Growing up in Berkeley, California, meant that I was exposed to higher education even before I entered college in 1961. The experience was in some ways like being a college student, but also had some interesting twists.
The thing for which Berkeley was best known was its status as the home of the flagship campus of the University of California. I don’t recall when I learned the word “campus” or first saw one. My earliest exposure to all the elements of a campus occurred around age 8 – which would have been in the year 1951 — when I was living at my grandparents’ house in the Berkeley Hills. My boyhood friend Walter Alvarez, who was around 11 at the time, asked me if I would like to “see where my dad works.” I said “sure, why not,” got permission from my parents, and rode with Walter and his father, Luis Alvarez, through a park-like area that was, I was told, “the Cal campus.”
Then we made our way up a winding road, through a guard’s gates, to the Radiation Laboratory that sat on the top of the hill behind the U.C. Berkeley campus. We toured several buildings. At the Cyclotron, the atom-smasher that was Walter’s father’s workplace, I watched metal fly across the room, attracted by the Cyclotron’s powerful magnetism. In a long, low, shabby, wooden building nearby, Walter and his father showed me a slender, metal structure that extended the length of the interior. It looked like a lumpy metal snake, or like an automobile crankcase. Walter’s father kicked it. “I built this,” he said matter of factly. I was unimpressed and wondered why Walter’s father wasn’t working on anything more exciting. Years later, I learned that I had been standing next to one of the world’s first prototypes of a linear accelerator, one of the inventions that later earned Walter’s father a Nobel Prize.
I also had ties to the Cal campus through a friend, Randy Mosher, who was the son of one of the librarians at Cal. I knew Randy from the seventh grade onwards, when we met each other in junior high school homeroom and played on junior high volleyball and basketball teams. Randy was a dutiful student. He also liked mischief. In summer we often went to the Cal employees’ pool together. As the son of a UC staff member, Randy could use his entry card. I used the card for his brother, Al, who was five years old. The lifeguard always snickered and said, “ok, AL, you can go on in.”
The Cal campus was the place where I saw my first college football game, around age seven. Parents of neighboring children gave me a ride to Memorial Stadium in Strawberry Canyon. The guards let us in for free. I learned what a college marching band was. I tried to figure out how the cheering section did their card stunts. After the game, under the stadium seats, midst the web of steel girders, I stood in the crowd as the Cal coach, Pappy Waldorf, came out of the locker room to give the fans his comments on the game and the week’s performance of Cal’s star running back, Johnny Olzewski.
Then, as the sun started to go down, and the fog made its way up from the Bay into the hills, my friends and I did one of the things boys have always done, marching alongside the band as it made its way down the hill, back to its quarters. By the time I was twelve years old, this Saturday routine was a ritual. My friends and I capped off the day with a game of touch football at nearby Live Oak Park. It was our way of making the excitement last as long as possible.In junior high school, I got a job selling souvenir programs at the football games. Each program sold for fifty cents and you got to keep a nickel of that for yourself.
The second season of my work happened to be the year the Cal football team, with its All-American Joe Kapp at quarterback, won the Pacific Coast Conference championship and was invited to play in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. My friend Steve and I were two of the top sales boys. We were invited by the management to go to Pasadena to sell football programs and receive free tickets to the game. Steve and I took the Southern Pacific train to Los Angeles and stayed with friends of his parents. We rode an old Los Angeles trolley to Pasadena and sold programs outside the stadium. Then, on the steps inside, we watched as Cal struggled unsuccessfully to defeat Wisconsin.
By the time I reached high school, the Cal campus was also an educational force in my life. Our science classes made day trips to the Cyclotron and the newer Bevatron, which had been invented by Edward Teller, a Nobel Prize winning physicist who was the father of my classmate, Paul. For high school Latin class, our teacher assigned us to spend a Saturday roaming the campus identifying at least 50 copies of elements from ancient Greek and Roman architecture. My friend Steve and I catalogued Doric and Ionic columns, pediments, porticoes, keystones of arches, and all manner of Classical construction. On another day trip, led by my English teacher, I walked with my fellow students up the street to the University’s huge research library. Our class was studying Huckleberry Finn at the time. We walked down a long hallway, our footsteps echoing off the marble walls, and entered a room where approximately ten adults were seated around a large wooden table covered with old pieces of paper. These happened to be the original manuscript of Mark Twain’s novel. A bibliographer invited each of us to hold the sheets in our hands.
