Distant Vision (continued)

Thomas Lamb Eliot (far right) on a picnic with friends from the First Unitarian Church.
Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society

Partner in Faith: Henrietta Eliot

Henrietta Eliot

Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society

Thomas Lamb Eliot fell in love at first sight with Henrietta Robins Mack in 1861. Her Congregationalist family, however, was opposed to Eliot’s more liberal Unitarianism. Etta, as she was known, set out to bring Tom around. Instead, he got her to become a Unitarian.

Theirs was a strong partnership, and although Thomas, as a man, inevitably got much of the credit, Etta’s role cannot be overstated.

First, she was willing to join him on his venture to Oregon—no easy undertaking. She took dictation of his sermons when his headaches made writing impossible. She was such an excellent writer that some even wondered whether she wrote her husband’s sermons. She later published poetry, as well as two novels. She joined him in the many social causes he championed and was friendly with prominent figures such as women’s suffrage leader Abigail Scott Duniway and mental-health advocate Dorothea Dix.

By all accounts, she was deeply devoted to her husband, and protective of him, too. Matthew Paul Deady, Oregon’s first federal judge, described a lecture given by Eliot: “The little man was quite ambitious in some passages. His strong, resolute, nervous wife sat near me and I had a good opportunity to observe her. She never took her eyes off him during the hour of the lecture, and looked as if she was in labor every line of it.”

Every day of his life, Thomas carried with him a scrap of fabric from a gingham dress Etta wore when they were courting. Throughout their lives together, he would surprise her with myrtle blossoms, a gesture that carried a secret significance.

Although there is no direct evidence, the friendship between Etta and Amanda Reed must have played an important role in Amanda’s bequest. The two women sang together in the choir and exchanged regular letters after the Reeds moved to California. Both were intelligent, strong-willed women who were steadfast supporters of intelligent, strong-willed husbands.

“His sphere of activity was largely in the public eye, hers was largely behind the scenes,” wrote Wilbur. “But in either case there was the fullest cooperation of the one with the other.”


Eliot and Simeon Reed made strange bedfellows. 

Eliot was a slight, courtly gentleman, scion of an eminent New England family (T.S. Eliot was his nephew). He was a family man, a teetotaler who liked nothing better than to wind down reading Dante, Cervantes, or Homer (he considered the Iliad the greatest book written and read it aloud to his children), even if it brought on headaches. He was “by natural instinct, aristocratic,” Wilbur wrote, noting that he was “scholarly in his tastes, and of a poetic temperament.”

Reed, on the other hand, was a burly, blustery swell who dressed in fancy suits, smoked big cigars, and sipped expensive whiskey. A self-made man who rose from lowly store clerk to control the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, which monopolized shipping traffic on the Columbia and Willamette for the most of the 1860s and ’70s, he was one of the most successful businessmen in the West. He held investments in an array of business interests, from cattle to steel to racehorses. He never attended high school, let alone college.

Eliot was a high-minded social reformer, while Reed was a ruthless capitalist. But fortune had brought them together in the Unitarian Church, where Reed and his wife, Amanda, sang in the choir. Before long, as Orloff says, “They saw something in each other.”

Reed would have admired Eliot’s sense of purpose, Orloff suggests. And Eliot would have appreciated Reed’s acumen.

Both men were brilliant in their own spheres, hardworking to the extreme, and obsessive about details. Neither minced words when it came to money. Eliot himself invested in real estate and owned several properties.

Over the years Reed occasionally sent Eliot checks for $100 or so to spend at his discretion on charitable causes. Eliot had bigger things in mind.

In 1887, Eliot wrote to Reed thanking him for a birthday gift and planted a seed: “There is always something to busy us, always something to develop. I want you to celebrate some of these birthdays by founding a Reed Institute of lectures and art and music and museum. It will need a mine to run it.” Later he wrote again to Reed, urging him to consider “some noble and wise philanthropies or services of your time and country, especially of the city and people among whom you live.”

Eliot was diligent in keeping up his courtship. When the Reeds moved to California, Eliot continued to visit. Simeon Reed died in 1895, Amanda Reed in 1904. When her will—providing the fantastic sum of $2 million for “an institution of learning”—was finally revealed, it caused a sensation up and down the West Coast. (The bequest was challenged in court by 11 of Amanda’s heirs, who would almost certainly have succeeded were it not for the efforts of her devoted nephew, Martin Winch.) In 1906, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld Amanda’s will and set the stage for the founding of Reed College.

