Palo Alto – Stanford area looking west

(This rather long inaugural post talks about sense of place, one of the themes I’ll be exploring from time to time.  You can drive down some streets in Los Angeles or San Jose,  passing nothing but fast food restaurants and franchise stores, and feel that you are nowhere.  California has its share of anonymous spots.  But the state as a whole gives people a strong sense that they are in California and not anywhere else. I’ve always wondered why that is so. This post explores the growing awareness of place I developed when I left Berkeley and went to college.)

Encountering a New Place

In 1961, after completing high school in Berkeley, I was admitted to Stanford University, with a scholarship that gave me the financial support I needed as the son of an enlisted man in a Navy family. There were several reasons why I went to Stanford. One was the football team. I loved their red and white uniforms, their school fight song (“Oh it’s whiskey, whiskey, whiskey/ That makes you feel so frisky/ On the Farm, On the Farm…”) I loved to watch their great quarterback, John Brodie, throw the ball.

And I also had role models. Several of the older students at my high school, the ones I most liked and admired, went on to Stanford. Another role model was my aunt, Jeanne, the older of my father’s two sisters. She had gone to Stanford Medical School in the 1930s to become a nurse. As the member of my family with the most formal education, and as someone who was used to talking with students, she had a great influence on my thinking.

My first view of Stanford was, in fact, from the window of her car, a 1947, blue, two door, stick shift Plymouth. My sister and I were staying with my aunt in her home in San Carlos at the time. Jeanne had to run an errand and invited me to keep her company. Our route happened to take us south along the Peninsula to Palo Alto. As we drove along the main avenue, El Camino Real, on a hot day, I smelled eucalyptus, looked to my right, and saw a long interruption in the storefronts. Suddenly the side of the highway was bordered by brown grassland divided by wooden fences, with rows of the familiar trees set in back almost as if to form a wall. “What’s in there?” I asked. “Oh,” Jeanne said, “that’s Stanford. You can’t see it from the road. It goes back in there for miles.” She paused, looked at the road, then looked again at me. “You know,” she continued, “you might go to college there someday. You’re bright. You could get in. I think you’d like it.”

At the time I sent my acceptance form back to the Admissions Office, I had never seen anything more of Stanford than that view from my aunt’s Plymouth. I had said yes based on notions I had developed from afar. In September of 1961, my father drove me, from our apartment in the Bay Area, south along the Nimitz Freeway, across the Dumbarton Bridge, into Palo Alto, and onto the campus. We parked at Wilbur Hall, the freshman dormitory complex. We unpacked my luggage, had a conversation, met my roommate – a Chemistry major from Arizona — and then said goodbye knowing we’d see each other again in November when my parents would be joining me and my aunt for Thanksgiving dinner.

Left to myself, I joined with the freshman class in getting to know my new surroundings. There were new people to meet from all over the world. There were new kinds of courses, new kinds of class schedules with large blocks of free time, new challenges for self discipline, and new kinds of social groups including fraternities and eating clubs, alumni, residence hall committees, groups organized around extracurricular activities, off campus networks, and cliques based on everything from who had gone to Exeter to who liked to surf.

Sense of place is a part of every campus experience. “Place and learning” could be the title of an interesting book. But it was especially important at Stanford. From my first day there, I noticed that the image of the whole University was built around an image of place. Stanford called itself “The Farm.” In Berkeley, there had been a verbal label that served a similar function. U.C. Berkeley was “Cal,” with after-images of Telegraph Avenue or the Campanile and Sather Gate. But this verbal shorthand was more abstract than Stanford’s. I noticed the farm features of Stanford from the very beginning: vast, empty fields of grass; areas where horses still grazed; old workers’ buildings where agricultural implements rusted in the rain. I also learned how “The Farm” was really a ranch. It had been not so much a place where crops were grown as the property where, in the late nineteenth century, Senator Leland Stanford had kept his racing horses. He dubbed it “The Farm,” because it was a “stock farm,” and probably also as a gesture of rural nostalgia traceable to his childhood.

