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Orientation at Reed Used to be Sink or Swim

The article “Suddenly It’s Time to Say Goodbye” [November] was quite different, and probably amusing, to many of us old-timers. I remember well my trip to Reed—unaccompanied by anyone I knew. Barely 17 years old in 1944, I was taken to the train station by my father, who had scolded me for not being ready—he helped me by scooping all the items on my dresser top into my suitcase!

On the train from Denver to Portland, I became well acquainted with the porter, thoroughly enjoying my first train ride. At the end, I thanked the porter effusively, never having been told that one should tip. At the station, a Reed student was supposed to meet me. I had written her that I was tall, and that my hair would be curly. Having never been in Oregon (or any wet climate), I didn’t realize that my hair would be completely straight, so I had to wear a scarf (amazing that I had one). Fortunately we did connect, and I was transported to my dorm. I don’t remember how my trunk was taken from the station—that and one suitcase were my only pieces—no radios, TVs, cell phones, or computers in those days.

Once in the dorm I met many people who knew one another. I found them very friendly and willing to accept someone who was the first student from Colorado in many years, and who knew no one else. As I remember, I didn’t even call my parents to say that I had arrived—all our correspondence was by mail, since calls were expensive. I had been taught “independence” from an early age—my parents had never seen Reed College—and I didn’t have a camera, so my letters became our sole method of communication. And they became less frequent as I began to study more and more.

I managed to get a job hashing at the commons, so I had spending money. The dorms were closed at Christmas, so the first year my roommate invited me up to visit her family in Washington State—a wonderful respite. Then, the second year at Christmas, I got a job at Mount Hood as a maid. I was able to get back home during two summers, where I managed to get some interesting jobs, which helped out financially. Another summer I worked at Mount Rainier. Leaving home at 17 was my introduction to the world of reality—sink or swim. I wouldn’t have had it any other way, and just hope that the present students are allowed to have that kind of independence.

Jo Pesman Sanford Chanaud ’49
Prescott, Arizona

Gail Kelly revisited

gail kelly imageThe death of Gail Kelly (’55) was sad news for hundreds of her former students, myself included. I do not think I am alone, however, in my opinion that Reed magazine’s selection of the short piece about her for the Endpaper—” Gail Kelly Demanded (and Gave) Much”—in the November 2005 issue was not entirely well advised.

The article begins by noting that “many disliked her—often intensely,” attributes her supposed lack of cultural relativism to the fact that “she considered everyone to be beneath her,” and ends by suggesting that she was for the most part inhuman (i.e., of her comment on appreciating the beauty of Portland in fall: “It was the most human thing I ever heard her say”).

Those of us who know the piece’s author, Alex Golub ’95—and read his much longer remembrance of Gail Kelly on his blog, from which the November issue’s Endpaper was excerpted—have the context: that Alex’s feelings for Gail Kelly are above all else fond and respectful.

The original piece from his blog was a “warts and all” remembrance, a genre which has its place (though also its time: Alex’s essay appeared online the day after Gail Kelly’s death). What Reed printed, however, was a “warts and all” remembrance so severely edited that all that remained were the warts.

To Reed alumni such as myself, and scores of others who learned from Gail Kelly and went on to careers in anthropology, her legacy endures as an abiding, almost daily, influence on how we see the world. She gave nearly her entire adult life to Reed, to anthropology, and to her students. Gail Kelly lives on through our memories of her and through her influence on her students—and her students’ students, and so on—amounting to an enormous cumulative effect on the discipline of anthropology. But since she left essentially no written body of work and no next of kin, her legacy is largely intangible, and thus fragile. It is all the more incumbent on an alumni magazine, then, to summarize such a life in restrained and respectful ways.

As for me (and, it seems clear, for Alex too), I think it is fine for a mentoring relationship to have an uncomfortable edge to it. Learning is, and often should be, hard. Gail Kelly embodied that central aspect of the Reed experience more iconically than anyone else. She is unforgettable and irreplaceable. Let’s let the last word on Gail Kelly in her alumni magazine be a resoundingly positive one.

Christopher F. Roth ’90
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Gail Kelly was not a nice person. And that was fine. Because it was not her job to make me happy. It was her job to educate me.

I signed up for a junior level peasant societies class despite friends’ tales of students fleeing her class in tears. She viewed me with slight distaste but was willing to give me a chance. We were told to “pick a peasant,” attend class and also be prepared to meet with her individually one to two hours a week. The time she picked for me was Saturdays at 9 a.m.

For some reason I chose Mysore Province in Southern India, and at the first meeting, I could stand at the board and draw maps, rivers, mountains, give the major crops, etc. Then she asked The Question: “Why is Mysore so important? Why should I want to know about it?” The floor tilted. I blathered something about the village council system of government (didn’t know it was fairly universal in India), and prayed. The look of distaste deepened a bit as she said in that diffident nasal tone: “That’s like asking what’s so special about Chicago and replying, ‘They had a fire there once’.” Humiliating.

But Kelly was also wickedly funny. At the end, as I nervously started for the front of the class to present my paper, from the darkened back came her dry tone casually stating, “And afterwards, Miss Goldsmith has prepared for us a complete Indian meal.” Yes, for two seconds I was sure I had forgotten another requirement. But in her own manner she was easing my way.

