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Burt Tolerton ’38

Burt Tolerton ’38, October 27, 2001, in California, from complications due to a heart condition. Burt entered Reed as a sophomore and studied for two years with a growing interest in anthropology. His decision to major in the subject—unavailable at Reed at the time—led him to Stanford University. He met and married Caroline Locke in 1939; they separated in 1941. That fall, Tolerton was an assistant editor for Gotham Press in New York City, after which he returned to California to work for the Farm Security Administration. A skiing injury prior to World War II prevented him from serving in active duty; instead he worked in the shipyards as a burner. From 1943 to 1944, he attended the University of California, Berkeley, doing graduate studies in anthropology, and had a job driving a railway express. In 1945 he transferred to Columbia University, where he met his second wife, Margo. After their marriage in 1947, they traveled to Micronesia, where Burt had been appointed to a Coordinated Investigation of Micronesian Anthropology field position, sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and the National Academy of Sciences. Simultaneously he fulfilled requirements for a master’s degree from Columbia University and a PhD, with the exception of completing his thesis. In 1949, at the conclusion of the position, the couple divorced, and Burt returned to California and built a home at Big Sur. He later lived with Betty Hirshfield in Kensington, California. They studied painting and Tolerton studied Chinese language, writing, and piano. They also traveled frequently, until her health required that she live with assisted care in a rest home. He continued to live in Kensington on his own. Although he did not become an anthropologist, anthropologists were among his friends, including Margaret Mead, whom he met through his second wife; Hotense Powder-Maker; and David French ’39 [anthropology & linguistics 1947–88]. He also enjoyed the company of scientists, artists, dancers, and writers. Burt supported organizations dedicated to preserving the environment, such as the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund. Carolyn Bilderback ’38, classmate and lifelong friend, supplied the details for this obituary, including this excerpt from one of his letters: "Coming up from Big Sur first on the coast and then purling along the four truly freeway lanes of 280, steering gently up and down around the hills above the bay and with an enthralling sky-very like hammered sheets of platinum retrieved with burnished gold. And proceeding still northward changing into orange darkening into soft roseate coils lit against the same translucent and green cast cerulean blue that the 12th to 16th century Italians, etc., achieved with their multiple layering. All this uplifted from the beginning with the glorious sound of Tristan and Isolde!"

Appeared in Reed magazine: February 2004

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