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reed magazine logoMarch 2010

Inscribed in Stone

The Masterful Work of Edward M. Catich

By Robert J. Palladino

Father Catich

Father Catich cutting the inscriptions for Eliot Hall in the letter style of Trajan Imperial majuscule; 1963.

photographs Courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College

Generations of students, parents, and visitors to campus have admired the elegant stone inscriptions adorning Eliot Hall and the Old Dorm Block, reflecting the college’s long tradition of calligraphy. What is perhaps less well known is the fascinating story of their scribe, Father Edward M. Catich.

The study of calligraphy at Reed began with Professor Lloyd Reynolds [English and art, 1929–69], who offered the first class in response to student demand. The course was incorporated into the academic schedule in 1951, and continued to be one of the most popular in the entire curriculum until it was dropped in 1984.

Lloyd was familiar with the world’s leading calligraphers: Alfred Fairbank in England, Herman Zapf in Germany, Chris Brand in Holland, Tom Gourdy in Scotland, and many others. For building inscriptions, however, there was little doubt whom he would invite. Father Catich (known as Ned to friends and colleagues) was an internationally renowned calligrapher, stonecutter, teacher, and scholar, whose research revolutionized our understanding of the history of letterforms.

Ned was born in Stevensville, Montana, in 1906. He lost his parents at an early age, and grew up with his three brothers in an orphanage in Illinois. (Dr. Francis Newton, former director of the Portland Art Museum, was also a child at the same orphanage, and the two remained friends throughout their lives.) During his years at the orphanage, Ned completed an apprenticeship in sign writing under type designer Walter Heberling, which started him on a career of fine writing.

In 1924, he moved to Chicago, where he worked as a show-card writer for Marshall Field & Company, attended classes at the Chicago Art Institute, and organized a jazz orchestra. He attended St. Ambrose College, in Davenport, Iowa, where he received a BA in 1934 (and covered his expenses by conducting the college band). He earned an MFA at the University of Iowa a year later, after which he went to Rome to study for the Catholic priesthood at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

During his years in Rome, Ned engaged in intensive paleographic and epigraphic research, studying all the stone inscriptions he could find—principally the Trajan—in addition to thousands of manuscripts in the Vatican Library. As a result of these studies, he formulated the connection between the inscription letter-making of Imperial Rome and sign-writing he had been doing in Chicago.

Following his ordination in 1939, he returned to St. Ambrose, where he taught art, mathematics, music, and engineering.

My formal introduction to Ned occurred in 1969, after Lloyd had persuaded him to tutor me at St. Ambrose as a private student. (I did not know it at the time, but Lloyd’s intention was to prepare me for taking the position of calligraphy instructor after his retirement later that year.)

I arrived at the airport on a cold evening in January. Ned was there to meet me and began my instruction while we waited for my luggage! For the next six months, I studied under the most intense teacher-artist I have ever encountered. His day began with an early Mass in the college chapel, followed by a quick meal. He was in his studio-classroom long before other faculty members finished breakfast, and typically worked 13 hours a day. On weekends, we helped with Masses at various churches in the Tri-City area. In addition to his achievements in calligraphy and paleography, he was also a symphony musician, an historian, a liturgical artist, and a photographer.

reed magazine logoMarch 2010