Mr Durgin, Mr. Ashby

                                                                                                                        

                                                     

                                                Remembering Mr. Durgin

 

                                              by Dusty Griffin, CDS 1961

 

            As we approach our 50th CDS reunion, I find myself remembering the teachers at Country Day who made a major impression on me: Mr. Putnam in Biology, “Herbie” Taylor in Math, Mr. Phil (Sr.) and Mr. Ashby in History, and especially Mr. Durgin in English. Thinking back, I realize that Durgin had a significant influence on my life: I took his honors English course in Class II and Class I, and in large part because of him I went on to become an English major in college. That led in turn to graduate school, and to a 40-year career teaching English.

 

            What I remember about Durgin now is first of all his appearance: owlish eyes behind round glasses, a fringe of dark hair on his forehead, narrow tie or maybe turtleneck sweater under a corduroy jacket – no, not a turtle-neck: in those days everybody was in coat and tie. (In later years his uncombed hair grew longer, and among themselves his students referred to him as “Rughead” or “Rug.”) Next, his manner: intense but quiet, not especially animated, brooding, a deep and resonant voice. (The voice was probably darkened by chain smoking – is my memory playing tricks, or did he actually smoke in class?). When he was engaged in explicating some complicated passage, or responding to a student comment, I remember him wrapping his arms around his head, as if to wrestle the thought out of it. And sitting on the classroom bookshelf, arms enfolding his knees. The syllabus for the course, as I recall, had a lot of modern English and American novels: James’s Portrait of a Lady, Conrad’s Lord Jim, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Forster’s Passage to India, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Faulkner’s The Bear, and Melville’s Billy Budd. There were some modern poems and plays and some Shakespeare too, King Lear, I think, but I don’t remember them clearly. An ambitious reading list – Durgin urged us to immerse ourselves in Conrad’s “destructive element,” made the books compellingly engaging, and made me want to try to make sense of them. I’ve re-read them all several times since then, taught a couple of them, and still regard them as among my favorite novels.

 

            We must have also read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. I think it was reading that book under Durgin’s guidance that made me want to write my required long paper or “thesis” about Salinger, so I went off and read all of his stories. Catcher was published in 1951, but it was written and set in the early ‘40s, when Durgin, as I later learned, had dropped out of college. (My guess is that he was reading Salinger’s first published stories in those years.) I think now that maybe that Holden Caulfield was an outsider figure for whom he had some special insight and affinity.

 

            Durgin and his family lived in the Central West End, on Maryland Avenue just east of Euclid. I dimly remember him hosting some kind of evening informal sessions for his students at his house which I once or twice attended. (But for some reason I did not take part in the literary “seminars”-- playreadings and discussions -- that he hosted that spring -- and I still kick myself for it.) Of his family I remember only the daughters, Nan, about our age, and Susie, two years younger – she attended Mary I, and seemed to be precociously intellectual. She went on to Reed College.

 

            After I graduated, I lost touch with Durgin, and deeply regret that I never tried to re-establish contact. It’s too late now – he died in 1985. But what I can do is to reconstruct the main lines of his life and try to preserve his memory.[1] When I looked into it, I quickly discovered that as a high school student I had only begun to get to know Mr. Durgin.

 

            Russell Franklin Durgin was born in Dairen, in what was then Manchuria, on May 21, 1924. His parents, Russell (of Irish descent) and Delphine Durgin, both of whom came from New Hampshire, were missionaries. His older brother Lawrence became a Congregational minister.[2] The family seems to have made several short trips back to the U. S. during his childhood, but he was educated at the American School in Tokyo. During his teenage years he contracted tuberculosis, which helped transform a young athletic boy into a avid reader. During the 1930s the family traveled widely in both Asia and Europe. In 1941, as tensions between Japan and the U. S. increased, the American School was closed, and for his senior year Durgin was sent to Mt. Hermon School in Mt. Hermon, MA, just a few miles from his mother’s home town of Hinsdale, N. H., and graduated from there in June 1942.

 

            In the fall of 1942 he went off to nearby Dartmouth, but only lasted a semester, transferring for the second semester to Swarthmore – perhaps thinking it was going to be a better fit. But he only lasted a semester there too, and seems to have dropped out of college at that point. Why? Having grown up in Asia, and having been sidelined by tuberculosis, it would not have been surprising if he felt something of an outsider. (He did not get drafted -- probably because his TB raised some questions about his health.) Two years later, in the fall of 1945, he started over, enrolling at Columbia, where he became an English major. Durgin was a 21-year-old freshmen, but may not have felt out of place: there were many older veterans in college in those days just after the end of the war. And he found himself not in a small and homogeneous college community but in a cosmopolitan metropolis.

 

            It was a heady time to be at Columbia. In the summer of 1948 Durgin lived in an apartment on 121st St. in Spanish Harlem.[3] While there he met both Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg – his name figures in their published journals and letters. Ginsberg seems to have regarded Durgin as one of the “best minds of my generation,” as remembered later in his famous “Howl” (published in 1954). On July 3, 1948 Ginsberg, then rooming with Durgin, wrote to Kerouac that Durgin “comes in and out all hours of the night drunk giggling over silly absurdities, we have short and long made, even gleeful conversations.” Durgin, he reports, sits and writes on T. Aquinas and Martin Buber and Shakespeare, and coughs. I am working u p a great brotherly feeling for him, he is pretty great, and really sad.  He knows all the bars all over the city.”

 

            Durgin soon left town for Saranac Lake, NY, for treatment of his tuberculosis, which had come back. Ginsberg, who stayed on and sublet the apartment, later remembered (in Howl) Durgin’s orange-crate bookshelves, filled with volumes of Plato, Plotinus, and St. John of the Cross. Apparently on this basis, the books on Ginsberg misidentify Durgin as a theology student. (He minored in Philosophy.) Herbert Huncke, one of Ginsberg’s friends, moved into the apartment for a few days, and then suddenly left, taking with him some of Durgin’s volumes of 17th and 18th century poetry, “full of theological notes” (Ginsberg wrote Kerouac), along with his winter clothes and typewriter to sell in order to support his heroin habit. (Although his students at Country Day in the late 1950s would have been fascinated to hear talk of Ginsberg and Kerouac  -- whose On the Road came out in 1957 –  I don’t remember him telling any stories of his Columbia days).

