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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.


  1. Really enjoying the ongoing saga. Can't wait for the "High School Years"! By the way, Bob looks like YOU in the family photo!

    Keep up the good work!


    1. Good eye. My brothers used to tease me by saying I was adopted (I was the only blond), but they didn't look any where near as much like Dad as I did, Bob coming in a close second. Bill, Dave, Steve and Bonnie - even Carol Ann and Janet - all strongly favor Mom's side of the family. Dave and Janet in particular look more like siblings than cousins. Funny how that works. As for the "High School Years," that may have to be a separate chapter in the unexpurgated version. I'm thinking, however that the trip moving you down to Phoenix figures into the main story arc because of its effect on Dad. But you'll have to wait and see what that was.

  2. I lived at "pretentious" Hayden on the Hudson in tony Riverdale from 1976 to 1981. It was my first home after leaving my parents and the rent for a one-bedroom not facing the Hudson was $325. It converted to a condo in 1978. I took my nine-year-old daughter to see it Saturday and it felt strange to be there. I've lived in Manhattan for 29 years, which is so extremely different. You're an excellent writer!

    1. Lew, thanks for taking the time to write! The apartment we looked at is still clear in my memory and seemed to my young mind like the epitome of the good life. I can't help but think how different our lives would have been had Dad gotten that job. We might have even been neighbors! As a resident now of Manhattan you enjoy the life my wife imagined herself living until she married me. I've promised that when we retire we'll find some short term rental in the city and live there for six months so she can take that off her bucket list. As for myself I'll be able to go to La Grenouille more often, finally see an opera at the Met, and drive up the Hudson River Valley, my favorite place in all the world (well, one of them).