Robert Palladino: Excerpts from the Reed College Oral History Project Interview
The following is excerpted from the Reed College Oral History Project interview conducted May 11, 2008 by Reed staff member Laurie Lindquist. Listen to the complete oral history at the bottom of the page.
To begin with, we’d like to know something about the date and place where you were born, and please talk about your family background, because it is most interesting.
Well, my birth city was Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1932. I was the eighth of eight children. My family, as regards my parents and grandparents, oriented me toward music and art, with a strong connection to the church. Both my parents were involved in music, and both my grandmothers were professional vocalists; my Italian grandmother sang in opera houses in Italy, and my Scottish grandmother sang on the stage as a soloist in New York and elsewhere. My Italian grandfather, Gaetano Palladino, came from Abruzzi, and was an architect and stonemason. My Irish maternal grandfather, Tom Shinick, came from County Cork, Ireland. He was a professional baseball player in New York.
How did the family come to live in Albuquerque?
Well, my family moved to Albuquerque on my father’s side, because his father, who had settled in Baltimore, met the Archbishop of Santa Fe, who invited him to come and build the Cathedral of St. Francis in Santa Fe. The American bishops met in Baltimore in those days for their national conferences. Somehow, Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy met my grandfather, who was living in Baltimore at the time. After the cathedral was finished in Santa Fe, my grandfather moved his family to Albuquerque.
What was Albuquerque like in those days?
Well, Albuquerque had become the boomtown, where designing and constructing new buildings offered a great deal of opportunity. My father, Michael, had been born in Santa Fe during the years of constructing the cathedral. My mother, Armida, came to Albuquerque from New York with her parents, but I never discovered the story of why they came, or why they left New York. My mother was a nurse and a musician.
Would you describe your early education?
My early education took place in Albuquerque at St. Mary’s School, from grade one to grade twelve. My grandfather had built the stone school building, along with the stone parish church next to it. We lived a half block away. We were actually only four blocks from the center of downtown Albuquerque.
How was education considered, or supported, in your family, your large family?
Well, education was highly regarded in my family. But when my parents were young, the schools in New Mexico were still in a formative stage. I think my Uncle Horace was among the earliest students at the University of New Mexico, located in Albuquerque.
And you certainly have an affinity toward Horace, because of his fine handwriting.
He was the one who really got me interested in writing, yes.
And we’ll follow up on that. After high school, and that would have been fall of 1950, you made a decision to do—
Yes. Following graduation, at age seventeen, I entered the Cistercian Monastery at Pecos, which is north of Sante Fe. The Cistercians were the last of many reforms of Benedictine monasticism. The monasteries of Europe, from the sixth century on, followed the rule of St. Benedict, an Italian hermit who founded a community of monks, first at Subiaco, and later at the famous Monte Cassino. Benedictine monasticism was responsible not only for the spread of Christianity in Europe, but also for the preservation of cultural studies.
Well, that was quite a tremendous decision for a young person to make. How did you make that decision, Robert?
Well, it took a lot of time, and preparation, but that was what I wanted to do, and after investigating the life through a couple of retreats, the abbot agreed that I could enter.
Can you tell us more about the Trappists?
Well, through the centuries the monastic life wandered from the ideals of St. Benedict and was reformed many times. In the eleventh century, a group of Benedictine monks, led by my patron saint, St. Robert, founded a new monastery at a location in France named Cîteaux. In order to keep their reform of monastic life pristine, they separated themselves from the Benedictine order, forming a new order of Cîteaux. Through the centuries, the Cistercians themselves were reformed, again in France, at a monastery named La Trappe. Thus, the reformed Cistercians were nicknamed ‘The Trappists.’ That is the life I embraced at Pecos, New Mexico, in my youthful fervor.
What was the life like? What kinds of things did you do?
Well, the life consisted of a lot of liturgy, which was sung in choir eight times a day. We had both manual and intellectual labor, had a very strict way of life and frugal vegetarian meals. Silence and total separation from the outside world were characteristic of the life.
How did your high school Latin serve you when you came into the monastery? It was a silent monastery, but the language was Latin.