 

            Durgin returned to New York in the late fall of 1948, and Ginsberg apparently stayed on in the apartment until he got his own place in December. But Durgin again took time off from his studies, perhaps for surgical treatment of his TB. (Steve Hyde, a fellow teacher for ten years at Country Day, said that Durgin had only one lung.) It was probably also about this time that he met Charlotte Meeske. Five years older his senior, she was from California, had graduated from Berkeley in 1942, had married a Los Alamos physicist, borne two daughters, and divorced. She and Durgin married on May 17, 1950.  According to the university registrar’s office, Durgin did not return to Columbia until February 1950, and completed a semester of work. He took the fall of 1950-51 off, and then took enough credits in the following semester and summer school to complete his degree in August 1951. (It was awarded in October).

 

            Durgin immediately enrolled in the master’s program in English at Columbia -- this suggests that his stop-and-start undergraduate career was due not to a lack of interest and discipline but to illness. However, he left graduate school after a semester without taking a degree. Lionel Trilling was the great man at Columbia in those days, and one of Durgin’s students, Adrian Frazier (CDS ‘67), remembers him speaking of Trilling with “shrinking awe.” (Trilling’s most famous book, The Liberal Imagination, came out in 1950).

 

            By 1952, when Durgin dropped out of graduate school, he was 28, with a wife and two children – he apparently adopted her daughters. He went to work as a freelance writer and textbook editor for Harcourt, Brace. Russell and Charlotte’s first son, Geoffrey, was born in 1953. Maybe the freelance work didn’t bring in enough income, for in 1954 Durgin took a full-time job as a teacher of English at St. Michael’s School in Newport, Rhode Island – he was to remain an English teacher for the rest of his life.

 

            After two years at St. Michael’s, Durgin moved to York Country Day School in York, PA, where he served as Chairman of the English Department. It was from York CDS that Brud Harper recruited Durgin to come to St. Louis Country Day, where he began in September 1958 -- when we were in Class III. He and Charlotte and their five children – Gregory was born in 1955 and Michael in 1957 – at first lived near the old Brown Road campus, but then bought a house at 4545 Maryland Avenue, not far from Washington University where Durgin did some adjunct teaching for several years, beginning in 1959. He kept in touch with some of his old Columbia pals. Ginsberg stayed with him when he passed through St. Louis in 1970.

 

            Durgin stayed 17 years at CDS, teaching English courses in the upper and middle schools. In his first years he also coached the “BB” Soccer team, and the “Activity Squad”  -- touch football and calisthenics for non-athletes. For many years he was the coach of a pretty successful “B” tennis team.  In his second year he was named Chairman of the English Department, taking over for Jack Myers (who went off to head the department at the Hun School). Lanny Jones (CDS ‘62) remembers him as “the first person I ever met who took literature so seriously.” In their senior class poll the Class of 1960 overwhelmingly voted him the “toughest” of their teachers. In the fall of 1960 he initiated a series of “seminars on literature” at his house for CDS and MI honors English seniors. The following spring he encouraged and served as first faculty advisor of a student Literary Review. In the fall of 1963 he helped start a student Film Society, and served as its first advisor. In recognition of his skills as a teacher, in 1969 he was named one of the school’s first two Master Teachers. In the early 1970s his courses were still famous for their intellectual intensity and excitement. The curriculum had evolved, but still featured challenging writers: Joyce, Yeats, Melville, Hemingway, and King Lear. (And as Wes Jones, ‘74,  remembers, he would still stroke his graying beard, “and curl his other arm around the top of his head and tousle the hair above the opposite ear, like a monkey.”) Another measure of his success in the classroom, and his power to inspire, is that a number of his students went on to become teachers themselves. (Other students, who became lawyers and investment bankers, remember Durgin with equal vividness and fondness.)

 

            In 1968 Durgin won a Danforth Foundation Grant for Developing Curriculum. The project he proposed was to spend the academic year 1968-69 in England and Europe with his family, studying the teaching of English literature and drama, and working with theater groups, in order to enhance course offerings at CDS. He also planned to write essays on irony -- evidently one of his favorite figures of speech -- and drama. As things turned out, he spent the year in England, at  Jesus College, Cambridge, where he met and worked with the writer and poet David Holbrook, and visited a number of secondary schools and arts groups. (During the summer of 1968 he spent some time in Boston presenting a workshop on street theater to teachers from historically black southern colleges and universities.) After his return to CDS Durgin he spoke to a student assembly about his year away, including his travels to Ireland, and invented a senior English elective course in “Irony.” He resumed his position as chairman of the English Department, but was replaced in 1971, after twelve years as chair, when the headmaster initiated a review of the entire curriculum and, in a move that must have stirred up some resentment, replaced all the department chairs.

 

            From his first days at CDS he was avidly interested in theater – hosting dinners and playreadings at his house for his Class I honors English students beginning in 1959. (The first two plays were King Lear and Death of a Salesman.) Through the 1950s student theater at CDS  -- Troubadours in the fall and Masque in the spring -- was still pretty traditional. The student plays had long been directed by very senior faculty, Mr. Gilland and Mr. Phil, and in 1960-61 they put on a couple of old war horses, Arsenic and Old Lace and Our Town. In the summer of 1960 Durgin created a workshop course in drama and stagecraft, and taught it in the CDS summer school for several years, bringing back former students to assist him, developing it over time into the “St. Louis Country Day Summer Theater.” In the fall of 1964 a number of his summer-school students formed the “Country Day Players” and put on an evening of contemporary experimental theater -- one-act plays by de Ghelderode, Ionesco, and Ingmar Bergman, directed by Durgin. In May 1965 the group, under his direction,  put on a Pinter play. By the late ‘60s the “seminars on literature” and playreadings on Maryland Avenue had evolved into late-evening salons with a revolving cast of characters. Irvin Fishel (CDS ‘67), president of the Masque and Chair of the Literary Review, remembers meeting a ballet dancer with a huge dog, a black Ginsberg-lookalike poet, and a 300-pound jazz musician.  In 1968 and 1969 he designed the lighting for the faculty musicals -- “Oedipus Rocks” and “Leave it to Judy” -- light-hearted parodies that benefitted the school’s Scholarship Fund.