When we were Seniors at Berkeley High, in 1960, Steve and I got jobs working in the press box at Memorial Stadium during the Cal football season. We had the majestic responsibility of distributing the brown paper bag lunches to the reporters. The jobs paid almost nothing, and we only worked on the Saturdays when Cal played at home. But the money was secondary. We coveted the chance to be at the center of things – to see the game from the highest spot in the stadium, to hear the cheers and the bands, to peek into the booths where the radio and TV announcers described each play in machine-gun voices, and to see the rows of manual typewriters where the sports writers for all the local papers and the wire services composed their stories.
As I stood behind each writer, I peeked at his creation and learned. I was surprised to discover that the lead in a story was usually written last and almost always traded on the same popular images regardless of which reporter I observed. So, for example, at the conclusion of the Cal-Army game, I watched as one reporter wrote “Cal was defeated today, after a tough battle, by Army’s heavy artillery.” At the next typewriter I saw “Army used a howitzer (its quarterback) and a tank (its fullback) today to grind down Cal’s under equipped infantry…” and so on.
My friends and I also liked to hang out in the business district near the campus, along Telegraph Avenue and College Avenue. Occasionally we went into the bookstores, but that was mostly to skim the pinup magazines. We were more likely to go to the pool halls, where we could smoke cigarettes and have the illicit thrill of winning fifty cents from a Cal student or one of the local bums. We also browsed in the clothing stores, spending very little money but examining row after row of polished cotton slacks and buttoned-down sport shirts in the latest Ivy League style, so we could learn how college men dressed.
To make myself feel even more a part of things, I liked to get my haircuts at a barbershop near the campus, in an old building on Telegraph Avenue that was less than a block away from Sather Gate, the ceremonial entrance to Cal. One afternoon, when I was in the shop, the barber told me I wouldn’t be able to come back. He could see from the look on my face that I felt hurt, and he explained that the situation had nothing to do with me. All the buildings in the block were going to be torn down, he said, to make way for a new university structure, something called a “student union.”
I had never heard the term, and I asked what such a building was. “It’s an idea they got from the Midwest,” the barber explained, “and it’s sort of like a big central hangout. There’ll be a beer place, with a crew shell hanging from the ceiling, and a bookstore and a bowling alley and a room with chandeliers for dances.” I asked who was going to pay for everything. “The people over in Sacramento,” he answered. “The legislature is worried that college students are too apathetic. The Governor says the new building will solve the problem. It will pep up the campus social life and give clubs a place to meet, and just kind of increase activity generally speaking.”
At the time I heard those words, I had no way of knowing how ironically accurate they would become. The student union building was constructed; it was ceremoniously opened; it became a very popular gathering place; it stimulated the traditional kinds of activities, like dancing and club meetings; and then, in the early 1960’s, the patio in front of the structure became one of the favorite stage sets for Mario Savio, the Free Speech Movement, and the student revolution. By then, I was away at college, and the relatively quiet Cal campus of my high school years was a memory.
For a long time I assumed that Cal would be the university I would attend. But somewhere along the line I began to think that I might want to go away to college.
I remember the afternoon, shortly after I began high school, that I mentioned this idea to my grandfather Harry, who had always advised me to be sure to get as much schooling as I could. Harry was a retired Navy man, a gunnery officer who had received decorations for bravery in both world wars. His politics were very conservative. He was sitting in his living room and drinking his two daily shots of gin. He asked me why I was considering anyplace other than UC Berkeley. I told him my high school counselor had said it was a wise idea to get away from your family after age 18. Harry slammed his fist on the coffee table and asked “Who put that communist idea in your head?”
I told him that Franklin Roosevelt had gone away to college. That made him angrier. So I told him Dwight Eisenhower had also gone away to college. That stumped my grandfather. All he could say, after a long silence, was “Well, that’s different. He was a military man.”
