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Feature Story
reed magazine logoWinter 2008

Each time I view these photographs—and I find myself revisiting them from time to time because of the peculiar mixture of inspiration and uneasiness that they elicit—I vividly recall the first time I descended the steep, linoleum-covered stairs into the study of David and Kay French in their home across the street from Reed. The walls of the dim stairway were covered with art posters and political ephemera, intermingled with signs in different Native American languages. One particular sign—a dignified-looking sentence (I’m told it’s Clackamas, a dialect of Kiksht once spoken where Portland now stands) printed on faded yellow paper—hung across the stairwell, marking the territory like a proverb across the lintel of a monastic chamber. I couldn’t read it, but it spoke to me nonetheless: “This space is for the initiated,” it seemed to suggest. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I caught the smell of age, of musty paper and old firewood. Turning to my right into the dull yellow fluorescent light, I entered the space you see here.

Dan Kvitka

The room, it was clear, had not been touched. Emeritus professor of anthropology David French ’39 died in 1994; Kay, who was an anthropologist and health policy expert at Oregon Health & Science University and Reed, died in June 2006. And that’s why I was there in the fall of 2006, to facilitate the organization and cataloguing of the Frenches’ collection of art and artifacts. David’s study would be catalogued by linguists and librarians, but I wanted to investigate on my own. Of all the spaces in the Frenches’ home, the study possessed an undeniable magic; and in truth, it was strewn with magical objects. Every shelf and surface had been put to the service of knowledge: books overflowed from shelves into teetering stacks, slumping piles of file folders spilled articles and student papers, boxes of index cards and slides were wedged into every cranny.

Over the next year, I spent a lot of time there, usually in small doses, carefully looking over the material that David and Kay had collected and generated during their rich, productive lives. Each area of the room contained a different, comprehensive library on a variety of subjects. Some of the more unusual and interesting included Native American botany, early American cooking, science fiction literature (including boxes of 1930s and ’40s Science Fiction magazines), and, of course, countless books on Native American and First Nations cultures.

The physical and psychic impression of knowledge, and the evidence of time spent in scholarship within the space, was overwhelming, and, of course, completely Reed. The room felt intimate and private; yet there was evidence that David and Kay used the study as a social space as well. Extra chairs blocked aisles and leaned into corners, and the bar was stacked with dusty liquor bottles and a large collection of drinking glasses.

I began asking people who knew and studied with the Frenches whether they had been to the basement study or knew anything about it. The question elicited effusive and detailed descriptions, and almost everyone’s responses told the same story: that the study was, in truth, an alternative pedagogical space—adjacent with, but even more intimate than, Reed itself—an extension, perhaps, of Reed’s core values and modes of interaction. It was a working archive that supported David’s teaching and the research of his students, some of whom became his friends and eventually his colleagues.

Digging deeper, I found that David and Kay utilized each of their Portland residences in this manner. The Frenches moved to the home on Woodstock Boulevard in Eastmoreland (pictured here) after living in a Brooklyn bungalow. The general rhythm was that David would come home from Reed in the late afternoon or early evening, he and Kay would nap, and around 11 p.m. or midnight they would wake up, eat a late supper, and head downstairs to work and socialize with students and colleagues into the wee hours of the morning.

One former student described the scene as an informal seminar. David sat at his desk, deeply engaged simultaneously in speaking, listening, and reading, a drink close at hand. The anecdotes I have heard remind me of the classic “Reed houses”—1414 Lambert, the “R House,” or the “Fridge” (where I used to study with my Ancient Greek tutor)—liminal spaces where the values and methodologies of a Reed education were extended into everyday life, creating community and transgressing hierarchies.

—Stephanie Snyder ’91, director, Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery

reed magazine logoWinter 2008