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Cecil (on scholarship)

In addition to being one of the most intelligent people of my acquaintance, Elliott was also the most nurturing. He had no natural children (that we know of), but he was “parental” to all within reach.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that Cecil and I had crossed paths long before his arrival here. During my undergraduate years at Norman, Oklahoma, home of O.U., I worked in the architectural office of one Fred Shellabarger. Fred taught in the architecture program, where I had him for fourth-year studio, a conjoined course in landscape and interiors, and two of the four courses in architectural history (Egypt through the Gothic), so god knows why he hired me. I learned a great deal about architectural practice from Shell, however—most of it bad—and it was also the place where I made the acquaintance of Richard Kenyon, a.k.a. Crazy Richard. You can blame Fred for that, too.

There were three of us draughtsmen and an occasional part-time secretary. Since my desk was nearest the phone and the front door, “reception” was part of my duty. One day the phone rang when Shell was at school, so I asked who was calling and whether I could take a message. “Just tell him it’s Cecil Elliott calling from Stillwater.” Oklahoma’s other architecture program was located there, and it developed that Fred and Cecil were both teachers of architectural history and collaborating on an exhibition of the state’s architectural heritage. I never saw the exhibit but a copy of the catalogue is in my library somewhere.

Somewhere in my fourth year, O.U. had an influx of transfer students from Auburn. Several joined my class and I learned from them the circumstances of their departure from Alabama. The school had fragmented; divided into two waring faculty camps, with the students caught in the crossfire. They spoke of a hit-man who’d been brought in to clean house, a guy named Cecil Elliott. Three of those transfers are still the only people I treasure from that period of my life.

So when Elliott arrived in Fargo, he came with a reputation: architect, administrator, scholar, teacher of history. Oh, and hit-man. Clearly my days were numbered. Yet, friends we became, and in those first few years we shared perspectives on teaching and scholarship. Like me, Cecil had professional degrees, yet taught architecture history. [You should know, by the way, that 95% of those who teach architectural history are art historians, with non-professional degrees, most likely of the species PhD, the sort who constitute the bulk of membership in SAH (the Society of Architectural Historians).] We agreed wholeheartedly that teaching was exactly like vaudeville; to succeed in either you need only do these three things: 1) know the material, 2) read the audience, which changes from day to day, and 3) play to the back row. Don’t tell anyone I admitted this.

SAH conventions then were stuffy affairs, with stilted papers spastically presented to pretentious audiences. A typical paper in one of Elliott’s “Five-minute Movies” would be something along the lines of this: “A Re-Analysis of the Unbuilt South Transept of the Pilgrimage Church of Saint Smithereen in a Pyreneean Village not Visited since Napoleon.” Like Cecil’s definition of success, stuffy academics revel in compound qualification:

  1. Analysis is one thing. But re-analysis demands the correction of error on someone else’s part. It’s one thing to make a claim; another to make it at someone else’s expense.
  2. Far better to write about something unbuilt, open-ended. So much room for speculation.
  3. And about a fragment, a shard.
  4. And about kalendric obscurity. Who the fuck is Saint Smithereen? And what arcane iconography could possibly be attendant to such an unknown?
  5. And about geographic obscurity.
  6. And about temporal obscurity.

Remember the formula for writing a successful book: Everybody like books about animals and about medicine and about assassinated presidents. So the title destined to be a NYT top-ten best seller for weeks on end would be “Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.” Happily, scholarship has changed.

For better or worse, he encouraged me to follow my academic heart. To explore topics of personal preference—Lawrence Buck, Episcopal churches in Dakota Territory, the Social Gospel, William Halsey Wood—wherever they might lead. Such a freeform research agenda has had its consequences, however, especially for one disinclined to what he called “butt-chair interface.” He likened me to someone he had known in North Carolina “who grazes much but produces no wool.” It seems I satisfied him in one respect but disappointed in at least one other.


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