets, and as Steve and Jane talked with Dad I walked over the orchestra pit and looked out into the vast empty theater.  Hearing the musical numbers and the roar of applause repeated in my head, I could not imagine how anything could be more thrilling and wonderful than being a part of that. I still can't.

Far more significant, however, were the countless weekends we travelled up and down the East Coast, to museums, historic sights, art galleries, and a host of mansions in Newport and on Long Island, and especially up the Hudson River to the homes of Washington Irving, Jay Gould, Fredrick Vanderbilt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, something we never could have done in California. It was a short and sweet period of our lives, much like an extended cruise, with fast and easy friendships and few significant cares or conflicts to spoil the day. So in 1968 as these two years came to an end, Dad announced that he was going to try and make this all permanent by putting his name in for the vacated presidency of the New York Theological Seminary. This was classic Dad, for here was a seminary that was financially strapped and attempting to serve an urban clergy in desperate need of professional training in handling contemporary social issues. It was a daunting assignment that most others looked at as certain of failure - and Dad quite naturally wanted in. And while this may have been the story of his life, this was the first time his work had a meaningful and positive connection to his family, where we all cared about the outcome, were his cheerleaders and wanted him to succeed. It was a heady moment for all of us. Dad even took us to look at apartments, settling on a newly completed high rise (the pretentiously named "Hayden On The Hudson") in tony Riverdale, complete with terrace balconies, wood burning fireplace and dramatic floor to ceiling views of the Hudson River (Back then the rent was $450 a month for a three bedroom apartment and as condos today they're priced at about the same rate per square foot.).

By the time we moved to this house at 4519 Drexel Avenue we realized we had a taste for older homes, as well as a better understanding of how they were meant to be lived in.  Built in 1926, it was slightly smaller than our first house in Edina and admittedly a fixer-upper, loaded with character and on the market for a good price. If I remember correctly it cost about $32,000 in 1970, largely because nothing had been changed from when the original occupants lived there. We sold it two years later with central air conditioning and general updating for about $43,000. In 2009 this very same house with no additions or major alterations was assessed for $740,000 with a single city lot, three bedrooms and only one full bath. Given the price of homes in Edina, my good friend Paul, who is today a doctor, can't afford to own a home in the town where he grew up. In his old neighborhood the houses have all been torn down and replaced by McMansions. The Country Club District suffered some of the same fate but is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is protected by a local landmark designation.

So it was a staggering blow for us as a family - and even sadder for Dad - when he was passed over and the job went to someone else. But as disappointing as it was, Dad was not then or ever defeated. If anything he became more resolved to leave the seminary, especially since the APS program had become the seminary's cash cow and a conga line of titular colleagues were secretly militating to push him aside and take it over. Before that happened, however, within months of our return to San Anselmo, Dad had accepted the directorship of the Academy of Parish Clergy, a new professional association of clergymen of all faiths, funded by the Lilly Endowment and Bush Foundation, and with headquarters set aside in the Ministers' Life and Casualty Building in Minneapolis. Not exactly Manhattan, but still a new and exciting opportunity that would prove after some twenty years to be a final and permanent break with the seminary. And when thinking back on that time period I remember being astonished that none of the other professors I spoke to as fathers of my campus friends knew where Minneapolis was exactly (this was in the days before "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"), one of them even insisting it was in Canada. I also remember watching our things being gathered up by the moving men and being shocked that our furniture, which had been clean and functional and comfortable inside, turned threadbare and stained when brought out into the light of day.

And although Dad never liked to spend money on much of anything, and always prided himself in getting what he thought was a sharp deal, the home he bought for us to live in was in the rather posh suburb of Edina - a decision he based on the claim that it had the lowest taxes in the Twin Cities area. The actual house, however, was a truly comfortless split level ranch, completely devoid of any character, and in a flat and treeless part of the city that was mercilessly windswept, a significant consideration in the subzero winters of Minnesota to which from California we were expected to adjust.  Another house much more to our liking was soon after found in what was called the Country Club District, one of the first planned residential developments in the state, begun in the 1920s and consisting of perfectly situated and yet modestly proportioned period style homes, all made possible by a groundbreaking zoning ordinance, as well as strictly enforced restrictive covenants. Ours - an unimpressive stucco box - was characteristically bright and sunny and full of potential.