The language for the liturgy was Latin, and I had had four years of Latin at St. Mary High School. But, I found that it was not really a good preparation for the experience of going completely into Latin. I had to work on that.
Can you describe some of your studies in the monastery?
Well, I made my studies there inside the monastery. I had two years of philosophy, followed by four years of theology, and that led up to priestly ordination. Then after ordination, there were two more years of classes, concentrating on certain aspects of theology.
Well, what we’ve jumped over to is the fact that the monastery moved. But shall we pick up on that a little bit later? The move from Pecos to Lafayette and Oregon?
We moved in 1955, mainly because the New Mexico location was not very good for farming, and since we ate a completely vegetarian diet, we needed to grow our own food.
So, you all got on a plane, and arrived, from a dry climate, in pouring down rain in Portland.
Mm-hmm. Well, some of the carpenter people had gone on ahead of us, and had prepared the building that we were going to live in. But, we moved into a mainly unfinished building in the Willamette Valley, rather close to the city of Lafayette.
So, you were in the monastery for eighteen years, and then you made a decision to leave. . . Where did you go when you left the monastery?
Well, our community had moved, as I mentioned, to the Willamette Valley. And so, when I left I moved to Portland. I spent the first summer living with the Jesuits at Loyola Retreat House.
Before you left, of course, you made contact with Lloyd Reynolds, because you were doing calligraphy. Let’s try to back up and get that into sequence a little bit.
I met Lloyd when I was still in the monastery. Some of his former students, especially Don Kunz, who became calligraphy instructor at Cooper Union in New York, and Father John Domin, who was director of sacred art for the Archdiocese, told Lloyd about this self-taught calligrapher at the Trappist Abbey. We corresponded a bit, and one day he came out and spent the entire day helping me to improve my writing. We corresponded on a regular basis, and so when I left, one of the first things I did was to sign up for his class.
Mm-hmm. How about Arthur Fairbank? Wasn’t there a connection that you had with him, in terms of him pointing you in the direction of Lloyd?
Yeah. Alfred [John] Fairbank was the authority on italic handwriting in England, and I had corresponded with him, and he was actually the one who first told me about Lloyd Reynolds.
All right. So, you left, and in the fall of that year, in 1968. You were in Portland.
I moved to the University of Portland in the fall, and enrolled in a class on contemporary literature, which at that time was taught by Father Nicholas Ayo, who later published several books when he returned to Notre Dame University.
How did you get in touch with Lloyd?
While I was taking classes at the University of Portland, Lloyd invited me to be his class assistant for his calligraphy classes.
Right, and that was the fall. Then in winter 1969 you went to Iowa?
I went to Davenport, Iowa, to study with Father Edward Catich at St. Ambrose College. Father Catich was the leading expert on imperial Roman capitals, and those are the most important letter forms in the history of European writing.
Could you tell us a little bit more about Father Catich? We know that he came to Reed and inscribed the letters on Eliot [Hall], so it would be very nice to know more.
Father Catich was Lloyd Reynolds’ idol, so to speak, because he was such an outstanding calligrapher. So he wanted me to study with him before I did anything further at Reed.
Had you worked with him as well, or not?
No. I had never met Father Catich.
Had Lloyd had any classes from him?
No. But he had invited him to the campus, when he did those inscriptions. I really don’t know how the two of them met, or where. But Lloyd had a very high opinion of him. . . . Father Catich was sort of a self-made artist. He was orphaned at an early age, and it’s interesting that in the same orphanage he became friends with Francis Newton who later, as Dr. Newton, was curator of the Portland Art Museum for many years. But Father Catich became a professional lettering artist in Chicago, played cello in a symphony orchestra—I’m not sure which one—and then decided to become a priest. He did his theological studies in Rome, and spent all his free time studying Roman inscriptions. He used to jokingly say he minored in theology. In later years he published two outstanding books, The Trajan Inscription in Rome and The Origin of the Serif, both based on his studies of the stone inscriptions of the Roman Empire.
So, you worked with him for how long in Davenport?
I spent the semester that year, 1969, with Father Catich as my tutor. But I also attended classes, at his direction, in art history, art theory, drawing, watercolor, painting, silk screening, brush writing, and lettering. He tutored me privately for stone cutting, because that’s something you can’t teach to a group.