My parents left it up to me to decide where I wanted to go.
During my senior year of high school, I sent admissions applications to UC Berkeley, UC Riverside and Stanford. In early Spring I received notification that I had been admitted to Stanford with a large scholarship. I said yes immediately, having never set foot on the campus, and began preparing for Autumn Quarter and a new journey.
I go back to the Cal campus from time to time and think about the wonderful experience I might have had there as an undergraduate. During football season, at the annual Cal-Stanford Big Game, I cheer for Stanford, but probably not as loudly as I would if I had not grown up in Berkeley.
A few weeks ago I was at Stanford University to attend my fiftieth reunion as a member of the Class of 1965. One of the classmates I re-connected with had been a member, along with me, of a Stanford student organization called the IIR. My friend gave me a copy he had saved for many years of a recruitment brochure he and I had produced in 1964 entitled “YOU AND THE IIR.” The old document brought back many memories. And, I can now see, it is an important expression of an attitude toward the possibility of achieving world peace that was widespread at the time but now seems problematic.
The IIR, or Institute of International Relations, was the official international relations organization of the Associated Students of Stanford. Every Stanford student was, in principle, a member, and student fees paid for its activities. Actually, about 400 Stanford students, both graduate and undergraduate, did most of the work, although their projects involved many hundreds more. The IIR had its own offices, provided by the university’s administration, in a loft in the Student Union building.
The IIR was founded in 1946 by returning veterans enrolled at Stanford who wanted to do whatever possible to prevent another terrible war, and who thought that mobilizing college students for projects promoting international understanding might be one way of working toward such a goal. The IIR organized and sponsored campus lectures, publications, overseas scholarship programs, dances, overseas travel groups, coffee hours, weekend hostels, TV programs, and many other activities. Whatever one could think of, the IIR had probably tried it at one time or another. With leads provided by the IIR, Stanford students secured summer internships at the United Nations. Prominent dignitaries of the era, like Averell Harriman, Harold Stassen, Christian Herter, Ralph Bunche, and Charles Bohlen spoke at well-attended campus conferences organized by the IIR. We sponsored an annual Model United Nations conference, sent thousands of books to the Philippines, helped to build a school house in Tijuana, and hosted a large campus reception each fall for new Stanford students from abroad.
Over the years, continually fine programs brought the IIR national honors. It was the only student group in the United States ever to receive the Freedoms Foundation medal, a distinction much coveted at the time. In the early 1960s the IIR became the only student group ever to receive three consecutive awards from the Association of International Relations Clubs as the best college student international relations club among the hundreds then in existence.
I was elected President of the IIR in 1964. My three predecessors all went on to become Rhodes Scholars. I went on to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. in History. My successor obtained his doctorate in Political Science from Columbia and became internationally known in his field of Chinese studies. Our organization attracted talented people who not only wanted to be in a campus activity and make social contacts but who also had a sense of high purpose.
The IIR went of existence in the 1970s. Today the office space it once occupied at the student union building houses air conditioning equipment. The relatively sudden demise of the group was due to a change in American values and to certain activities of the IIR that were not publicized during its heyday but that became public in the late 1960s and proved to be embarrassing.
The thing that unified all the students who were members of the IIR over the decades was a shared belief that world peace could be brought closer to achievement through the power of face-to-face, personal contact, either in the literal sense or through informational programs that took participants a step nearer to mutual understanding.
This was and remains a powerful ideal. Our brochure, “You and the IIR,” reprinted a quotation from a book entitled The Religions of Man, by Huston Smith, a prominent historian and theologian of the era. Referring to the post-World-War-Two period, he declared: “We live in a fantastic century…. We hear on all sides that East and West are meeting but it is an understatement. They are being flung at one another, hurled with the force of atoms, the speed of jets, the restlessness of minds impatient to learn of ways that differ from their own. From the perspective of history this may prove to be the most important fact about the twentieth century. When historians look back upon our years they may remember them not for the release of nuclear power nor the spread of Communism but as the time in which all the peoples of the world first had to take one another seriously.”