It was also haunted.

CHAPTER II continues HERE.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Little Pitchers Have Big Ears

When Great Uncle Alvin died in 1958, Grandma went to comfort her sister and essentially never came back to live with us. Although still financially dependant, the happiest period of her life was probably the six years spent at 355 Corralitos Road, which is evident from her expression in this photo from a Christmas card I'm certain Great Aunt Jessie had printed for Grandma to send out. The romance of Uncle Alvin's life permeated the house and allowed us a tangible glimpse of his Polynesian expeditions as recorded in "Quest For the Golden Cloak," which Grandma as a former school teacher helped to edit. I was horrified and dismayed when Grandma and Aunt Jessie moved in 1964 to a retirement home, the ranch sold and the contents of Uncle Alvin's study dispersed to the Bishop Museum, the Steinhart Aquarium and Stanford University, his alma mater. I'm sure this house was the origin of my fascination with the lives of other people as reflected in their homes, that and the conviction that some houses must be kept together and lived in as continuing reminders of the kind of people we once were and should strive to emulate. While still standing, Uncle Alvin's meticulously maintained ranch house and grounds are today grotesquely overgrown and fallen sadly into a shamefully negligent state decay, as seen in the above Google map link. His apple orchard also appears to have been replaced by vineyards.

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.


As much as it may have seemed that Dad's career and our life on the seminary were settled and on track, both in fact were coming apart as quickly as they came together. The first clue came in 1958, just two years after moving onto campus, when Grandma got word that Great Uncle Alvin had died. In short order Grandma packed her bags and went down to Corralitos, where she planned to comfort her now widowed younger sister Jessie. Twelve years her senior, Grandma had essentially raised Jessie, which made Grandma's coming to the rescue a familiar and comforting reminiscence for both women. Very quickly, however, these sisterly roles were reversed, with the grieving Jessie inviting her penniless older sister to come live with her and enjoy the kind of life Grandma had lost forty years earlier in the depression. It was probably one of the easiest decisions she had to make.

Aunt Jessie was well off and ensconced in a handsomely appointed mission style ranch house supported by the profitable apple orchard Uncle Alvin had developed around it.  As a boy I remember there being glass cabinets full of delicate china and memorabilia of world travels, as well as the implicit sound of drums and native voices coming out of Uncle Alvin's untouched study, which was chock-a-block with exotic atlases, aboriginal spears, shrunken heads and an equally frightening assortment of grotesque mounted fish. Outside there were also the rose gardens, fish ponds and fountains Uncle Alvin had tucked into nearly every corner of the manicured grounds around the house, in spring the air scented by apple blossoms and in fall by the musky odor of ripe fruit. More important from Grandma's perspective was the bedroom Aunt Jessie had indulgently decorated for her in pink, swathed in ruffles and satin, and outfitted with the kind of dressing table a lady needed to always look her best - all for Grandma and the farthest thing possible from her days living in a sod house on the prairie, let alone living with us.

One would think Grandma would have been deliriously happy, but the return of comfort and security loosened her snarky tongue even further than before, opening a floodgate of criticism and sniping aimed entirely at Mom. Well, almost entirely. On her first return visit to Bolinas Avenue, I waited at the bottom of the stairs for Grandma to come down for breakfast, and when she did all she said to me was, "My, what a fat little face you have." (Overhearing this, Mom later said she wanted to slap Grandma for the hurt she caused me, but I now think it was more the hurt the remark caused her.)  On yet another occasion Grandma called Mom and detailed the royal treatment she had gotten while visiting Angela, Mom's older sister, concluding her account with, "You never did anything for me." Absurd on the face of it alone (my parents had been Grandma's sole financial support for nearly 20 years), Mom nevertheless proceeded to write down a detailed indictment of Grandma's crimes against her, which she then inexplicably read to me, and which instead of sending to Grandma or destroying, Mom kept securely with her for years (and may still be tucked away somewhere among her papers in the attic).