 

            Over time he also developed the academic-year drama program at CDS. In 1964-65 he succeeded Mr. Phil as Director of the Masque. His first play reflected his modernist taste: Frisch’s The Firebugs. He followed up the next year with Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle. For the spring 1967 play he directed Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. In a break with tradition, the play was performed twice --  there was no formal dance on Saturday night. (Durgin had proposed that the weekend be a “dramatic experience” rather than a “social occasion.”) Perhaps as a consequence, attendance at both performances was disappointingly thin. In the following year he directed for the Masque two modern plays -- one by Ionesco and one by Mario Fratti: some students apparently found the language in the plays offensive, but another student vigorously defended the productions in an editorial in the News.

 

            Durgin also expanded the academic offerings in theater -- creating a course in “Modern Drama” -- and the extracurricular opportunities. In 1965-66 he helped start the Senior Dramatic Club, which put on three modernist plays, two directed by students and one by Durgin himself. In 1969, when the school’s new Orthwein Auditorium was completed, with semi-thrust stage, the latest sound and light systems, prop room, and even “green room,” he was appointed to the new position of head of the theater program. By 1971, under Durgin’s direction, drama at the school included workshops in lighting and acting, and “performing arts evenings,” where students in the workshops presented the results of their work.  Wes Jones remembers the relationship not as teacher and students, but director and actors. In May 1972 his Spring Acting Troupe presented a set of five one-act plays, by Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, and others.

 

            But much of his work in theater was done outside of CDS, though it often involved former students.  In the summer of 1966 Eugene Kalish (CDS ‘65) acted and wrote music for a small theater company Durgin organized -- Kalish went on to the Yale drama school and later ran a college theater program himself.  Some of the productions were literally “street theater” -- performed outdoors on the Washington U. campus and in the streets of downtown St. Louis. (Durgin was busy that summer, also taking a summer course at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.) In 1967 he joined one of the city’s new “MECA” (Metropolitan Educational Centers in the Arts) programs, funded with federal money, designed to pursue innovative approaches to arts education. Durgin worked with the center on South 14th St. in downtown St. Louis, and served as its director until 1971. In July 1968, in collaboration with the Black Artists’ Group (a black artistic collective), he directed a production of Genet’s The Blacks at Webster College, host to another MECA center. Another former student, Adrian Frazier worked with Durgin on and off for six years, from 1968 to 1974. (Frazier would go on to become a professor of theater, and to dedicate a book on Yeats to Russell and Charlotte Durgin.) He and Durgin staged Yeats’ Purgatory on a ghetto street corner and Synge’s In the Shadow of the Glen in a Irish pub. (Perhaps it was not a coincidence that Durgin, with Irish blood, loved Irish drama.) In 1972 they, along with one of Durgin’s CDS faculty colleagues, and one of his former MI students, set up “The Dean’s Players” at Christ Church [Episcopal] Cathedral in downtown St. Louis. Durgin directed plays by Yeats, including the strange and violent Full Moon in March, and served as chair of the organization’s board from 1972 to 1975. Frazier reports that Durgin was a very talented director but not much of an actor: “he couldn't learn his lines, got terrible stage fright, and had to be forced out onto the stage, where he dried up.”

 

            Among the other productions at Christ Church Cathedral was a play about the death and birth of God, involving 10-foot-high puppets and a 50-foot-high sculpture of God. Considering that Durgin was the son and brother of ordained ministers, and that he read a lot of theological books at Columbia, one might well ask: was there some kind of “spiritual” element in his idea of theater? Frazier remembers his interest in existential theologians and in Kierkegaard.  Kalish suggests that for Durgin the theater “pointed to a spiritual place beyond the everyday,” Fishel  that theater was an “escape into a greater and more lucent reality.”

 

            Not everybody was happy with the expanded and adventurous drama program at CDS. Some faculty preferred the traditional Masque productions. Steve Hyde recalls a meeting of administrators in the late 60s in which Don Webb, long-time Dean of Students, and Headmaster David Pynchon disagreed about the direction Durgin had taken. Pynchon said that it was Durgin’s program, and that he supported his choices, and Webb dropped the subject. Kalish remembers that some people thought the avant garde plays he was directing were, unfortunately, as they thought, encouraging his students to challenge what their elders had taught them. In this respect events at CDS were probably not much different from what was happening at schools all around the country. (During the years 1966-1972, what we now call “the Sixties,” first college student and later high school kids were protesting the Vietnam war, growing their hair long, and experimenting with sex and drugs.)

 

            By the early 70s, the theater program, Wes Jones remembers, attracted “an eclectic mix of students . . . . scholar, techies, hippies, poets, athletes.” It also attracted girls from Mary I, who were not simply (as in past decades) guest performers in the Masque productions but equal members in the acting troupe. (Durgin was an early champion of coeducation at a time when there was still resistance to the idea -- CDS and MI did not go co-ed until 1992.)

