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Christopher West Colie ’56

November 13, 2021, in Portland, Oregon.

In remembering Chris, one might begin with the scope of his knowledge: the literature, philosophy, and poetry he read and dissected in late-night conversations with companions on his large wraparound porch. He had a deep curiosity that turned to everything from boxing techniques to the nature of truth and human behavior. Chris could tell you how to read the tides, befriend a worried dog, throw a knife, or roll safely when hopping off a freight train.

He was a gifted storyteller and humorist who took care to lay the groundwork for stories that often led to being the butt of the joke, such as the time he was hoodwinked by a chimpanzee at the zoo. But his tales could also skewer the strutting idiocy of an army officer he ran into in Panama or a power-drunk boss on the waterfront, and they were laced with colorful descriptions. An out-of-place person might be described as looking “like a Bengal tiger roaming through a palace hall.”

The youngest of four children born in Spring Lake, New Jersey, he spent most of his childhood in his family’s home at the shore in Mantoloking, which led to his lifelong obsession with the ocean and the beach. As a student at Reed, he met his future wife, Carole Calkins Colie ’54. He was the edgy, brilliant East Coast kid who made his way to Reed after running away from boarding school and shipping out on freighters headed to the  Caribbean. She was the sparkling, talented redhead whose party Chris attended and (without realizing she was hosting the party) convinced to ditch. Carole was friends with Chris’s roommate, Frank Crawford ’54, who told her Chris was weird, even by Reed standards.

One day Carole, who shared a creative writing class with Chris, read aloud a story about a November 1919 Armistice Day parade in her hometown of Centralia, Washington. The Legionnaires had charged the International Workers of the World union hall, and four of them were shot by one or more men inside. One IWW member, Wesley Everest, was lynched, and while the killers of the Legionnaires were tried and punished, Everest’s killers were not. After class, Chris approached her and asked a lot of questions regarding public opinion in Centralia. He was terrifically interested in the subject and asked how to get to Centralia by train.

Chris’s roommate Frank would sometimes report why Chris was not in class on a particular day. “Colie won’t be coming to class today, Mrs. Collier,” he’d say. “He hopped a freight train to Seattle to see an old girlfriend.” Or, “He spent the night in a flophouse on Skid Row last night so he won’t forget what it’s like.”

The night Chris convinced Carole to ditch her own party, they ended up at Hung Far Low in Chinatown. They talked for three hours and Chris asked her to marry him. They took their final exams and drove to Lewiston, Idaho, to get married because they were both under the age of 20 and Idaho allowed “under age” marriage. When they returned from their honeymoon in Tijuana, a draft notice was waiting for Chris. He reported to Fort Dix for his basic training, but hated the army and less than a year later went AWOL. He eventually returned to base and was put under armed guard in the barracks. The plan was to send him to Korea, but the paperwork got mixed up and he ended up being sent to leadership school instead. He was then sent to Panama, which he enjoyed immensely, and was discharged in 1954. In 1999, he published a book of letters he’d written to Carole, Naked to Love: Letters from a Young American in Panama 1952–54.

When Chris returned home from the service, Carole asked him what he was going to do with the rest of his life. He didn’t know. She insisted he reapply to Reed. Chris liked his classes and studied hard, but by this time they had two children and he had to study at night after they went to bed.

After two years back at Reed, Chris decided not to return. He reasoned that six weeks was not enough time to spend on Hegel and got a job on the waterfront. If you didn’t like the boss you had one day, you could quit, go to the hall the next day, and toss in your plug for another job. It provided leisure with exercise, and Chris couldn’t have had more satisfying work. When containers took over the lifting, carrying, and storing that he enjoyed so much, he retired.

Chris had an affinity for the down-and-out. He always carried cash in case he encountered someone who needed a little help. He was strong and brave, but also very gentle. One time he told three of his daughters who wouldn’t go to sleep that he’d give them spankings if they didn’t settle down. Since he’d never raised a hand against them, they ignored his order and continued to jump around in their shared bedroom. Suddenly their door flew open and in walked their dad. In his hand was a long, inflated balloon with which he paddled each giggling girl before saying goodnight one more time.

He was always interested in exercise and sport. Chris described running for exercise on the streets of Portland in the 1950s. People stopped to stare at him like he was a madman. He kept meticulous notes tracking his progress weight lifting and the time he spent punching the speed bag in his garage. He was fascinated by boxing and loved tennis. In the fall, he watched college football games and raked the leaves at half-time.

Chris is survived by his son, Christopher (Kit); five daughters, Melissa, Tanya, Elizabeth, Amanda, and Nora; and an honorary daughter, Meiling.

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2022

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