Cooking in our house established Mom as the daily center of attention, even in the Bolinas Avenue kitchen where she shared counter space with Bob's aquariums of exotic fish (with the squirming brine to feed some of them being refrigerated in one of her Pyrex casseroles). At breakfast there was always a crowd of family and sometimes company sitting around that little table while she fixed pancakes or French toast or "meat eggs," her own fulsome mixture of ground beef and scrambled eggs. Cooking was also the  principal antidote Mom had at her disposal for treating any problem that entered her sphere of influence. Her repertoire of palliative care included such hearty fare as Texas hash, tagliarini, enchilada pie, chop suey, meatloaf (with twice baked potatoes), and literally cauldrons of spaghetti, the pasta and sauce tossed together and cooked on the stove top until  deliciously though unauthentically caramelized. Branching out as we grew older, she trolled magazines and newspapers and the kitchens of friends, always in search of that new and enticing dish that would draw praise and generate contented healing. That was for Mom the holy grail of cooking, fuflilled only when the was table set and decorated for some gathering, the kitchen redolent of enticing deliciousness. It was also a way of distinguishing herself from Grandma, whose repertoire was pretty much limited to such haute cuisine as beans on toast, boiled dinner and creamed chipped beef.

In all fairness to Grandma, her departure was undoubtedly hastened by living under the same roof with a household comprised almost entirely of teenage boys, whose relationships with their father - and therefore each other - were at the very least complicated. On the top of the pile was Bob (by this point a student at the University of California - Berkeley), whose intensity when mixed with Dad's turned minor differences into open warfare, most often with one or the other opening fire over some trivial provocation at dinner time.  Mom, never a calming influence or one to handle discord with any personal detachment, took Bob aside one day and made him write out three checks to her for $100 each, nearly emptying his account, explaining that from then on every time he started a fight with Dad she was going to cash one check. When the last one was spent, Bob would be kicked out. She then sat Dad down, had him write out three checks for $1,000 each, and gave him the same ultimatum, three fights and he'd be sent packing. With Dad she adding her personal guarantee that each $1,000 would be spent frivolusly, a threat aimed directly at Dad's was most vulnerable body part - his wallet. From that day forward, continuing well into their later years, Bob and Dad remained guarded when together in Mom's company, wary of any renewal of these threats - or perhaps fearful that the checks were extant and still valid.

In Bob's defense, not all the conflicts at home involved him. For although they found a near legendary companionship in their mutual enjoyment of the out of doors, Dad's relationships with Bill and Dave were complicated by an intense rivalry for Dad's attention and approval. When least expected the underlying jealousies would erupt in retaliatory strikes - like the time Bill took the vacuum cleaner outside and blew unripe plums through Dave's open bedroom windows, staining the wallpaper and smashing the model airplanes Dave had made and carefully hung from the ceiling. Frequently caught in the line of fire, my brother Steve implemented his own military strategy of full disengagement, remaining hopeful that another family would eventually take him in. 
Even as a child he seemed to be on the look out for an opening, on one occasion disappearing at the beach, where after a frantic search he was found sitting happily with strangers. When asked by Mom why he had run off, Steve replied very simply, "They have a better umbrella." A more promising opportunity came later in the form of our Uncle Gene Reiner, who was married to Dad's sister Mary, was the father of four girls, and had long wished for a son. After a week of male bonding at their home in Santa Maria, Steve returned to San Anselmo disillusioned.  A houseful of girls, it turned out, could be just as contentious as a houseful of boys

During his visit to Neenah in 1960, Dad asked about the painting he fondly remembered as a boy hanging over the fireplace in Uncle Harry's library on Wisconsin Avenue. Learning of his interest in it, Aunt Fan got it down out of the attic and sent it to us.  When Dad hung it over to the fireplace in our living room my brothers were shocked. "You aren't going to put that naked man up there, are you?" Dave asked. That fall Bob announced his  plans to marry Marilyn Patterson, his high school sweetheart, and to mark this turning point Dad arranged for a photographer to take a family picture of us all in front of the painting which was his link to the one man who was like a father to him. The body language and expressions this picture records speaks volumes. From the left, standing, are Bob (21), Dad (44), Dave (15) and Bill  (18). Seated in front are Mom (44), me (6) and Steve (11). As for the painting, it was created in 1913 and entitled "Beaded Bag," one of a series by western artist E. Irving Couse. Dad loved this painting for it associations, and it followed us back to Neenah where eventually Dad sold it in 1983 to help fund the preservation of his grandfather's house - which Dad loved even more. All the same, it is an odd sensation for me to see prints of a painting I grew up with - and admired for its use of light, rich colors and composition - being marketed by art shops on line.