 

            Although precise figures are unavailable, it appears that attendance at Durgin’s Masque performances in the early 70s was low, perhaps because of what the News later described as the Masque’s “reputation of producing obscure and deeply intellectual plays.” The 1972 Masque production was Brecht’s Good Woman of Szechuan, a bitter and angry play strongly colored by Brecht’s Marxist politics. Its central character is a prostitute, played, of course, by a Mary I girl. (An “intellectual” experience is in fact precisely what Brecht was aiming at: he didn’t want the audience to immerse itself in the story unfolding on stage but to stand back, detached, and analyze the significance of the representation.) Over the summer of 1972, apparently in response to complaints from some parents and trustees, the administration, led then by Mr. Webb, now the interim headmaster, determined, in the words of a student editorial in January 1973, “to put restrictions upon the freedoms of the theatrical groups.” Durgin was removed as head of the drama program and four of the five elected student officers -- all Mary I girls -- were dismissed. In response, Durgin declined to serve as director of the Masque. The new faculty director, “reportedly acting under the advice of the administration,” curtailed the drama program. In the fall semester of 1972 there were no concerts, movie-nights, poetry readings, or plays. He also announced that the Masque would produce different kinds of plays. One result, observed the editorial, is that parents no longer complained.  In January 1973 the school put on a “Talent Night,” a variety show of skits and sketches. Several leading CDS drama students and one of his English Department colleagues joined Durgin’s “Dean’s Players” and took part in performances at Christ Church Cathedral in the spring of 1973. Many of the student members of the Masque, strongly loyal to Durgin, threatened to boycott the Masque’s 1973 production. In the end, under a new faculty advisor, with two students serving as directors, they agreed to put on Lorca’s Blood Wedding, a dark modern tragedy (which some administrators still thought inappropriate). Wes Jones, one of the student directors, concedes that the production was “pretty bad.” But, he says, Durgin graciously found a way to offer praise.

 

             In his final years at Country Day Durgin seems to have kept a lower profile: perhaps he felt offended that he had been removed as department chair and as head of the theater program, and that his judgment had been publicly questioned; perhaps he felt out of synch with the dominant conservative culture. But his three sons continued to attend the school, graduating in the classes of 1971, 1973, and 1975. He himself continued to teach an acting workshop and in January 1974 performed in a playreading in a school assembly.  He agreed to accept an invitation from the new headmaster, Chard Smith, to return to direct the 1974 Masque production. The play was Shakespeare’s Tempest -- a departure, the News noted, from the recent practice of performing modern plays, but not the first time Durgin had directed a Masque production of Shakespeare.  In October 1974 he arranged for a screening at the school of Bergman’s classic film, The Seventh Seal. The Masque play for 1975, again directed by Durgin, was Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, an obscure absurdist comedy by the early-20th-century Polish dramatist, Witold Gombrowicz. At this distance, it is impossible to say whether the subversive element in the play was appreciated by its audience. The production was praised by a friendly reviewer in the News as the latest in a long series of Durgin’s fine productions, plays which consistently represented “Country Day’s highest artistic achievement, an achievement that few schools in this country could match.”

 

            In the summer of 1975, whether he had decided it was time to leave Country Day (his youngest son having just graduated), or whether he was actively recruited, Durgin left CDS to take up a new appointment at Deerfield. David Pynchon, the headmaster of Deerfield Academy, had served as Headmaster at Country Day from 1963 to 1968 when Durgin was building the drama program. Durgin was not the only teacher that he hired away from CDS. At the time Durgin discreetly told the News little more than that it was “time for a change of location,” and that an opportunity to teach at Deerfield did not come along every year.

 

            Durgin taught at Deerfield for ten years. As a caricature sketch from those years suggests, he wore his hair long, and sported a full beard (longer than the short beard he wore at the end of the 60's at CDS.) He was a chronic smoker. In addition to the usual assignments  -- dorm advisor; advisor to the student literary magazine; coach of soccer, but also of recreational skiing, and ultimate frisbee! –  he taught sophomore and senior English, and directed the theater program. One of his students remembers long debates after class about existentialism. (Some students nicknamed him “Reality Russ.”) He persisted in his old habits: another student  from the late 70s, Jamie Kapteyn, remembered that Durgin had “the odd habit of putting his unfiltered Camel cigarette to his lips by wrapping his arms around his head.”  The student also remembered that, although Durgin was a talented director, he himself was without talent as an actor. On one occasion Durgin was patiently trying without success to coax him through a leading role, but finally resolved that nothing more could be done, advising the student ironically: “you can’t act, so just pretend you can.” (Kapteyn went on to become head of the English Department at Williston Northampton Academy, and eventually returned to teach English at Deerfield.) 

 

            In the summer of 1976 Durgin and his former CDS student Eugene Kalish spent two months in Poland studying theater at the Theatr Laboratorium with famed directors Jerzy Grotowski and Ludwig Flaszen. At Deerfield Durgin did a little acting himself, perhaps loosening up from his early days. One faculty colleague remembered him in a faculty production of The Fantasticks, in the role of Henry, the “wizened, passionate, scattered, old Shakespearean actor . . . the part seemed to have been written just for him: full of high sentence, a bit obtuse, and, under light, brilliant.”

 

            Durgin and his family lived in an on-campus faculty apartment in a student dorm. In time he and Charlotte bought an old farmhouse on a steep hillside above a river in West Topsham, in northern Vermont, more than two hours north of Deerfield, where they cleared brush and planted a garden, and spent weekends, school vacations, and summers. On a Deerfield faculty information form in 1982 he listed his hobby (perhaps with some irony) as “Farming.” He also listed himself as a member of Grace [Episcopal] Church in Amherst.

 

            By 1983 his children were all grown and independent: two of his sons remained in the east, where they still live; the third stayed on in the St. Louis area and married. His two daughters live in California. He and Charlotte had a number of grandchildren. But his last years seem to have been darkened by illness and some bitterness. Kalish thinks that there was in Durgin a “strong mixture of life and death forces”: at the end he was still “full of energy” but he “drank and smoked himself to death.” Frazier, who visited him occasionally in his final years, thought that as he approached death he was “angry with everything, and everyone.” Kalish, who remained a close friend to the end, adds that he sneaked a final cigarette on the day before he died. He died at home on August 28, 1985, at the age of 61. Charlotte remained in the Vermont house, and died only a couple of years ago.