Another feature of the campus I noticed right away was the horizontality. Berkeley has a small area of flatlands that rise from San Francisco Bay, but the city quickly becomes hilly as you go toward its eastern edge. Cal nestles in rising hills. Palo Alto, on the western side of San Francisco Bay, also starts at the water as a flat area. The difference is that the flat area goes westward through the city and continues for a long distance on the Stanford property. I found it interesting that all of the buildings on the Stanford campus were on rather level topography. There were no hills until you reached the relatively undeveloped area further west that bordered the Pacific Ocean. This acreage was also part of the Stanford campus, but it was still mostly empty grassland dotted by bushes and Live Oak trees. The buildings on the Stanford campus seemed to me, nevertheless, to be much like the ones I knew from Cal. There were low-lying, stucco-walled structures with red tile roofs echoing the Spanish tradition; a smattering of wooden bungalows and Victorian houses; and modern buildings with lots of aluminum and glass and not much individuality, which, I judged, had been added in the 1950s.


At the end of my freshman year, I joined a college fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and began forming friendships that were to last a lifetime. The original SAE house was an old, wooden structure dating from around 1900, near the center of the campus. In 1961 it was torn down. I was part of the first group of students to move into the new house, a sprawling, ranch-style structure that had just been constructed in the low lying, sparsely settled hills on the west side of the campus not far from Lake Lagunita and the golf course. Just over the hill, on its own large plot of land, was the University mansion The Knoll, built in the 1920s to imitate a small Italian villa. It greeted you suddenly as you walked across the grassy fields and clusters of oak trees and pines. There was a clean feel to the area. The grass was green in fall and winter, nourished by the rain. In spring and summer, the hills turned brown and the air was hot and dry. Year round, on nights when there were no clouds, you could see an amazing number of stars.

Our fraternity house could board about 80 people, two to a room. We gathered for meals in the dining room, and hung out or gave parties in the living room and library. The house had a patio off of the dining room, with a grape arbor, where we could enjoy our meals on sunny days. In the back of the house, we had another patio and a small paved area for basketball and volleyball.

An experience common to most college students is the search for an especially comfortable place on campus to study. Interest in History dictated my choice. Some students preferred to study in their rooms, some at the campus coffee shop, some in reading rooms or the stacks of the library, some in the evening in a certain classroom, some in the lab. The place at Stanford where I felt most comfortable was the reading room on the first floor of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, located in the tall, neo-Spanish bell tower built in the 1920’s to honor Herbert Hoover, Stanford’s President. The building contained offices for scholars and librarians, and a large collection of books, original documents, and artifacts. The reading room, on the first floor, displayed objects donated by Hoover himself: his books, for example, and letters of thanks from European children whose lives had been saved by the food drives he organized during the First World War. On the walls of the reading room, there were large, hanging tapestries given to Hoover by the people of Belgium. I enjoyed the contrast between this very European setting and the view through the large windows, of palm trees and the California Mission architecture of nearby Encina Hall.

Hoover Tower, Stanford campus

Getting to Know an Editor

My interest in the place where I was being educated was strongly reinforced by the coincidence of encountering a very interesting teacher during my first year. Whenever I think about him, I think about a man with a beard — not because he had one, but because of a photograph I saw, of a man with a beard, when I was thinking about applying to Stanford. The bearded man’s photograph was on one of the pages of the booklet I received in the mail after writing to the Stanford admissions office and asking for information and application materials. The booklet, which had a title along the lines of “Introducing Stanford,” was the standard kind of breezily written, attractively printed overview that all universities circulate to get young people interested in attending. On one of the pages, there was the photo of the bearded man. He was offered to readers as the typical Stanford faculty member. He had an encouraging, puckish, kind smile and very intelligent eyes. He was wearing a tweed sportcoat. He was sitting on the edge of an old wooden desk and looking at a small classroom of students who sat in old wooden chairs and seemed to be eagerly engaged with him in a conversation about some unnamed but exciting topic. The picture corresponded perfectly — as the crafters of the booklet must have known — with all my hopes about the college learning environment. I carried the memory of that photograph in my mind when I began my first day of classes at Stanford in the Fall of 1961.
As things turned out, I didn’t have any professors with beards that first quarter. Nor were most of my classrooms even physically similar to the one in the photo. My course in introductory German, for example, was held in a small, modern room next to the big auditorium in the Physics building, while my classroom for introductory Geology was too full of rocks and models of dinosaurs to imagine anyone there wearing a tweed sport coat.