As for myself, I flew under everyone else's radar, for as a whole my family had no concept of the old adage, "Little pitchers have big ears."  I heard and observed a great many things that were wrongly assumed to be beyond my understanding, as is the case with most children. I had, for example, a very clear picture of the increasing number of professional problems that were confronting Dad. From what I now know these began not long after Grandma moved out, when Mom and Dad attended an evening faculty gathering to introduce the seminary's new president, Theodore Gill, the successor to Dad's long time mentor, Jesse Baird.  Returning home much earlier than expected, they were both dumbstruck by the radical changes the occasion foretold. Instead of the Presbyterian staples of tea or coffee, cocktails were served while the 38-year-old guest of honor worked the room wearing joke glasses with bulging eyeballs dangling on springs, providing a dubious faculty with numerous examples of his off-color sense of humor.  As was even recorded years later in a privately published seminary history, when asked on this occasion who had influenced him to enter the ministry, Gill told those assembled, "God, I hope! God or gonads, I've never been sure which. Actually, I've heard that the church was a dying institution and I wanted to be in on the kill."

This was only the beginning. 

Up until to that point alcohol and tobacco had been more or less prohibited on campus, at one point to the extent that the discovery of a beer can in the seminary incinerator resulted in a formal campus investigation into the matter. Now all that and more was being swept away. During our summer pot lucks on the back porch, Mom and Dad freely discussed the state of the seminary with the Duncans, who had their own horror stories to report. On one of these occasions Stu recounted the number of men found spending the night - and using the showers - in Susanna Baird Hall, the women's dormitory, adding how the maintenance crew would not work at the house of one of the new professors if his wife was home, given how whatever the time of day, the bathrobe she invariably appeared in always fell open in their presence. To this  Mom noted that the milkman took a half hour between that house and ours, with Dad adding that the professor in question was having an ongoing affair with his secretary. On yet another evening Dad also passed along how the new president, the married father of two, only traveled first class and with a young male secretary who had limited typing skills. How factual these and other statements were I can't assess beyond that my parents and the Duncans believed every word to be true. What I do know is that at one point I was able to secretly climb up inside the bell tower of Montgomery Hall (where the faculty offices were located) and there on the roof I found a mattress, chair, some clothing, and half a dozen empty bottles. Whoever it was who brought them up there I never found out. I can only say is that it would have taken significant determination to get a mattress of that size up the hill unnoticed, let alone up the twisting spiral staircase.

And yet while seminary morale was rapidly deteriorating, in 1961 Dad was offered a great opportunity - to be the director of the newly organized office of Advanced Pastoral Studies, a doctorate program for ministers wanting to earn an advanced degree and improve their professional standing on a part time basis. Dad knew the position had been presented to him because none of the new order of academics wanted to risk their professional reputations on anything that they thought certain to fail - but their disinterest was challenge enough for Dad to accept. So like with the broadcasting program he had spearheaded nearly a decade before, Dad was soon developing the course of study, rounding up his teaching staff, and promoting this great new educational innovation at gatherings of church leaders and clergy around the country. Our own driving trip back to Neenah in 1962 was part of one such circuit, with stops in Toronto, New York and Virginia. And while Bob was by then married and living down in Los Angeles (and Bill and Dave wanting no part of being cooped up with the rest of us for any period of time), the four weeks on the road passed without mishap or melt down and produced many fond memories of the places we saw together as a family. For Dad it also opened his eyes to what it was to be relaxed, to realize that life did not have to be the constant battle it had become, and to the discovery that in spite of all the complications and conflicts, his children were in fact good company - all this just at the point when we were beginning to leave the nest and the family itself was coming undone. 

And that, I suspect, must have been when the light bulb first went off in his head.