 

            What is Russell Durgin’s legacy at Country Day? As high school students in 1958-61 (his first years at the school), we probably couldn’t yet see it, even though he made a big impact on some of us. Durgin’s real importance to the school, I think, came later. In the course of the ‘60's he grew to become a  major force on the faculty, and a key champion of the dramatic arts as an integral part of education. He set a challenging intellectual standard for his colleagues and his students. He made the theater a livelier part of the liberal arts education at CDS than perhaps it ever was, before or since. And he set a pedagogical standard, as a teacher who devoted not just his school-day hours but virtually his whole life to the development of his students’ understanding of and appreciation for literature and theater, and to taking them under his wing as junior colleagues. Although he came of age in the ‘40s, he came into his own in the turbulent later ‘60s, and serves as a reminder of the importance of looking beyond the comfortable bubble on Warson Road, and  as a salutary challenge to a basically traditional -- and sometimes anti-intellectual -- school culture.

 

            Durgin left another legacy in St. Louis. In 2001 several of his former students and members of his Masque acting troupe, introduced to Shakespeare by Durgin, helped form the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis. The Festival produces a Shakespeare play every summer in an outdoor theater in Forest Park. In 2007 more than 50,000 people attended a free performance during the four-week run of Much Ado About Nothing.



[1]Thanks to Anne Lozier of Deerfield Academy, who supplied copies of information forms Durgin filled out in 1975 and 1982, and other memorabilia. Most of the factual material about Durgin’s years at CDS is found in the archive of the St. Louis Country Day News. (Thanks to Cliff Saxton for suggesting it.) Thanks also to Tom Singer (CDS, ‘60), Bob Grote (CDS ‘61), Lanny Jones (CDS ‘62), Eugene Kalish (CDS, ‘65), Adrian Frazier (CDS, ‘67), Irvin Fishel (CDS ‘67), Bevis Schock (CDS ‘74), and especially Wesley Jones (CDS ‘74), along with Steve Hyde (who taught at CDS from 1964 to 1974), for sharing their memories of Russell Durgin.

[2]In the 1950s he served as Pastor of Central Congregational Church in Providence, and on the board of trustees of Tougaloo College, a historically black college in Mississippi founded by the American Missionary Association. In the 1960s and 1970s he was Pastor of the Broadway Church of Christ in New York, and then became Vice-President for Development at Tougaloo College. He died in 1981.

[3]The Columbia University Directories for 1945-48 list Durgin as living at 47 Livingston St., in New Haven, CT. The Directory is no guarantee of actual residence. Perhaps this was his parents’ home address. There is no evidence that Durgin took part in organized student activities.

 

                                                                                                                        12-16-08

 

                                                  Remembering Mr. Ashby

 

                                                      By Dustin Griffin '61

                   

 

            In the fall of 1957 I was a 14-year-old new student in Class IV at Country Day, and more than fifty years later I still remember attending a lecture, during the first few weeks of the semester, at some kind of school assembly. The title was “The Third Rome,” but the real topic was contemporary Russia, and the lecturer brilliantly laid out an argument that just as Constantinople, political hub of a great empire, was “the second Rome,” so Russia, heart of the Soviet Union, was in effect “the third Rome,” and that if westerners were to understand Russia’s actions, especially in foreign policy, they had to trace its imperial ambitions back to Rome. I had never heard such a powerful and lucid argument before.[1] The lecturer was Robert Ashby, newly arrived at CDS that fall, and, at 27, the youngest member of the History Department.

 

            As I was able to reconstruct later, the lecture was delivered on October 15, 1957, and it marked an auspicious beginning for Ashby’s career at Country Day. By the time we graduated he had established himself as one of the leading lights on the faculty. As a senior I took his Modern European History course, and can remember even now the stimulating and lively atmosphere in the classroom as Ashby led us through both political history and intellectual history. On one occasion he was explaining the philosophy of Leibniz, who held that at the metaphysical level the world consisted of nothing but indivisible and eternal entities he called “monads.” As we grappled with the idea, I can remember looking out the classroom window and seeing a small brightly-colored balloon serendipitously floating by. Ashby seized the moment: “Think of that as a monad.”

 

            If Russell Durgin was in our eyes some kind of artsy “Bohemian,” given to wearing dark and loose clothing and “Desert Boots,” and a chain-smoker of unfiltered Camels, Ashby was a dapper dresser in tailored tweeds and blazers, a pipe-smoker, and a witty and urbane man of the world. Where Durgin was quiet and unassuming, Ashby was breezily forthcoming and apparently very self-confident. Durgin lived in the Central West End. Ashby lived off Ladue Rd., just east of Warson – an unusual address for a junior faculty member at Country Day -- and he drove an MG.[2] While Durgin was a family man, Ashby was a young bachelor: in June 1960, in the senior class poll, he came in second in the “Last to Marry” contest. 

 

                                                                                                           

            Many students came in contact with Ashby, especially through his work with the Rostrum (the debating club). Others would have known him as the coach of the newly-established fencing team; he also coached the “B” tennis team. Inside the classroom Hunter Kevil (CDS ‘61) remembers “intellectual perkiness” and a “spirit of play.”[3] (This extended to an amused tolerance for student pranks.) Several students from his French class in the late 1950s recall his practice of “trapping” -- if a boy could not answer a vocabulary question and the one behind him could, they traded seats, the successful one moving forward, “trapping” his classmate.[4]  Although I do not remember Ashby’s caustic tongue, some of my classmates do. Lee Kaufman (CDS ‘61) recalls that his critiques of student work in class were “sharp, to the point, and humorous.” Some found this helpful: Dave Fisher (CDS ‘61) thinks that Ashby in fact “helped me gain confidence as a public speaker.” George Sanders (CDS ‘61) remembers that he patiently helped him prepare for the “dreaded senior speech.”[5] But to others it perhaps seemed as if he were directing his satirical wit at his students. By the middle of his second year at CDS the News referred to “the usual cutting remarks which have become an integral part of Mr. Robert Ashby’s character.” In later years he gave talks to students and parents; he wrote letters to the News; in May 1961 he took part in a TV panel discussion on the current situation in Europe.