But, for Introduction to the History of Western Civilization, I got a lot closer to my goal.
The classroom for this course was in the basement of History Corner, along one side of the big quadrangle of older buildings that forms the original center of the Stanford campus. The space had never been remodeled. It proved to have exactly the kind of old wooden desk and rickety captain’s chairs I had seen in my treasured photograph. In this encouraging environment, along with some twenty other first year students, I sat in one of the chairs and waited for our instructor to enter.

After a few minutes, he walked in. The first thing I noticed was that he had a cherubic face and no beard. The second thing I noticed was that he was not wearing a tweed sportcoat, but, instead, a light blue searsucker sportcoat, a white shirt, a red wool tie that had a Tartan pattern, charcoal black slacks, bright yellow socks, and brown penny loafers. The third thing I noticed about him was that he walked on crutches.

With visible effort, he pulled himself to a location behind the large desk, then contorted the upper part of his body slightly downward so that he could set onto the desk the stack of papers he had been carrying under one arm. Then, in a smooth motion with which he was obviously familiar, he placed his two crutches against the edge of the desk and, when his hands were free, firmly grasped the sides of the speaker’s lectern that was fastened to the top of the desk.

Looking out at us, with a broad smile that indicated his intention to be friends, he said, “Good morning. My name is Charles McLaughlin. We’re going to be together for a while. I wonder if I could trouble one of you to pass around this pile of course outlines.” His voice as he said these words was firm, but he had to pause several times, occasionally in the middle of a phrase, to get his breath, and he had difficulty preventing his voice from jumping too high in pitch or too low. You could tell that extra effort was required for him to speak and to keep a consistent range, because the muscles all of us need to use to talk were, in his case, not as strong as they are for most of us. For all that, he had no difficulty in going on at great length. He spoke to us for about twenty minutes regarding the strategy of the course, the readings we would be assigned, and ways to study efficiently. Then he laughed and told us we could leave early.

Thereafter I was in class with Dr. McLaughlin and my fellow students every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday throughout the Fall quarter. We followed a standard routine. We made a point of arriving early and took our chairs. He walked in soon thereafter and took his position behind the lectern. Onto the lectern he placed his instructor’s notes, some of which were typewritten and some of which were in his tiny, precise handwriting. Then, never lecturing, always following the Socratic method, he led us in a discussion of the assigned readings.

For some of the students, especially the ones who were not planning to go on in the social sciences or the humanities, and for whom Western Civ was simply a requirement for a degree, McLaughlin’s approach was tedious. But, if you had even a small amount of curiosity about the past , he was a very good teacher. His questions were powerful (“Why do you think the habit of worshipping one god, instead of many, began in Israel rather than in Egypt?” “You may have noticed that the biography of Julius Caesar you were assigned to read is a translation from the German. What do you make of that fact?”). He helped you to realize that textbooks have their weaknesses. (“The author of our textbook is in the habit of saying that Babylon, Assyria, and Persia were afflicted by something called ‘Oriental Mysticism.’ I hope you realize he hasn’t thought much about the term.”) And he was very careful to make you feel good, as long as you were thoughtful, when you got up the courage to challenge academic authority. (“You’re right, Gary, a course in Western Civilization does neglect three quarters of the planet. In our instructors’ meetings, we’re talking about that.”)

I had an aptitude for History, and so I did very well on the final exam that McLaughlin gave us at the end of Fall quarter. Over Christmas, at home in the East Bay area, I got a postcard from him inviting me to join his advanced class, so called “Special Civ,” in which each instructor excused two or three students from attending regular classes and instead met with them in the evening to discuss not only the regular readings but also research papers on topics of our choosing. Thanks to this arrangement, I had the opportunity to know much more about McLaughlin than I learned about any of my other first year instructors. And it was for this reason that I came to know of his very strong interest in the ways human beings use the space around them.

A Maker of  Landscape

Around midway through the Fall quarter of Western Civ, the topic for the day was the civilization of ancient Greece. Inevitably we got around to mentioning the Greek genius for architecture. The usual terms popped out: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Acropolis, pediment, portico, and so forth. The terms were all rote for me, because I had covered them back in high school Latin class. But just as I was about to tune out of the class discussion, I heard McLaughlin use a term I had never heard before. “By the way,” he asked, “does anybody know the word to describe the architecture of the Stanford campus?” None of us did. McLaughlin gave a big smile, looking very pleased by the opportunity our ignorance offered. “It’s Romanesque!” he declared. “We’ll get to it later when we study the Middle Ages,” he added. Then he got back on the track of questioning us just about the Greeks, with all of us still wondering why a man who was usually so focused had gotten off on a tangent.