These eloquent words continue to deserve our respect. But from the perspective of more recent decades they seem incomplete. Empathy and understanding across cultural bridges are indispensable ingredients for world peace. But today we are more aware that it is not possible for individuals and small groups to remain at peace with each other unless larger, structural problems are also addressed. By the 1970s, when the IIR went out of existence, the world was becoming ever more conscious of large obstacles to peace like wars in developing nations, wealth disparities between rich and poor, and environmental degradation. University students of the kind who might have joined the IIR in earlier years were now joining groups that pushed for large-scale readjustments in political structures, the economy, and control of cultural discourse.
That would have been enough to do the IIR in. But the organization was also brought down by information that became public suggesting that its seemingly benign activities were tied to American imperialism. After I became President of the IIR, and learned more about the full range of its work, I discovered that my two presidential predecessors, along with quite a few others in the IIR, were regularly in contact with U.S. and overseas student organizations funded in part by the CIA. I did not engage in such contacts, but I also did not oppose them. At the time, the Soviet Union was actively infiltrating student organizations in many countries around the world, in order to gain propagandistic leverage and to recruit young people who could be future supporters of world communism. The CIA maintained links with student international relations clubs around the U.S. to recruit students who would be well informed about such activities and equipped to counter them through their campus programs. By the early 1970s, American journalists had discovered these activities and were writing sensational news stories. The subterfuge in the CIA’s methods made the work of the IIR seem like American imperialism, not just Cold War rivalry, let alone an innocent attempt to foster face to face understanding.
I am very proud to have been a member of the IIR. It did wonderful things in its time. And, in the twenty-first century, when we are in danger of obsessing about the structural aspects of international relations, the IIR helps us to remember that personal connections are, if not the only step, still the first step to world peace.
Because the United States is so large, a shift from one region to another can be quite disorienting. Adjusting to Seattle is not easy after living in Miami. Pennsylvania is not Idaho. I realized this when, after growing up in California and completing my undergraduate years at Stanford, I moved to New England to begin a six-year stay at Harvard leading toward a Ph.D. in History. This story dates from 1965, and graduate school is an esoteric topic for many. But I suspect that the experience I want to describe will be very familiar to anyone making the transition from California to New England today.
In one of his books, Wallace Stegner talks about the way the air changes your perception of things as you move from the western United States to the east. In most parts of the west — assuming there is no rain or fog or smog — the air is clear. It has a transparency that makes you think distant objects are very close. As you move toward the Atlantic coast, however, the increasing humidity gives you the subconscious feeling that — as Stegner puts it — a layer of gauze has come between you and everything you see. That feeling may have been the first cause for the strangeness I felt in the east. The sight lines also took some getting used to. Along most of the Atlantic seaboard, the vistas are small and close by western standards. Unless you happen to be at the top of a mountain or at the seashore, there aren’t many of the unobstructed, hundred-mile views so common in the west. The east does offer opportunities for intimacy with the landscape — canoeing on a small, meandering river, for example — and an up-close, very interesting, tradition-dominated mixture of the human and the natural, as, for example, when you see a stone house at the bottom of a hollow. The east is also where the conservation movement began: Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, continues to be its most important point of reference. But there aren’t many visual experiences to satisfy an appetite for grandeur, largeness, or absence of limits. Things feel more compact. In the east, the horizon seemed very close and the sky felt right on top of me. I felt confined when I arrived in New England.
I also felt ill at ease culturally. Harvard today is slightly more relaxed than it was when I went there. But in 1965 it was still a rather formal place: admirably polite, but marked by Calvinistic reserve and extreme attention to the dignified maintenance, or in many cases the creation, of pedigree and status. One of my history professors at Stanford, a refugee from Harvard, cautioned me to avoid the “braying solemnity” of the place and asserted that, at Harvard “people think there is a necessary correlation between competence in one’s subject and gravity of demeanor.” There was also a vaguely astringent feel to the institution, as if Harvardians were intent on sucking the life out of any attempt to relax or have fun.