 

            Robert Howe Ashby -- known to his friends as Bob -- was born on July 5, 1930, in Springfield, Kentucky (60 miles southeast of Louisville). When he was a young boy, the family moved to Detroit, where Ashby graduated as valedictorian of his class from Western High School in 1949.[6] From there he won a full scholarship to Kenyon, a small liberal arts college in Gambier, Ohio (about 200 miles south of Detroit), where he majored in history and took his B. A. magna cum laude (with high honors) in 1953, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He must have done work in languages, for he was later to teach both Latin and French. The novelist Edgar Doctorow (now a colleague of mine at NYU) was in the class ahead  of him, but doesn’t remember Ashby. While at Kenyon Ashby was on the fencing team and a member of Delta Phi fraternity.

            Upon graduation he went to work for Procter and Gamble, with headquarters in Cincinnati, not far from Gambier, but he didn’t stay long in the business world.  Fifteen  months later, Ashby enrolled in a master’s program in history at Duke.  In September 1955, after one year of coursework in graduate school, he took a job as a teacher and debating coach at the Webb School, in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, 50 miles southeast of Nashville. (Upon being hired, Ashby sent word back to the Kenyon alumni office that Webb was “perhaps the finest prep school in the South.” Among the school’s alumni was the poet John Crowe Ransome.) During the summers of 1955 and 1956  he taught Latin in a summer school program at the Peddie School in New Jersey. He only stayed at Webb for two years, and in the fall of 1957 he began at Country Day. (He still had a year to go to complete his M. A., which he took in 1958). He left Webb  because he found his faculty colleagues provided too little intellectual stimulation.[7] Perhaps he also hoped to find more academically qualified and ambitious students. When he arrived at the old Country Day campus on Brown Road, Ashby told a student reporter from the News that he thought high school students “work far below their true capacity, and must be taught to make a greater effort for college preparation.”

 

            Ashby’s primary teaching assignment was in History, and he taught courses in both Ancient and Modern European History. He also taught French, as well as a course on Effective Speaking, which quickly acquired a good reputation. In 1960-61, when the school introduced a required course for seniors in Religion and Philosophy, many students did not have time in their schedules to take Effective Speaking. Ashby responded to the problem by introducing a non-credit course on Public Speaking on Saturday mornings. At least seven members of the Class of 1961 signed up for it. His course in Modern European History, as I recall, covered both political and intellectual history from the 17th century through the 19th. He also developed an interest in Victorian English history and culture, and in 1962-63, after teaching at CDS for only five years, took a year of partly-paid sabbatical leave to do research on the topic, spending it at the University of Edinburgh. (While in Edinburgh Ashby sent back a sharply-worded article to the News about life at the University, remarking on the “bearded, leather-jacketed beatniks” to be seen in local coffee houses, “quite as officious in their supposed non-conformity as our own variety.”)

 

            While in Edinburgh Ashby, because of his interest in ancient history, signed up for a cruise to the Middle East. While aboard ship he met a young English medical school graduate, Jennifer MacGregor, and they were engaged before the cruise was over. Having gone to Edinburgh a bachelor, he returned to St. Louis a married man. He and his wife rented a house for a year, and in 1964 bought a house in Webster Groves. Their first child was born that year.

 

            In 1964-65 Ashby introduced a new course in the Area Studies program on Russia and the Far East, suggesting that he retained the interest in Russian history that he displayed in his 1957 lecture. And he continued his own education: in the summer of 1965, he enrolled in a summer program for high school teachers at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins.

            In his early years at CDS Ashby was perhaps best known for his work with the Rostrum, which under his direction became a vigorous student organization, attracting large numbers of students interested in debate and in various forms of public speaking. (At its peak the Rostrum had about sixty members.) He also served as director of the  Rostrum’s annual humorous skit, which gave him an opportunity to express his own satirical wit and to encourage it in his students.  But when Ashby took his sabbatical in 1962-63 interest in the Rostrum began to decline. Despite his attempts to revive it in 1963-64, a story in the News in October 1966 (after Ashby left CDS) laments melodramatically that “in the past years the Rostrum has been constantly spiraling downward to a depth of almost non-existence.”

 

            There’s a lot I didn’t know about Ashby.[8] He arrived at CDS with an active interest in theater. In his first year he joined a local amateur theatrical group called The Players, and in February 1958 performed the role of Petrovin in Anastasia, a 1953 play by Marcel Maurette made into a 1956 movie starring Ingrid Bergman. Two years later he played the lead in the company’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac. He did not get a chance to deploy his theatrical talents at Country Day until Mr. Gilland retired as the head of Troubadours, and Ashby took over in the fall of 1965, planning to make some changes. His first idea for its annual musical was to do a satirical review of Country Day life in the form of a traditional minstrel show, with students in black face playing the classic roles of “Mr. Interlocutor,” “Mr. Bones,” and  “Mr. Tambo.”  (Ashby may have been inspired by the huge success on British television of the weekly “Black and White Minstrel Show,” then in its eighth year). Scripts were secured, but the plan was suddenly canceled,  probably by the Headmaster, so the News delicately put it, “as a matter of taste.”  (This was just months after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in August 1965; Country Day was still an all-white school, although proposals for integration had been made by both students and faculty since the spring of 1963. Was Ashby knowingly tweaking what he regarded as an emerging political orthodoxy?)

 

            As a replacement, Ashby hastily wrote a parody of Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince, a popular 1924 operetta, and in December 1965 Troudadours put on The Student Prince of the PerPerPreAc, Set in ancient Greece,  – “PerPerPreAc” stands for “Peripatetic Perdiem Preparatory Academy”[9] -- the play was described in the News as a satire on Country Day life. If it succeeded in ruffling any feathers – or in irritating the administration –  evidence does not survive.[10]

            Since his days at Duke Ashby was also a great fan of Arthur Conan Doyle.[11] (With pipe and hat he even dressed like Sherlock Holmes.) In April 1960 he read a Holmes story as part of a chapel program. He chose Edinburgh as the site for his 1962-63 sabbatical in part because Doyle had been born and raised there. He founded a local “scion society” of the Baker Street Irregulars (the international Conan Doyle fan club), and served from 1965 to 1967 as president of  “The Watsonians,” so named because Ashby thought Doyle’s Dr. Watson deserved more attention than he got from most readers. Its members included some fellow CDS teachers and students.  He also collected Sherlock Holmes memorabilia: in December 1965 his Conan Doyle first editions and his Sherlock Holmes Christmas cards were displayed at the St. Louis County Library.[12] One member of The Watsonians later reported that Ashby’s home in Webster Groves, where society meeting were held, was a “veritable museum” of Holmesiana: “A ceramic bust of The Master [i.e, Holmes] stood on the mantelpiece; and a Persian slipper, like the one in which Holmes kept his pipe tobacco, hung by the fireplace.”[13] Ashby liked to call the house “The Holmestead.”