Stanford Main Quadrangle

Explanation for the anomaly became available gradually during Winter quarter, as I dropped by to talk with McLaughlin about research papers I was writing for Special Civ. His office was just down the hallway from his regular classroom in the basement of History Corner. Here I would find him sitting in front of a large, old, light brown, ubiquitously scratched, roll top desk. In the numerous pigeonholes of the desk, all over the writing surface, and on two wooden tables in the room, there were pieces of paper — some in piles, some in boxes, some by themselves; some of them on typewriter or legal size paper; some of them handwritten notes; some of them three-by-five with just a few words scribbled on each.

Frederick Law Olmsted

In the course of visits to McLaughlin’s office, I gradually learned that almost all of the pieces of paper were parts of a very large puzzle, one he knew he would need about twenty years to solve. In the late nineteenth century, McLaughlin told me, there was a man named Frederick Law Olmsted. Most Americans had never heard of him, there were almost no biographies of him, and no-one had yet produced a really first rate edition of all the published writings and private papers. This was a shame, because Olmsted and his sons and partners were the people who gave us, among other places of great importance, Central Park, the grounds of the United States Capitol, most of the park system for the city of Boston, major portions of the Lake Michigan waterfront for the city of Chicago, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the Stanford University campus. And, as if that were not enough, Olmsted was also an important writer. His account of his travels in the American South, before the Civil War, was an acknowledged classic — one of the few pieces of his work, in fact, for which there was a well done edition.


McLaughlin said all of this to me quietly and in a matter of fact way, taking care not to frighten me as he painted his panorama of places to which, for the most part, he could surmise, I had never been. And, like any first rate teacher, he avoided any suggestion that I ought to know all the historical details about this man Olmsted and his times that he, McLaughlin, had obviously mastered. I felt that I was being welcomed into the center of McLaughlin’s intellectual world. I also sensed that he was trying to convey his awareness that he would need to gather companions to cheer him. Looking back, I can see that he needed the encouragement not only because of his personal vulnerabilities, but also because he was a pioneer. In the early 1960’s, strong scholarly interest in the environment was still exceptional. The term “environmental movement” was not yet widespread.

Gradually I learned that McLaughlin had grown up in New England. He was from a well off family and was still, even at Stanford, dependent on his father, whom he did not like, for a supplement to his small income. McLaughlin spent his undergraduate years at Yale, then went on to get his Ph.D. in the American Civilization program at Harvard. In the early 1950’s, he got caught by the last great wave of polio to sweep across America before Jonas Salk and Albert Sabine eradicated the disease. While at Harvard, McLaughlin discovered that he liked editing. He learned that, while most historians don’t want to be editors, the production of an edition is an allowable way to meet the requirements for a doctoral degree. A friend suggested to McLaughlin that he consider taking on Olmsted. The fact that Olmsted’s ancestors, like McLaughlin’s, were Celtic, may have been the thing that cinched the choice. McLaughlin got his Ph.D. and then found a job opening at Stanford. Given that Stanford was one of the places Olmsted designed, it made good sense to accept the offer to go there. In some ways, though, the job was a risk. Very few Western Civ instructors were ever promoted to Assistant Professor, and most were not invited to stay longer than four years. Moreover, a historian specializing in the environment, even the Stanford environment, was not a hot academic commodity at the time.

McLaughlin the Easterner

McLaughlin was in his fifth year at the University and not especially happy. He didn’t like the rigid class system. All the Western Civ instructors were at the bottom — in the basement both figuratively and literally. The tenured members of the faculty had their offices upstairs. For McLaughlin, who had to get around on crutches, the very word “upstairs” was repugnant. There was no elevator, not even a ramp. He dreaded going upstairs. And he had special dislike for several members of the tenured faculty. One, an author of famous books and also a mesmerizing lecturer, was, according to McLaughlin, “a tiger in graduate seminars,” an arrogant man who had difficulty forming close relationships. Another prominent professor, known as one of the grand old men of the department, was to McLaughlin nothing more than an “absent-minded, dotty” person who should retire. From such comments, you could not tell whether McLaughlin really wanted to be asked to stay at Stanford or not. Sometimes, from his comments, I got the impression that he was an unreconstructed easterner who was biding his time until he could return to the more traditional part of the United States where the time span of refined behavior was several centuries longer. I sometimes wondered if, for McLaughlin, the typical Californian was Mrs. Leland Stanford, “Jane,” the woman who, after Senator Stanford’s death, saw to it that the university survived, even if she did not understand Olmsted’s conception of it. McLaughlin looked pained whenever he talked about her, as if she had been well meaning but crazy, like a movie fan from the 1920’s who could not adjust to the death of Rudolf Valentino.