So, down in Davenport, what connection were you making back with Lloyd at Reed?
Toward the end of the semester, Lloyd called me and asked me if I would come and teach at Reed.
Would you teach separately or with him, at that time?
Well, I was going to—what happened is, it ended up I taught the beginning class and he taught the advanced class. But, I came to Reed and met with a search committee, chaired by Lloyd, and the group approved of me joining the faculty.
So, that would have then brought you to the summer of 1969, and what happened then?
That first summer I taught the beginning summer class, and Lloyd taught the advanced class. At the end of the summer, Lloyd told me he wanted me to replace him at Reed since he was retiring, largely because of his wife’s failing health.
All right. So he left at the end of that summer?
Mm-hmm. He retired, and I began in the fall as a half-time visiting lecturer. I continued in that capacity for the next fifteen years. After about ten years, the registrar said I had been visiting long enough, and simply listed me as lecturer.
Could you tell us about your class structure? How often did you teach, and something more about what the classes were like?
Well, my classes, if I recall correctly, were Tuesday and Thursday. It was a three-hour class following the pattern that Lloyd had started. The first hour was mostly review of material presented at the previous class. Then the second hour was the lecture, which would also introduce new material. Then the third hour was always studio work on what had been presented.
What were your obligations as an instructor at Reed, or lecturer?
Well, I had all the obligations of a full-time professor, even though I was only half time all those years. I had to be a thesis director for anyone specializing in calligraphy. I was assigned to be faculty adviser to a number of students from various departments. I had to attend meetings, and of course, help with many thesis orals.
In many subjects?
Since the majority of the students in the calligraphy class were majors in different departments, I was frequently asked to be the ‘out of department’ participant for thesis orals.
Where were you teaching?
Well, I was teaching a calligraphy class at the Museum Art School, as it was called then, and also taught at Marylhurst College, when Sister Loyola Mary, who was the calligraphy teacher there, became sick. Then I started teaching a night class at Portland State University, at the request of Bettye Lou Bennett.
You were picking up on a lot of other people’s need for your assistance. How did your teaching style develop? Was it based on some of the work that you had done in the monastery, too, as a teacher in choir?—and you also had a pupil in calligraphy in the monastery?
Yes, I tutored a brother before I left the monastery, so someone could keep up the work that I was doing. I had learned in the monastery from Father Maurice Malloy, who was also my scripture professor. But he was the oldest monk in the monastery, and when he died—which was the only death that occurred during my eighteen years there—I had to inherit all his calligraphy work. So for many years I was the monastery calligrapher.
And you still have his pen point?
My favorite pen is one that Father Maurice had. I use it for classes all the time.
Okay, so, your approach to calligraphy then, and your teaching style . . . ?
Well, my approach was based on that of my teachers, Lloyd Reynolds and Father Catich, as well as Alfred Fairbank. He was my correspondent instructor, so to speak.
When you were in the monastery?
In the monastery, and even when I left I still kept up my correspondence with him . . . We all looked at letter forms with an historical conscience, as Alfred Fairbank put it. The alphabet evolved about twenty-eight centuries ago, and paleographic study is imperative for understanding the letters in their graphic dynamics.
That would be part of your lecture then every week . . . would be the setting?
The history, yes—that’s why the class was called “Calligraphy and Paleography.” . . . I not only used scripts from the Renaissance, but also from the Middle Ages, the Carolingian period, the early fourth and fifth century uncial manuscripts, and the inscription letters of course of imperial Rome, which were always my ideal and my favorite. But, I also used early Hebraic and Greek scripts as models, because we also taught the evolution of the alphabet coming through Hebrew and Greek into the Latin. . . I had two sections, and there were something like forty students in each section, which meant I was meeting eighty new students a year. The classes were very heavily enrolled. It was an elective class, and by far the most heavily enrolled elective class at the college. It was completely different from the other arts taught at that time.
What could you say that you brought, something specific that you might have brought to teaching?