But Eliot’s work was not yet done.

Amanda’s will stated that the college should have “for its object the increase and diffusion of practical knowledge among the citizens of Portland.” But it also stipulated her gift should be dedicated to “general enlightenment, intellectual and moral culture, the cultivation and development of fine arts, and manual training and education.” Depending on how one read the will, this directive was either ambiguous or contradictory. 

John Sheehy ’82, author of Comrades of the Quest, believes that Eliot, on his visits to California, persuaded Amanda to expand the possibilities for how the money might be used.

“Eliot had an invisible hand in Amanda’s will,” Sheehy says. “He really got her ear, and got her to put in some language that opened up the question.”

Winch, who fought his own relatives to uphold Amanda’s will, was convinced that the Reeds had envisioned a vocational school focused on “manual training.” Eliot, however, was determined to shape Reed into a college of liberal arts and sciences in the mold of Harvard.

Sheehy is certain that Simeon Reed would have endorsed Winch’s plan. 

“The Reeds would have had a vocational school—there’s no doubt in my mind,” he says. “Simeon Reed dropped out of school at 13. He was opposed to public education and didn’t necessarily believe going to college was that useful.”

That wasn’t going to stop Eliot. A shrewd political operator with years of experience in the public eye, Eliot outmaneuvered his rival. Winch didn’t stand a chance. 

Eliot recruited like-minded higher education experts from the East Coast, including his own cousin, Harvard president Charles Eliot, to bolster his case before the board of trustees, who approved the liberal arts concept. Bitter in defeat, Winch resigned from the board. One wonders if Eliot suffered any twinge of regret. As he had preached so many years before, either you do the work of God or the work of the Devil—”there can be no compromise.”

Reed College finally opened its doors in 1911. Eliot, by then 70 years old, was named president of the board of trustees. Ever mindful of details, he had a hand in everything from the hiring of the college’s first president, William T. Foster [1910–19], to designing the college seal to proposing a Latin motto—ut luceat omnibus, “light to all”—that was somehow never officially adopted (which may explain why the tongue-in-cheek parody “atheism, communism, and free love” is still around).

Eliot dropped into classes regularly to engage professors and students, though he left the day-to-day management of the college to Foster and, later, President Richard Scholz [1921–24]. He served on the board until 1924, when his health, always fragile, began to fail. For several years he retreated from public life, spending time at his homes in Hood River and Neah-Kah-Nie on the Oregon coast.

In June 1931, Eliot was persuaded to deliver Reed’s Commencement address. The Oregonian reported on the event with a photograph of a white-whiskered gentleman dressed in academic robes and resting his hand on a walking stick. Eliot told the 40 members of the Class of ’31 that he remembered the ups and downs of student life, empathizing with “the floundering proportionate to the seriousness with which they enter upon college work.” After all, he had done some floundering himself as a young man.

In the midst of the Great Depression, he urged the graduates to persevere through hard times and to stay true to themselves, noting the importance of “concentration which becomes consecration and a sense of vocation.”

The effort of speaking in public left the 90-year-old depleted. “I must not do it again,” he told his family afterward. Several years later he suffered a severe coronary thrombosis, which rendered him an invalid until his death on April 26, 1936.


Thomas Lamb Eliot’s legacy abides across Portland, and nowhere more so than at Reed.

Orloff sees his imprint on the college today, “in the sense of it being independent, of being different by sheer dint of energy and intellect.”

As Sheehy says, “Eliot’s vision is what puts everything into motion. He’s really the intellectual founder of Reed.”

Eliot himself set out his vision in an essay for the Oregonian in 1910: “[Reed’s] service will be for every citizen; its influence is not for a day, nor year, nor for decades only, but for centuries, as a source, a promoter of high intelligence, an inspiration to the body politic, a provider of the highest forces of civilization, it ought to be and will be the crowning pride of this great metropolis. Its promise should be, and is, that the poorest boy or girl within our gates shall have an equal opportunity with the richest to gain the very best education, equipping them for efficiency, leadership among men and a realization of highest manhood and womanhood.”