In any case, it was not his opinion of California or the west coast that made me so eager to visit McLaughlin’s office. The thing he gave me, I can now see so many years after the fact, was an awareness that it was possible to approach History as a way of thinking systematically about the physical settings we create around ourselves. In conversations with McLaughlin, I obtained my first knowledge of thinkers like Olmsted, Lewis Mumford, and Patrick Geddes – historically important individuals who, in their books and in their practices, had explored the ways we relate to our surroundings, and the ways that our environment can be seen as a collection of zones, ranging from those like forests and mountains where human influence is often least pronounced, to those like villages and towns and cities where the human alteration of the land is most pronounced — with a huge variety of combinations in between, including suburbs, parks, farms, and specially designed environments such as university campuses, where humans have tried to discover ideal balances between our species and the rest of the planet upon which we find ourselves.

McLaughlin’s View of the World

I was also surprised to find that study of the history of environment could help me ponder the human predicament. At the point in my life when I knew McLaughlin, I was trying to decide how I felt about Christianity. I was alert whenever our readings in Western Civ returned to the theme of religion. One of the books McLaughlin urged us all to read was Gods and Men, by Henry Bamford Parkes. It explored the hypothesis, which also happened to be the organizing principle of the American Studies program in which McLaughlin had participated at Harvard, that myths are the organizing principles of all civilizations, the keys to our understanding of societies, the root causes of historical continuity and change. McLaughlin seemed to me to endorse this assumption, but also to believe that myths were nothing more than emotionally necessary creations of the human mind. I knew that he was not a Christian. He did not believe that people were massively sinful creatures who needed to be saved. He once said to me, “I could never believe in a god who insists that we say ‘I am vile.'” Yet I also knew that he found no refuge in Stoicism, that philosophy which has often filled the spiritual vacuum for people who cannot bring themselves to believe there is a god who intervenes in the world. Thus, when on one occasion I was talking with McLaughlin about Bertrand Russell, he told me he found Russell’s avowal of Stoicism rather depressing. “According to Russell, the universe is governed by natural laws but is otherwise a cold, dark place — and all we have, ultimately, is each other. I’m not comfortable with that.” Given McLaughlin’s interest in a man who designed landscapes, I occasionally wondered if he was some kind of worshipper of Nature, perhaps a pantheist. But I suspect McLaughlin would have talked more about wilderness if he had believed we should worship a god who is the spirit of all creation.

To this day I continue to wonder how McLaughlin formulated his personal response to issues of ultimacy. In this connection I keep coming back to the strongest memory of him that I have, which is of certain little notations that he frequently put in red ink in the margins of the blue books and research papers his students wrote for him. The marks were always next to grand generalities, the kinds of sententious pronouncements that all of us, and especially college freshmen, fall into from time to time. When your comment was in the negative mode, for example, if you wrote, “It is indeed regrettable that so many suffered so much during the years of the Black Death,” then you would find a little figure in the margin of your paper: (circle frown) When, on the other hand, you penned something along the lines of “It was truly a cause for rejoicing in human progress when the chronometer was invented,” then you could also plan on finding a little mark in your margin: (circle smile) In the 1970’s, long after I was a student of McLaughlin’s, smiles and frowns of this kind were patented by a professional cartoonist and widely marketed. But, in 1961, when I was a first-year student in college, it was still possible for McLaughlin’s use of them to be unusual and arresting. The lightness, the Celtic fairy spirit emerging from some magical forest, expressed by the little faces in the margins of my papers seemed to me to be the thing that sustained him.

I lost touch with McLaughlin after my first year at Stanford,  as I shifted out of his Western Civ course and into others.  He remained at Stanford for a few more years and then became a professor at American University in Washington DC, where he spent the rest of his career.  His monument, a great achievement, is the multi-volume series of the papers of Olmsted published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s