 

            In other ways too Ashby did not fit the standard profile for a young teacher. In January of 1962 he started a student Investors Club and a Codasco Investment Trust (for sophomores only), to teach boys the fundamentals of the stock market and to give them some actual experience in investing – they formed two small “stock syndicates” and each boy put in $10-14 to start, and $3-4 per month thereafter. The clubs were reorganized a year later “to make them more aligned with the school,” and Dean Donald Webb took over as faculty advisor.  More improbably, Ashby was fascinated by extra-sensory perception, apparently led to it initially by Conan Doyle, who was himself very interested in spiritualism.[14] During his sabbatical year in Edinburgh he began serious study of the topic. (John Beloff, a leading parapsychologist, was then at Edinburgh University.) He served as President of the Psychical Society of St. Louis, and took part in panel discussions on public television in February and May 1966 on alleged cases of ESP.[15]

 

            1965-66, Ashby’s ninth year at Country Day, when he was actively engaged with the Psychical Society, as well as with the Troubadours, and served as faculty advisor to the News, proved to be his last year at the school. In May 1966 he published in the News a letter of farewell to the senior class – in Latin! And after the year concluded he left CDS to become Assistant to the Headmaster of the Barstow School in Kansas City (then in the process of going co-ed), and the Head of its Upper School. It is perhaps not surprising that he left Country Day at a time when he was so fully engaged in campus life: he may have had ambitions to become a school head, and saw the Barstow job as a stepping stone. But he may have been restless: nine years, as it proved, was to be the longest he stayed in any job.

 

            Soon after arriving in Kansas City the Ashby family grew, when his wife bore twins at the end of 1966. In 1967 he founded and served as first president of the Psychic Research Society, modeled on the St. Louis organization. While at Barstow Ashby again taught History and Speech. One of his major assignments was to lead a revision of the school’s curriculum, both revamping it and raising academic standards. (He had served as chair of the CDS Curriculum Committee in 1961-62.)  The proposed new curriculum won the support of the headmaster, but the board, worried that the school would now have to turn down applicants with weak academic credentials from traditional Barstow families, chose not to take the risk. The school’s headmaster resigned, and Ashby too, then in his second year at Barstow, in early 1968 began looking for a new job.[16]

 

            In August 1968 he was appointed Headmaster of the American School of Tangier, where it was perhaps thought his fluency in French would come in handy. But he became ill enough after a few months that he had to resign his appointment. For his extended recuperation, he and his wife moved to London to stay with Mrs. Ashby’s mother.

 

            In the summer of 1970, he became Principal of the American School in London.  But administrative work turned out to be frustrating and to lack intellectual content: his main business, he half-jokingly complained, was disciplinary -- “marijuana in the Park [across the road from the school] and graffiti on toilet walls.”

 

            By then he was already turning most of his attention to parapsychology or psychical research, particularly in extrasensory perception, and began work on a book. He did much of his reading in the archives of the London-based Society for Psychical Research and library of the College of Psychic Studies, lecturing and leading seminars at both, and in 1972 he published a Guidebook for the Study of Psychical Research with a London publisher. Designed as an aid for the beginning student who wants to read about the results of scholarly research into ESP and related topics, it provides annotated bibliographies and surveys of research organizations and libraries and brief biographical sketches of leading researchers and writers in the field.  Ashby acknowledges the skepticism with which claims about the paranormal are usually greeted (because virtually every “medium” has been exposed as a fraud, and because results of “psychical” experiments are rarely replicable ), but points to “well-attested instances” of paranormal events, which may or may not have a “physical” explanation. He urges his readers -- most of whom are presumably predisposed to think there may be something in ESP -- to be critical, but also implicitly invites skeptics to maintain a “balanced, judicious, open-minded attitude.”  The book was reprinted in New York in 1973.

 

            He remained at the American School in London for only one year and returned to Kansas City in 1971, where he found that the leaders of the Psychic Research Society had taken a new direction, inviting self-professed psychics and other enthusiasts to give public lectures. Ashby (who wanted to bring in speakers with academic credentials or a publishing record) did not continue as president. In 1972, he founded the Psychic Studies Institute, with headquarters in Kansas City, to support research and education in parapsychology. Ashby served as its president until the time of his death. Here he continued to focus on the scientific evidence for parapsychological phenomena. His colleague Fowler Jones recalls that in a panel discussion Ashby once challenged a clergyman for saying that belief in psychic events must be based on  “religious faith.”

 

            He also joined the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship (SFF), a national interfaith group of ministers and laymen interested in mystical and paranormal experiences, then headquartered in nearby Independence, Missouri, as chair of its Research Committee.[17] In September 1971 he became Director of Education and Research for the SFF, and headed its “Survival Research Project,” examining evidence that the spirit survived the death of the body.[18] By 1974 the SFF claimed 7000 members. In June 1972 he attended the annual SFF retreat, held at Carleton College, in Minnesota, where he met the psychic writer Ingo Swann. He himself frequently gave public lectures to SFF audiences, in Harrisburg, Pa. in February 1973 on”New Light on Human Survival,” in Dallas in January 1974 on “The Challenge of Survival: Is There a Life After Death?”, in Chicago also in January 1974 on “The Fascinating World of Extrasensory Perception,” and in Syracuse in October 1974 on “The Framework for Psychic Reality.” He also returned to the Psychic Research Society of Kansas City to give a lecture in December 1973 on recent developments in parapsychology.