CHAPTER II continues HERE.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Hints of Drama and Back Story

This is me at about age five, sitting on the living room coffee table at Bolinas Avenue, trying my best to assemble a Sunday School collection box shaped like a church. This picture, while slightly out of focus, has very fond memories for me, largely because Dad had me pose for it, and for those few brief moments I was the center of his attention. Dad never had any time for - or if the truth be told, interest in - teaching me how to ride a bike or playing catch or reading stories to me. If  you wanted to be with Dad it was always on his terms, doing what he wanted to do, which was the lesson Bill and Dave learned and came to embrace early on. By the time I was old enough to be included on camping trips, Dad and my brothers had progressed to more physically demanding pack trips deep into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, on which I came to understand that I would have been an encumbrance rather than a welcome addition. As a result I developed no interest in hunting or fishing - or for that matter the discomforts of camping - making any time with Dad at this point in my life severely limited.

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.


It truly is an ill wind that doesn't blow some good, and such was the case with our life on the seminary, at least from my perspective. While Dad was to become an even more shadowy presence at home - and then more irritable than before - having more than twice the house than on Brookside Drive allowed everyone to retire to their own corner before coming to blows. Fights between my brothers became non-existent on Bolinas Avenue, or at very least less direct, more subtle and non-physical. And while having her mother directly under foot was a decided source of tension for Mom, Grandma had announced that in moving in with us she would be taking over my care, allowing Mom to give more attention to everyone else, especially Steve, who as the former youngest I had abruptly preempted as the center of Mom's attention.

My grandmother lived with us for only two years, but looking back I can now see how she was instrumental in shaping my character, mostly for the better. In setting up her new room on Bolinas Avenue, she picked out furniture that was just the right height for a three-year-old to climb into and sit beside her when it came time for stories, always some kind of an adventure with an underlying moral or life lesson, like "Robot the Rabbit" and later "Bowser the Hound," perennial favorites in our household. Grandma also bought bags of colored plastic cars and little figurines which I remember she would have me sort by color, size or any other characteristic she could come up with, and in place of that we also stuck colored straight pins in her tomato pin cushion to make stars and pinwheels and other patterns, all of which encouraged me to be observant, to see patterns and order, to have an appreciation of differences and similarities, and to notice the kind of details that I found with time most others ignored. If not her best student, I was undoubtedly one of her most devoted and at the very least certainly her last.

And while there were no other children on campus of any age when we first arrived, the gradual increase of new professors and administrators generated an influx of young families which produced a small group of neighborhood kids for me to play with. The experience was similar to what my brothers had on Brookside Drive, the primary difference being that while the youngest at home - where I counted for very little - out on the main drive up Seminary Hill where the campus kids congregated, I was the oldest, an elder statesman, or at the very least the cruise director, organizing games and activities that everyone, whatever their age, could participate in. For as much as our parents were seldom found in the same room together except as compelled, the seminary children were frequently together every day, an isolated group of youngsters largely removed from the rest of the town, a fate which required us to get along and make the most of and value each other's company - even if the adults found each other repellent. 


In addition to her friendship with Betty Duncan, Mom found real pleasure in putting her sewing skills to use as costume mistress for the Festival Theatre, a professional acting troupe that took up residence in the seminary's abandoned gymnasium in 1960. In this  publicity photo for Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of our Teeth," one of the company's earliest productions, Mom is in her element, the center of attention, her handiwork being admired and confirmed by other women, and my brother Steve near at hand. Modeling their costumes as the pet dinosaur and mastodon that appear in the first act are cast members Greg Duncan and Steve, with Mom, Betty Come (another professor's wife who was included in the photo to demonstrate faculty support of the production), and Betty Duncan, who shared costuming duties with Mom. Both Steve and Greg would at various times later serve as technical managers at the Festival Theatre.

