As that trial advanced, Winch received a remarkable letter from Carrie Graham, a friend of Amanda, who wrote to say that she had been following the legal drama in the newspaper at the Boston Public Library and wished to testify by mail. Winch took one look at what she had to say and wired her money for a train ticket to California.
In the Los Angeles courtroom, Graham recounted a conversation with Amanda that took place on a visit she made to Carmelita in May 1903. The two friends were discussing a newspaper article about the death of a wealthy Californian whose heirs contested her will. Amanda had deemed the matter “a disgraceful affair,” Graham recalled. “I said I hoped she had hers fixed up good and tight so no one could break it. She said no one could break her will . . . Then she seemed indignant over my question, and asked me who I thought would contest her will. I told her that I knew none of her relatives but Mrs. Winch . . . and I didn’t think she would contest it if she never got a cent; and then she talked about it . . . and then tears came to her eyes and she says, ‘If I thought any of my relatives would contest my will, it would break my heart.’”
You can picture the heirs squirming on the courtroom benches.
“She told me that this will was to provide for an institute of art in Portland, Oregon,” Graham continued. “And I said that might possibly be a reason or an excuse for contesting the will, and she said that her husband had left all her relatives as well provided for as he thought necessary, and that he certainly had a right to leave his money just as he pleased . . . she said it was a matter of trust with her.”
Winch’s decision to buy Graham a ticket to California may have been the best he ever made. Her testimony was the riptide that finally wrenched the will from the heirs’ grasp. The heirs lost the case in Los Angeles and finally conceded defeat in December 1906, when the Oregon State Supreme Court upheld the lower courts’ decision, and cleared the way for the founding of the Reed Institute, the precursor to Reed College.
The Oregonian reported that the news “was received with much pleasure by Martin Winch,” who noted that Amanda wanted her fortune to benefit the people of Oregon. “And as executor of her will, I shall spare neither pains nor expenses to carry out her wishes to the letter,” he said.
Unfortunately, his tenacity would soon erode his triumph.
For a literalist like Martin Winch, following his Aunt Manda’s last wishes to the letter would prove to be as impossible as reaching the summit of an Escher staircase.
Her will mandated “an institution of learning, having as its object the increase and diffusion of practical knowledge,” including “departments of learning, galleries of art, natural and technical museums, appliances for manual training, and other appliances and appurtenances.” But it also specified instruction in “literature, music, the arts and sciences.”
“She didn’t have a clear idea of what the institution was going to be,” says magazine consultant John Sheehy ’82, who is compiling an oral history of Reed. “What plays out, after the court case is settled, is a battle between Martin Winch and Thomas Lamb Eliot.”
Rev. Eliot dominated Portland’s intellectual landscape.
The Reverend Thomas Lamb Eliot dominated Portland’s cultural landscape. Hailing from a storied family with roots in Boston and St. Louis (which included T.S. Eliot), he founded the First Unitarian Church, the Oregon Humane Society, and the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society; worked to improve conditions in the county jail; ministered to orphans, the poor, and the mentally ill; championed public schools, the public library, and women’s right to vote. He enjoyed the confidence of many of the city’s leading citizens, including Simeon and Amanda Reed, who sang in his choir.
In 1887, Eliot had sowed the seed for his greatest ambition with Simeon Reed (who once said that children in public school should be taught “useful industry,” and advocated that school hours should be limited so they could do their real learning on the factory floor). He wrote Simeon a letter, proposing a lasting legacy, a “Reed Institute of Lectures,” and joked that it would “need a mine to run it.”
“The guy who was at his ear, who planted the idea of the college in Simeon’s mind, was Thomas Lamb Eliot,” says Sheehy. “Simeon dies, Amanda Reed calls Eliot in for a consultation, and he takes the opportunity to assist in shaping the will. You can see his invisible hand there in the contradictory intentions . . . There’s her husband’s preference for manual training on the one hand, and Eliot’s preference for the arts and literature and science on the other. They are diametrically opposed.”
Eliot, whose father founded Washington University in St. Louis, harbored grand ambitions for Reed as a beacon of learning and culture. Winch, ever loyal to his pragmatic aunt and uncle, insisted that Reed should be a vocational school.
In April 1909, Winch transferred the assets of the Reed estate, which, thanks to a local real estate boom, had blossomed to $1,821,560.48—$44 million today—into the coffers of the Reed Institute, and the struggle for Reed’s soul began in earnest.
Eliot wrote to the presidents of practically every liberal arts school in the United States, including his cousin, the president of Harvard, asking whether they believed Portland needed a liberal arts school or a technical college; almost unanimously they sent replies embracing the former. Not to be outdone, Winch took a train to the East Coast, visiting 12 cities and asking the same question of the directors of 32 trade schools and industrial colleges. He concluded: “I became convinced whilst in the East that the movement for manual training, which is now being taken up by the public schools and is being generally talked of and discussed everywhere, is going to take possession of the whole country,” and opined “that the real province of the institute is to supply fields not already covered or that I felt would soon be covered by the public or other philanthropic schools, that our work should be higher than they are likely to go.” In other words, Reed should be less like Harvard, more like Portland Community College.
At an impasse, Eliot invited Wallace Buttrick, the secretary of the General Board of Education, a higher-education think tank funded by John D. Rockefeller, to Portland to investigate and make an unbiased recommendation. Winch, whose health was never strong, was too sick to meet with the inquisitor. While Eliot wined and dined Buttrick at the grand ballroom of Portland’s fanciest hotel, Winch convalesced at a retreat in Hood River.