 

 

            In the summer of 1974, he visited J. B. Rhine’s Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke. Rhine (1895-1980) was a leading researcher in the field and editor of the Journal of Parapsychology. In the spring of 1975 Ashby was making plans with Martin Ebon, Executive Secretary of the Parapsychology Foundation, for a book on Conan Doyle’s spiritualism.

 

            But after experiencing troubling symptoms in December 1974 he was diagnosed with inoperable and terminal brain cancer, and died on August 22, 1975, at the age of 45, in Kansas City, where he had been living since his return from London. He was survived by his wife, Dr. Jennifer Ashby, three young children (Jeanette, Colin, and Denys), and his brother, William Ashby. Ashby is buried in the Johnson County Memorial Gardens Cemetery. Dr. Ashby still lives and practices in Kansas City. She is an honorary board member of the Psychic Studies Institute.[19]

 

            Little memory of Ashby survives in the archives of the several schools where he taught, but a number of his former students still vividly remember his work as a teacher of history and advisor. He is best known now for his work in psychical studies.[20] His book attracted the attention of other researchers in the field of psychical research, and was reissued in 1987 by the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship as the Ashby Guidebook for the Study of the Paranormal, edited by Frank Tribbe, a well-known writer in the field.[21]  The Academy of Religion and Psychical Research, an affiliate of SFF, annually presents its Robert H. Ashby Memorial Award for the best paper on an announced subject. Tribbe, who said he often communicated with Ashby himself and had been given his files by his widow, reported that Ashby had concluded that, despite challenges to the idea from some parapsychology writers, the spirit does in fact survive the death of the body.[22]



[1]As I was to discover much later, Ashby didn’t invent the idea of Russia as the “third Rome” – the claim that the Russian Orthodox Church was the true Christian remnant goes back to the days of Ivan the Great –  but had adapted it for a nonspecialist audience with force and clarity, emphasizing not the religious but the imperial dimension.

[2]In 1959-61 he rented rooms (former servants’ quarters) over the garage at the home of a CDS board member on Woodcliffe Rd.

[3]Thanks to my CDS classmates Dave Fisher, Ashley Gray, Ken Kaimann, Lee Kaufman,  Hunter Kevil, Ed Lortz, George Sanders, Skip Schumacher, and Jim White, and to George Bornstein, CDS ‘59 and Lanny Jones, CDS ‘62,  for passing on their memories of Mr. Ashby.

[4]According to an article on its website, “trapping” was a old custom at the Webb School, and Ashby apparently imported it to CDS.

[5]In April 1960 Ashby presented a chapel program satirizing senior speeches.

[6]Ashby graduated at nearly 19 because, as his widow reports, he had to drop out of school for what would have been his senior year to go to work (as an office boy) to help support his family.

[7]So reports his widow, Jennifer Ashby.

[8]Details about Ashby’s career at St. Louis Country Day School are drawn from the files of the student newspaper, the  News.

[9]The original “Peripatetic” philosophers were a school founded by Aristotle, who reportedly discussed philosophy with his students as they strolled through public walks in Athens.

[10]Thanks to Alan Webber, CDS ‘66, for his memories of the 1965 Troubadours production.

[11]In 1966 he told a reporter that his interest in Doyle increased when he met a Holmes enthusiast, Emma Rosenberg, manager of the glee club at the Webb School.

[12]A story about the exhibit appeared in a piece by Jack Rice in the Post-Dispatch on January 22, 1966.

[13]Philip A. Shreffler, “From Baker Street to Olive Street: Sherlock Holmes Lives on in St. Louis,” The St. Louisan, vol. 5, no. 4 (April 1973), 18.

[14]Ashby made the link himself in his interview with Jack Rice.

[15]Among other educated St. Louisans interested in ESP and the paranormal was James S. McDonnell, former board of trustees chair at CDS, and a major donor to the new school. As early as his undergraduate days at Princeton McDonnell became interested in what might survive death. After Ashby’s death the James S. McDonnell Foundation funded several projects in psychical research at Princeton and Washington University. I find no evidence that Ashby and McDonnell knew of each other’s interest. Thanks to Skip Schumacher (CDS ‘61) for reporting McDonnell’s interest in ESP.

[16]While in Kansas City he pursued his interest in ESP, and in May 1967 gave a series of three public lectures “on the principal aspects of psychic phenomena.”

[17]William Rauscher, who served as head of the Publications Committee from 1968 to 1973 (and had earlier served as President of SFF from 1964 to 1968), writes about Ashby in his autobiography, Religion, Magic, and the Supernatural (Mystic Light Press, 2006).

[18]By this time the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship was beginning to move away from its prior interest in “survival.” It went through what the Occultism and Parapsychology Encyclopedia calls a “major overturn in leadership in 1974-75 and a period of organizational chaos."

[19]Thanks to Dr. Ashby for providing some details about Ashby’s career.

[20]A memorial essay by Martin Ebon was published in Spiritual Frontiers (quarterly journal of the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship), vol. XIV (Winter 1982). An essay by Frank C. Tribbe, “Robert Ashby and the Super-ESP Hypothesis,” appeared in Theta (Journal of the Psychical Research Foundation), vol. 12 (Autumn 1984). Both pieces are reprinted in the 1987 edition of Ashby’s book.

[21]See Tribbe’s essay, reviewing the controversy concerning the so-called “super-ESP theory,” which claims that mediums receive their information not from the dead but through telepathy or clairvoyance. As editor of Spiritual Frontiers, Tribbe published two posthumous essays by Ashby, “Research on Mediumship” and “The Case for Survival” (with William Roll), vol. 8, no. 1 (Fall 1976). Another essay by Ashby, “An Echo in Search of a Mountain,” appeared in vol. 14 (Winter 1982).

[22]Thanks to the archivists at Kenyon College, Colorado State University, and Barstow School, and to Dr. Fowler C. Jones of the Psychic Research Institute. Thanks also to Irvin Fishel, CDS 1967, for help with this essay, and to Peter B. Griffin, CDS 1969, for procuring photocopies of two early articles on Ashby.