In the fall of 1965, when I arrived in Harvard’s home city, Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was intoxicated as I enjoyed the bright students, famous professors, historic buildings, extensive facilities and opportunity to get to know the east coast. But, as the months passed, and I experienced the eastern academic establishment up close, I saw drawbacks. The work was long and hard. There was little time for social life. And there was not much in the way of praise or encouragement. It occurred to me that, had I stayed in California, graduate school at Stanford or UC Berkeley or some other school in the state might have been just as demanding. But I suspected that Harvard placed a greater value on heaviness.
While I welcomed the intellectual rigor of the university, I tried through petty subterfuge to counterbalance all the sternness. I joked about surfing on the nearby Charles River, in response to which my professors adopted tolerant, prune-faced smiles. And my teachers and fellow students must have wondered why, when nearly all the other men in graduate school wore the tweed sport coat and tie which was the uniform of the day, I insisted on wearing Pendleton shirts even during the months when they were too drafty to protect against the New England winter. Most of my experiences of Harvard were associated with winter. The incredibly beautiful autumn seemed to last only a few weeks. Then, for a metallic six months, there were no leaves on the trees and Harvard Yard was gray, cloudy, and cold. The fresh, white snow quickly became dirty as steel gray sheets of ice imprisoned the vegetation.
Coming from Stanford, I found that my mind adhered obstinately to sun, not snow; to palm and redwood, not maple and laurel; to colonnades, Romanesque sandstone, and tile roofs; not brick walks, Georgian terraces, and gables; to campus dormitory names like Serra, Escondido, and Madera, not Eliot, Winthrop, and Quincy. To this extent, my ability to be a part of Harvard was diminished before I ever saw the place.
I did, however, greatly enjoy many features of the surrounding city. Like the Telegraph Avenue neighborhood that I knew so well next to the UC Berkeley campus, only more so, Cambridge instructively exposed one to a metropolis, yet retained an amazing intellectual integrity of its own. It was not only the perfect base of operations for getting to know Boston. It was also, for certain values uniquely derived from its academic situation, a crossroads with few equals in the world. First there were the tourist attractions: Harvard and M.I.T.; Longfellow’s House; the Burial Ground and the Common; fashionable shops; expensive restaurants; and the postcard views of the Charles River. Merging with these was the world of pop culture: Bogie flicks at the Brattle Theatre; astrology bookshops; rock concerts on the Common; the mystical rite of buying a Roast Beef Special at Elsie’s coffee shop. Finally there was underground Cambridge — or, rather, the unveiled evidence of all those movements which were less tolerated elsewhere in society: shops displaying water pipes and strobe lights; salesmen hawking the Black Panther News; orange-robed men chanting Hare Krishna; girls in dark capes arguing with passersby about the virtues of the Black Mass; and, at Christmastime, the spectacle of all these phenomena competing with that very respectable institution, the Salvation Army Band. Seeing all these things cheek by jowl, I realized that my years in Cambridge were a time of incredible intellectual freedom. “I’m selling shirts at the Harvard Coop,” a friend said, “because it’s one place that will hire bearded poets.” I realized that the beards were hired partly because they were quaint, and, like Cambridge in general, deemed acceptable to the rest of society as long as they did not walk out of the intellectual playpen. But the beards were also tolerated because the rest of society knew it needed them. Out of Cambridge, in any given year, came an important part of the literature, art, science, and political opinion that formed the mood of the rest of America. Nearly every famous figure came to the place sooner or later. Norman Mailer, Erik Erikson, and John Fairbank were among the faces I remember noticing within one short span of time. The result was chance contact of the most educational sort. “You would not believe it,” an Israeli friend told me, “this afternon I went into the Idler Coffee House and did not come out until four hours later. I met Vladimir Dedjejer, Tito’s aide in the Yugoslav Resistance. He still carries a bullet in his head. After he had been telling me war stories for ten minutes, the whole place stopped to listen to us.”
