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Cecil (on himself)

This one will be deceptively easy: Cecil Elliott had little or nothing to say about himself.

I should defer to Kathy Colliton or Fran Fisher for their insights to who Cecil was. Cindy Urness and Mark Barnhouse certainly knew him better than I did. In fact, I suspect each of us in Elliott’s circle of acquaintances experienced a distinct aspect of the man, one that overlapped only slightly with impressions he gave to others.

Early in our relationship—perhaps four or five years along—we had a conversation that I cannot share with you. [Yes, it is possible for me to keep a confidence.] He made a request of me that I never had to fulfill. But it was the asking that mattered. It was only after his passing that many of us began to share stories and quotes and cobble together a fuller picture of the man we thought we had known. Two things stand out in my recollection.

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When Fran cleaned out Elliott’s apartment, she found a large portfolio filled with drawings, watercolors and clippings—odd for a man who seemed not to have a nostalgic bone in his body. He often joked about the “incredimentia” that encumbers us; the debris that prevents us from moving forward, ties us to the past. Yet there it was—at the back of a closet or beneath a bed; I wasn’t there at its exhumation—a bundle of memories that Cecil couldn’t discard. How remarkably uncharacteristic!

Since Fran executed his estate, she offered some of us a memento from that folio; a shard of his output for those of us more inclined toward recollection than we thought he had been. I chose a watercolor of three zaftig, Rubens-esque ladies on point, pirouetting their way across a hanseatic streetscape. It was undated and, unfortunately, unsigned, but we titled it “Three Gdans-ing Ladies”. You can see it on my dining room plate rail, just above the thermostat.

Further confirmation of a compartmentalized Elliott emerged at his memorial service. Elliott was not only antithetical to religion; he was outright hostile to it. So we enjoyed the breadth of encounter that appeared in Monte’s rear courtyard one weekday evening: students from every generation of his tenure as chair and later as teacher; faculty and staff from those years as well. Virginia Merrill, a former secretary living in Montana, drove over for the event. I have no idea how she even learned about it. But the greatest surprise arrived half way through the evening: Cecil’s stepson David drove up from Minneapolis.

David was not the surprise. We knew that Cecil had been married (to Ruth, sister of actor Christopher Lloyd, believe it or not!) and had stepped into the role of stepfather. David materialized and was genuinely surprised to find so many of us eating, drinking, recollecting. Our surprise was that he had no idea Cecil had had this set of friends. We knew about David; David had no idea about us. The rest of the evening was a revelation for David and a further opportunity to share our experience of an entirely remarkable person.


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