She taught us how to use the library, made us revel in things-I-learned-on-the-way-to-looking-up-other-things. When I finally got to Indonesia years after reading Clifford Geertz, she was with me in spirit. She was particularly tough on women. But in 1973 you really did have to be twice as good to succeed in the very male world of academia.

She encouraged me to go to graduate school. And demanded that I keep trying despite success. After all, that’s why Reed didn’t have any grades. Because an “A” at another university did not mean you had done your best. Years later, I have on my workplace wall a quote from Winston Churchill: “It is not always enough that you do your best. Sometimes you must do what is required.” Gail Kelly is a part of that standard and I am in her debt.

Patricia Goldsmith ’75
Los Angeles, California

I’m glad that Alex Golub had some complimentary things to say about Gail Kelly, but his negative remarks certainly don’t represent everybody’s view of her. I found her to be among the kindest of the faculty I encountered while at Reed.

During my sophomore year I took her class on early modern Europe, apparently turning progressively grey and exhausted as the semester went on. I learned eventually that I had mononucleosis, but Gail Kelly seemed to know already and invited me to wait in her office for the bus instead of standing out in the cold. One day, when I told her what I wanted to write about for the term paper, she responded by walking over to the library with me, and excitedly pulling books off the shelves in support of my idea.

Gail Kelly’s introduction to anthropology class was a popular pick during my year, and there I found her to be a discussion leveler—throwing out a few helpful invitations to the quiet ones like me, while forcefully shushing some of the very chatty students. I found her paper topics very rewarding. Unexpectedly, a decade later I was able to use some of her “obscure” but creative course design as the basis for a publication on pre-industrial human contributions to climate change.

Finally, “condescending into blondism”? I have no idea what blondism is, although I am a blonde myself, but it is obvious that Gail Kelly was a fiery redhead.

Susan Sebak ’82
Washington, D.C.

At first I thought the Endpaper on Gail Kelly (who was usually referred to as “Gail Kelly” among my circle of friends at Reed) was surprisingly one-sided and even a bit spiteful. Although in my experience she had always played the grand dame, she had also made jokes, complimented good work, and had generally shown enough good nature that we saw the aloofness as a pose.

But the article focused almost entirely on her coolness, while only grudgingly crediting her in passing for making the author work hard. The author says he owes her more than he can blame her for, but that is not the impression left by the article. The last sentence, a knife in the back, captures the tone of the article.

So, I suspected that the author and Gail were of mutually incompatible temperaments, that each resented enough about the other that they could not appreciate each other, and despite this the author stayed the course and slogged through four years of mutual antagonism to graduate. But if that were the case, why choose this particular student to bury (certainly not praise) her in this “appreciation”?

And then I remembered hearing about the fate of one of my other teachers at Reed, Dr. John Hancock. During my time as an undergraduate (1963–68) and my time as the first head of the Reed College Computer Centre (1968–70), Dr. Hancock was a witty, enthusiastic, inspiring teacher who didn’t suffer fools gladly, but was always doing something interesting and was generous with his ideas. When I learned that he had died, I also learned that in the last years of his life he grew more and more unhappy and disliked, and that some said by the time he died he was generally hated by the students.

So I wonder, does Reed turn its teachers into ogres? Or perhaps it’s just the teachers who aren’t touchy-feely types to start with, and use the stick as well as the carrot, who become ogres with time? Or could it be that Reed students have changed? I know “the old Reed is dead” (TM), but maybe it’s really the old Reed student who’s dead in this case. Has the student who thought that Gail Kelly was funny when she emitted some Dorothy Parkeresque response to a silly question, been replaced by the student who feels betrayed by her lack of compassion? Has the student who was abashed but amused by stepping on Dr. Hancock’s ammonium tri-iodide land mines inside the door with the DO NOT USE THIS DOOR sign, been replaced by the student who feels singled-out and scorned?

If it turns out that the Reed atmosphere really does corrode the faculty, I would suggest having “appreciations” written by observers who had observed the pre-corrosion version as well as the final corroded years. If, on the other hand, it’s a matter of students’ expectations about teaching style changing, I guess we old-timers will just be left a little confused by the acrimony.

Peter Langston ’68
(it shoulda’ been ’67, but I was having such a good time . . .)
Seattle, Washington

Death with dignity

Don James—the subject of Todd Schwartz’s “A Right to Die, A Will to Live” [November]—was my father. I am writing to say how much I appreciate this article. Many things have been written and said about Dad in recent months, but nothing has come close to portraying the real story of my father in such a complete and balanced way. I think I reflect what many in my family feel when I say that if we were to choose only one piece about my father to pass on to future generations, Todd Schwartz’s article would be it.

Terry James
Riverport, Nova Scotia

Culpa nostra

I was one of the three Catholics at Reed with Chris Emerson Salo ’66, who responded to the article “Uncivil Discourse” [May] in the Letters section of the November issue. I also recall how the entire commons was forced to abstain with us on Fridays. (The clam chowder at lunch was good, though.) I also appreciated their tolerance, even when they were a bit fuzzy on the rules I followed. Once when I inquired whether the sauce-covered mystery contained meat, I was assured that it wasn’t pork. But when the rules changed and even I was not required to abstain on Fridays, the fish continued. I do apologize to the community for that.

Janet E. Russell ’68
Concord, California