Well, with my particular background of monasticism and theological study, I brought a love of true art to my teaching, and a desire to express important ideas in a beautiful presentation. That is what I taught, and the students seemed to appreciate it. It was a help for them, I think, in their other classes to approach a subject with some kind of ideal to work toward.
Did you think of calligraphy as drawing?
I don’t think of it in the popular sense of drawing. When you write a letter, you do draw strokes. But the strokes are written in a very clean and deliberate way, and you don’t use one more stroke than is necessary to make that letter. So in a sense, drawing is a form of writing, rather than writing a form of drawing.
In the end, calligraphy was eliminated so that the sculptor could be full time. We were down to a minimum in the department, and the sculpture teacher was half time and I was half time. So, it was necessary for me to leave in order for him to be full time. It was a big challenge to keep the tradition alive at Reed that Lloyd Reynolds had started and brought to the college. Reed had an outstanding tradition in calligraphy, and it drew students from all over the country . . . I had many wonderful students. They were bright. They were friendly, and they were very good listeners. So it was a real joy to work with them. I remember a lot of my wonderful students. But in particular I think of Kris Holmes [’72] and Sumner Stone [’67], from my very first class at Reed. They are both successful type designers. Diana Stetson [’79], who is a professional artist in New Mexico, took many private classes from me. Matilda Essig [’83] is a professional artist in Arizona. She studied with me. Lon Peters [’74; Economics Professor, 1980–1981 and 2007-] was a very good student. He returned to teach at Reed. Scott Lazenby [’77] is the city manager where I live in Sandy. Scott Foster [’77] invited me to be the alumni guest at the last year’s reunion. John Sheehy [’82] organized the wonderful 2003 alumni tribute to calligraphy, where I was asked to give a lecture and a demonstration. You were there, so you remember that it was very well attended . . . I did brush letters, and played Beethoven’s Fifth piano concerto, the slow movement, at the same time as I was writing.
And, what did you write?
I wrote a quote from Cicero which says, in English, “When I am an artist, then I am a human being.”
And you did it in Latin?
I did it in Latin.
Cum artifex, tum homo. The word homo in Latin can mean male or female. It just means a human being. Then I still had more time on the music, so I ended up with the SPQR of the Roman Empire, which you see all over Rome. It stands for the ‘senate and the people of Rome.’
SENATUS POPULUSQUE ROMANUS.
And did you want to mention anyone else?
Well, I have my very famous student, Steve [Steven] Jobs [’76], who founded and runs Apple Computer Company. He recently spoke at the commencement exercises at Stanford University, and spoke of the strong influence that the calligraphy class at Reed had on him, and got him into what he’s doing today.
You had him in your class —did you say he came back at one point?
Yes. He only was at Reed for that semester. But, he came back afterwards and consulted me about Greek letters for a type font. I don’t know if he ever used my Greek letters, or if he just used them as a starting point, but we had a good time. He was educating me about what a computer is, as I hadn’t the foggiest idea what he was talking about.
Do you have a better idea now?
A little bit better, yes.
... overall, your feeling about your experience (on teaching at Reed)?
Well, it was a wonderful experience, mainly because of the students and all the wonderful people I met among the faculty, and the administrative staff also. There were always many nice people at Reed, and I really enjoyed my years there.
Robert, just give us a little bit about your feeling about calligraphy. It’s the great love of your life, and even chant is very important to you.
Well, yes. I mentioned my Uncle Horace way back toward the beginning. He was really the person that got me interested in handwriting, and I noticed my brothers and sisters all had good handwriting. It was something that was regarded very highly in our family. My father was not a professional like his brother, but he also had an excellent handwriting, and in those days people had to keep records by handwritten books. So there was a real need to be able to write, and write well. But for me, calligraphy was always an adventure. I still remember the first sample I ever saw of edged handwriting was by Edward Johnston in an encyclopedia. That was my introduction to it.
In the monastery?
Mm-hmm, and then little by little I began to study more reproductions of manuscripts. Then, finally, I had the opportunity to study two manuscript books which had been given to the monastery. They were all handwritten, both at least four to five hundred years old, and written on vellum, or parchment, and all hand bound—just a wonderful experience. I was able to study those in my spare time, because our days were pretty full. But that got me very interested, and through contacts and books from Lloyd and others, I became interested especially in The Book of Kells in Ireland. So it was a great thrill to me when I was able to get to Dublin and actually study the original there.