Early on, however, it was not quite so rosy. There was the professor's son, for example, who threatened me with a knife and made me drop my pants, as well as the administrator's three daughters who took off my clothes and played doctor with me while our mothers were having tea downstairs (these same girls later threw rocks at me, I suspect in retribution for whatever punishment they may have received for praying upon my compliant nature).  While these two families moved off campus shortly thereafter, both incidents took place in the house later occupied by the Lees, whose children were much younger than I but nevertheless became like a second family to me. A fourth generation Chinese American, their father Bob Lee set a tone of professorial lèse-majesté around the house by singing the barroom version of Bizet's "Toreador's Song," complete with references to cuspidors and their purpose, while their mother May Lee made intoxicatingly delicious Chinese wedding cookies and could whip up the best potato salad ever at a moment's notice. The Lees also had a boarder named Margot, a nursing student from Sacramento whose parents were Christian Scientists. She drove a baby blue Volkswagen Beetle and could do no wrong in my eyes.

For my brothers the transition to Bolinas Avenue was more difficult, being removed from their established circle of friends, and in that were not as fortunate as I. Mom and Dad, however, found good friends in Stuart and Betty Duncan, who lived just off campus across the street. Stu, the son of a seminary professor, had returned to San Anselmo after service in World War II and joined the seminary's maintenance staff, eventually becoming chief superintendent. In Stu Dad found a replacement for Walt on pack trips, one who had a first hand understanding Dad's work, but from an entirely different and therefore illuminating perspective. In Betty Mom similarly enjoyed the leavening companionship of a woman who shared many of the same skills and interests as Mom, but who never seemed to let any of them take over her life or impose themselves upon Betty's calm enjoyment of simply sitting out on her back porch on a sunny day with a cup of coffee and a crossword puzzle, the dirty dishes and laundry left to take care of themselves.

Included in the Duncan package were their two children, Greg and Linda, who were approximately the same ages as Steve and I, and which in conjunction with the friendship of our parents established all of us as intimates in our mutually extended families. During these years Linda and I in particular were inseparable in a very compartmentalized sense. For while on most afternoons the Lees and I would organize games of "Sardines," "Colored Eggs," and "Mother May I," Linda and I would periodically spend days together at our house, sometimes for as long as three weeks non-stop, developing elaborate plot lines and characters, and building little sets of houses and villages out of blocks, American Bricks and a commingling of pieces from my diverse Marx Brothers play sets (of everything from "Fort Ticonderoga" to "Ben Hur"), all for acting out stories revolving around what are now collectible animal-shaped erasers, an activity we simply referred to as "playing rubber animals." 

Christmas dinner was a much smaller affair in comparison to our Thanksgiving blow-outs, but even here at this point in her life Mom unfailingly put on the dog with candles, centerpiece, china, silver and crystal goblets. In this picture (not one of Dad's better compositions) the napkins have felt poinsettia napkin rings that Mom made and we still have. From the left are Dave, Bill, Mom, me, Steve, Bob (obscured) and Dad - who in spite of all the fuss (or perhaps because of it) came to the table in flannel shirts, or in Steve's case his tee shirt. While my brothers look put upon, I am clearly impressed by the domestic pageantry. Note the priscilla curtains are still fresh and gleaming from their fall cleaning.

With or without rubber animals, the Duncans were regular fixtures at our house - and vice verse - particularly in warm summer months for pot luck suppers and picnics outdoors, a comfortable and leisurely routine I don't recall being repeated inside at either house when the weather turned colder. School, of course, intervened, as did the seminary's academic year, during which Mom's focus turned to maintaining the traditional home gatherings for Dad's students - something the other new professor's wives seldom if ever undertook. Mom also gave much of her attention to the Thanksgiving extravaganzas that over Dad's protests she would annually orchestrate for every living relative within a day's drive of San Anselmo. Always up for a party and a houseful of people as hostess (and less so as guest), Mom had suppressed the full expression of this convivial part of her nature until moving to Bolinas Avenue, where she at last had the space and the rationale for assuming the cloak of society hostess Pearl Mesta

In that period of our lives dinner was the fundamental ritual at our house, one which took on banquet proportions on holidays with relatives. For months in advance Mom would approach the arrival of both Dad's Adamses and her Luthers with as many stratagems as Eisenhower's invasion of Normandy. Cookbooks and home magazines were always key to her planing effort, but first and foremost was the cleaning of the house with an attention to detail that bordered on the obsessive compulsive. Mom categorized this level of cleaning as "knock down, drag out" and it had as it's main thrust the cleaning of the muslin priscilla curtains she had made and that hung on every window, and which in a year's time would become limp, dusty and fly specked.  Removed with the utmost care, they were treated for stains and repaired as needed, and then washed, starched (using liquid, not spray starch) and ironed - every ruffle and flounce of them - to a razor sharp and gleaming crispness that spoke to a dazzling standard of cleanliness, which in the final analysis was certainly exhausting if not always entirely exhaustive. 