To gain perspective about the east coast, I kept in touch with friends at Stanford. I was surprised how much my letters to them talked not only about academic matters, such as descriptions of Harvard professors and the interesting books I was reading, but also about the possible connections between learning and landscape. I recall one instance in particular, when I wrote a letter to my good friend Dan Endsley, the editor of the Stanford alumni magazine, and for whom, during my junior year, I had written some articles. I asked him if he would be interested in having me write an article on Frederick Law Olmsted’s nineteenth-century plan for the Stanford campus, the poetic feelings prompted by the hills behind the University, and what I called, with some pomposity, “the ecology of learning.” Dan wrote back a long letter saying he liked the idea even though my terminology was infelicitous. But he couldn’t risk commissioning the piece. “Some years ago,” he explained, “I began an article called ‘What is Happening to the Stanford Lands?’ It almost cost me my job.” Dan’s comments helped me to remember that my undergraduate institution was not a perfect place, either.
Beyond Cambridge, of course, there was greater Boston. From Cambridge, the subway ride to downtown Boston (on the MTA, made famous by the Kingston Trio song) took only eight minutes. As a result, Boston, too, was an important part of my experience. Perhaps I can best convey its effects on a Californian by describing what became one of my favorite pastimes, wandering in the city.
I had come to Boston to study for a Ph.D. in History. Meandering is a congenital love of historians. Some walk through graveyards; others traverse old battlefields. Some hike along historic trails. Some go aboard old ships or visit castles and cathedrals, and go off into side rooms by themselves to search out the spirits in the spaces. In Boston, historians walk the city’s streets. I really could not count the number of times I walked around Boston. I saw the tourist sites such as Paul Revere’s House and Bunker Hill Monument. I spent entire days in the rain walking through warehouse districts. I walked along the Charles River, and past the brownstone houses on Commonwealth Avenue. I walked next to the Harbor. I walked over freeways ramps where there were not even any sidewalks. I went in and out of bars and corner stores around Boston Garden before Celtics basketball games. I observed pigeons on the windows of old buildings. Around Haymarket Square, I observed the old wagons that still delivered meat and vegetables, and I took in the fetid smells. I trudged through snow and stood and watched twilights. No matter where I walked, I usually went alone. I had my share of friends. But I had concluded long ago that most people did not enjoy wandering around a city as much as I did. Even when I knew the friends would enjoy the experience for an hour or two, I did not bring them along. Being alone with my fantasies and unsorted feelings gave more pleasure than acting as a tour guide.
I started out one particular wandering by taking the MTA downtown and walking up to Beacon Hill. I planned to hunt for silversmith shops. My sister and I – in touch by letter – had decided to buy my parents a set of sterling silver portrait frames for their wedding anniversary. I thought Beacon Hill, historically known for silversmith shops, would be a good place to look. I found two old shops, but only after a surprisingly difficult search. At both, the elderly owners told me that handmade silver was much harder to come by than in the past. The costs of labor made prices too high to justify regular production of new items. Most available pieces were antiques, out of my price range.
I left Beacon Hill and walked across the Common and the Public Garden, which were unspeakably beautiful in their fall colors. Wet piles of orange and brown leaves cushioned my feet on the brick sidewalks. The old statues, gray, and white, and green, sent my mind into the past. As I walked next to the historic graveyard in the Public Garden, a cold wind came up. I pulled my heavy tweed topcoat more tightly around me and tucked my brown plaid scarf more securely under my chin. I walked from the Garden across the street into the Tremont business district, and down a few blocks to Shreve’s jewelers, one of Boston’s oldest and most famous firms. Here, after explaining my problem to a sales clerk, I was finally able to find what I needed – a fine set of sterling silver frames, used but not antique, better made than modern items, at a price I could afford. I was momentarily jarred out of my venerable Bostonian mood when the clerk started telling me how much she admired Ronald Reagan. But I recovered, put my coat and scarf back on, and politely went on my way, package under my arm. I took some time to window shop along the streets around Shreve’s.
Then I came upon a bookshop in the basement of one of the old brownstones. I went in and browsed. Eventually my eye came upon a history book I had been looking for. I paid for the book and left the shop, delighted that my day had become so productive. Down the street I found a coffee shop on the ground floor of an old office building from the 1920s. I stayed there for about an hour, reading parts of the books I had just purchased. Then, when I had read enough, I put the book under my arm with the silver frames, made my way back to the MTA station, and returned to Cambridge pleased that, in this instance and a few others, I was a Californian quite delighted to be spending some time in New England.
(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.
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.
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.
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.