When was that?
That was about, I think, twelve years ago. I went to England with some choir directors in church music, and I had time, so I flew over to Dublin while they were still in England, and then met up with them again. I stayed with the Dominican friars in Dublin. They were very kind, and they were located within walking distance of Trinity College, where The Book of Kells is located. The prior of the monastery wrote me a letter of introduction, so I was permitted to study a complete facsimile of the original, which is not available to ordinary people.
And you studied in other places as well?
Yes. At a later trip to England, I was at the University of Cambridge Library, and studied their manuscript books, and was able to visit the British Museum. The two most important things I wanted to see there were the Codex Alexandrinus and the Codex Sinaiticus. These are both fourth century copies of the New Testament, and are two of the three oldest copies in the whole world. In Rome, on another trip, I had a letter of introduction to the head of the Vatican Library from Cardinal Francis George, who was a personal friend of his, and that gave me access to thousands of manuscript books. It was a real joy to see the things in reality that I had simply seen in reproduction. And since the majority of those books were all written in Latin, my background in liturgical Latin came in very useful, as well as my experience of the Gregorian chants, since many of them were also choir books.
When I first came to Reed in 1986, I saw signs done in italic handwriting all over the college, and asked the question, “What is this all about, calligraphy?” And no one could really say, or felt comfortable talking about it. So I’m certainly glad that’s over with. Obviously you participated in the greater community with your lettering. Can you describe that a little bit?
While I was teaching at Reed I did an awful lot of calligraphic work for the school. I did banners, posters, programs, signs. I designed a sign which I think is still in the chemistry department. It was made into a bronze plaque. *[A.A. Knowlton, physics] And, I did all the honorary doctorates, because Reed was giving an honorary doctorate, it seemed like almost every year. I don’t know if they still do. I also did all the graduation diplomas, and finally designed a new one for the school. I think it’s no longer used. I did many calligraphic projects for the college. As I mentioned, during the same time I was also doing freelance calligraphy on a wide basis. I did all the medical licenses for the State of Oregon, and I did work designing signs for churches, and things like that. I redesigned the now present stone inscription for the Cathedral of St. Mary in Portland.
Well, after you took over calligraphy at Reed—took over the coursework—how did you stay in touch with Lloyd?
Lloyd lived very close to the campus, and so I was in constant contact with him. I often invited him to come and lecture to the class. He was popular as a speaker when he retired, but he always loved to come back to Reed and speak to the students. He had a great love of students. I noticed that about him when I first met him. His life was in his students, I think. So, of course, with his years of experience and vast knowledge, I drew from his experience as much as possible.
Would there be anything more you’d like to say about your relationship with him, or Father Catich, or anyone else?
I must say I was privileged to study with real experts. Lloyd was an expert in the Renaissance scripts. Father Catich was definitely a leading expert in the whole world on the Roman inscriptions and the Roman majuscules. Alfred Fairbank was responsible for restoring calligraphy in England back to what Edward Johnston had tried to do many years earlier. Also, I had a lot of help in design from Raymond [Franklin] DaBoll, who was a retired Chicago designer living in Arkansas. Through Lloyd again, I made contact with him, and he gave me a great deal of help through correspondence. I was going to go visit him after I was at St. Ambrose in Davenport, but somehow it didn’t work out. So, I never got to meet him.
Another Reed person that you’ve mentioned before was Chuck [Charles] Lehman [MAT ’67]. What was your connection with him?
He contacted me. I met him through Lloyd, but he contacted me about introducing italic handwriting into the public schools. He was in the school administration for the Tigard schools, and introduced me to a group of people who were responsible for choosing textbooks. Eventually we were successful and got italic into the schools in Portland, and I think it’s been maintained. I’m not too sure.
Well, this has been a wonderful opportunity to talk with you about your experience at Reed. Do you have anything more you would like to add, or anything in summation?
I really enjoyed my years at Reed and it was an excellent experience. I was glad to be a part of it, and I am glad that Reed is still interested enough to have this oral history included in their other documents.