At Thanksgiving, when there invariably was company, Mom always out did herself. Here the table is set with the water goblets Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty gave Mom as wedding presents, along with the sterling silver and the assorted famille rose and cabbage leaf Chinese import ware Dad’s mother brought back with them from their years living in the Orient. It’s interesting that Dad arranged for evocative lighting in this photo, given that he invariably scorned this kind of fuss and wanted nothing to do with anything that reminded him of his mother, their life overseas or their home in Berkeley.

The accompanying Thanksgiving dinners were in many ways as important (if not more so) than Christmas, and it seemed at times that the entirety of the preparations, as well as the event itself, was our raison d'être as a family - and perhaps it was as far as Mom was concerned at this point in her life. She often said she married Dad for his family, having gone by his home in Berkeley and seen all the lights on and heard the laughter at some gathering, and then later attending parties there and being surrounded by his brothers and sisters and the in-laws and cousins, and even Cora the cook, who was more a member of the family than an employee.  Mom wanted to be a part of that energy, and at the house on Bolinas Avenue there was at last room to at least recreate something of those occasions, which I would later find captured in the Thanksgiving scenes of Woody Allen's "Hannah And Her Sisters," albeit without the alcohol, incestuous infidelities, and Central Park views. Even so, the procession of aunts and uncles and cousins at our house I now see as a kind of theater, the players making entrances, acting out parts and speaking lines scripted by the life events they had experienced in common.

I didn't comprehend any of that at the time, but nevertheless I picked up hints of drama and back story each and every year. On my father's side of the crowd the conversations inevitably had throw away lines involving pioneer missionaries in Korea, invasion by the Japanese and war with the communists. There were references of Dad and his sister Mary being raised by an
amah, of Dad being found playing with the leper boy, and of the visit to their house in Taegu by President Theodore Roosevelt's daughter Alice Longworth, who was on a diplomatic tour of the Orient. And presiding overall was "Mother" (who gave birth to Dad and Mary in Korea) as distinguished from "Mama" (who was the mother of Dad and Mary's much older half brothers Ned, Ben, George and half sister Dorothy), and Father (not Papa) whose name was always mentioned with the most reverential of tones. Interspersed were accounts of the fruitless travels around this country to recover their father's health, the countless visits to Neenah, and the house in Berkeley that Mother ran as a missionary hostel, the guest rooms filled almost to the day she died.

On Mom's side there was an equally heavy dosage of bitterness and romance, but of an entirely different sort. The child of itinerant farmers pursuing the elusive dream of financial security, Grandma grew up in a sod house in Nebraska, her father raising sorghum and later in California becoming one of countless carpenters who worked on the home of the deranged rifle millionairess, Sarah Winchester, and after that living off whatever Grandma could provide them as a rural schoolteacher. Then there was Mom being spat on during World War I because her father was a German, and Grandma being wiped out by the depression and receiving no help as a widow from her wealthy brother-in-law Ellerslie, founder of the groundbreaking California Chemical Company, the creator of Ortho sprays. The frosting on top of this crazy cake was Great Uncle Alvin Seale, the explorer, soldier of fortune, ichthyologist, friend of John Muir, founding director of San Francisco's Steinhart Aquarium, and founding curator of Honolulu's Bishop Museum - whose Hoosier origins, world travels and rifle-totting approach to specimen collecting made him the embodiment of George Lucas' Indiana Jones.

The past, clearly, was the most distinguished and honored guest at our family gatherings, which was very exciting and hard to fully understand, even though I never missed a moment of the proceedings. Even more confusing, however, was the
strum und drang that was standing just off stage in the wings, waiting to make a dramatic entrance into our lives.

CHAPTER II continues HERE.