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Cecil (on teaching)

Being outside the loop is one thing. Being unaware that the loop exists puts me in a class by myself. So it isn’t surprising to learn in the last few weeks there is a proposal coming down the pike that will shift the nature of architectural education dramatically. I have almost literally seen the writing on the wall. Shades of Balshazzar.

For reasons that I fail to understand and that I may find equally difficult to accept, leaders in the profession have decided that graduation with an accredited degree in architecture should be equivalent to receiving a license. Whether the ARE (Architectural Registration Examination) will actually be administered by faculty or soon after graduation by state licensing agencies—and presuming that today’s test will remain essentially intact—I wonder what incentive there will be to teach anything beyond the knowledge required to pass the test. Given general trends in elementary and secondary education (“No child left behind”; Common Core, and their pedagogical kin), I doubt that there is a place at this table for me. Indeed, I’m far more likely to be waiting this new table, rather than dining at it.

For at least two decades, I’ve watched academe embrace the Business Model, which understands the student as consumer, faculty like myself as Sales Associates on the showroom floor (working on commission, no doubt), and administrators as the CEOs and upper management of Higher Ed, Inc. Indeed, I was thrown off the board of a local arts organization because I expressed reservations about the Business Model in cultural organizations. Fired by a board president, by the way, who was himself the Libertarian developer of a software startup company suckling at the teet of Socialism in a business incubator providing low rent and subsidized business services; precisely the sort of “creeping Socialism” that he had suspected me of harboring and whose benefit he would be loath to admit.

I wonder what Elliott would have made of all this.


Though he was primarily an administrator at NDSU, Cecil’s academic career had been a blend of teaching and management, and I’m of the opinion that he was exceptional at both.

In the coffee room, at the end of a long thin corridor in the shoebox we occupied in the E&A complex, Cecil and I often spoke about teaching—and a hundred other things. I knew only what I had learned about teaching techniques during the first five years at NDSU; trying to become an architect—silly as that idea may seem to me now—is very different from preparing to teach it. If I had known in 1963 what I knew in 1975, my world would have been a very different place.

I recall one afternoon when we attained some sort of consensus; a basic understanding of teaching as a fundamental, foundational activity. “Teaching,” Elliott said, “is essentially indistinguishable from vaudeville” because success at either depends upon only three things: you must 1) know the material; 2) read the audience; and 3) play to the back row. Knowledge is well and good, but its effective delivery depends largely on sensing the mood of the class (it changes from day to day and shifts even within a fifty-minute class period) and it’s probably the people in the back of the classroom who need your attention the most; indeed, reading their faces will tell you how the presentation is being received throughout the room. In the forty years since that conversation, I’ve continued to believe in its truth.

Whatever academic house of cards I inhabit, its foundation is strong. And its soundness grows from the experience of Cecil Elliott. We do stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.

On the initial question of this piece—that our programs in architecture and landscape or any academic discipline, for that matter, ought to be taught toward the test—I’m also convinced that CDE would be highly critical of a process that would seem to value training over education. Where, he might ask, is the place of critical thinking in all this? And when did we agree to prepare graduates for a profession, rather than equipping them to change it?


Cecil (on talent)

This morning I accidentally saw a segment of the British version of “Somebody’s Got Talent”: a five-person a cappella boy group who were genuinely good; even Simon Cowell thought so. As I listened to them during the morning ablutions, it occurred to me that our friend Cecil Elliott’s death nearly fifteen years ago spared him the bulk of “reality TV”. One can only wonder what he would have made of it. “The Real Housewives of Keokuk”. “Funeral Parlour Rescue”. “Albania’s Got Talent”. “Say ‘Yes’ to the Nose Job”. He’d have loved them one and all, the way we feel compelled to watch an accident. It brought one of his many stories to mind.

Some of you may know that Cecil served in the U.S. Navy during 1944-1946—aboard a cruiser of some sort, despite an inability to swim. His job was plane spotting: identifying aircraft at long distance by their outline, their shape. He had to pass a test based on images of actual planes in flight and did spectacularly well—by cheating: he had memorized the identity of each plane not by its silhouette, but by the cloud types—cirrus, stratus, cumulonimbus, etc—that necessarily accompanied each image. How typical of him to have perverted the system in such an inventive way. Do you think the end of the war was ever in jeopardy?

He related a story about putting in to port—I believe it was Portland, Maine—and going ashore late one afternoon to a waterfront bar. You can imagine its clientele.

Alone and comfortably settled on a barstool for the afternoon, Cecil noticed a poster announcing the evening’s entertainment: a chesty female identified as a “song stylist.” Ever the linguist, Elliott sought a distinction between singer and song stylist, and the bartender explained: “Well, a singer sings. A song stylist has big tits.”

Elliott would have been a terrific asset on “America’s Got Talent” and made Simon Cowell seem downright courteous.

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.


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.

Cecil (on tribalism)

Last Tuesday—Mardi Gras—found me in Binche (pronounced bansh), a community of moderate size in Wallonia, the southern French-speaking half of Belgium. If one of the UCL faculty hadn’t stopped at our table during lunch on Monday, I wonder if either Paul or I would have known about this peculiarly Belgian beginning to the Lenten season.

Technically, Carnaval de Binche is a four-day affair, from Saturday and through the weekend, building to fat Tuesday, with all the debris and detritus (and comatose revelers) swept away in time for Wednesday’s Lenten smudge. Most of us boarded morning trains in Brussels for the Tuesday culmination, wondering how it might compare with more familiar celebrations at places like Sydney, Rio or New Orleans, closer to home and personal experience.


Whatever images I’d conjured were quickly dispelled passing through the station door onto the south side of a sad landscaped square defined by buildings of the 19th and 20th centuries. The station itself is the best of the lot, a grand Gothic Revival pile erected in happier financial times. [Half the passenger benches trackside consist only of their cast-iron brackets, the planks and backs long gone the way of wood left to its own devices.] To the left and right were typical narrow commercial fronts, shops on the ground level and apartments above. Opposite the station is an eminently regrettable apartment block more typical of the former Iron Curtain countries; I would have guessed Kutna Hora on a good day. But the visual display presented by Binche was quickly displaced by the sonic experience: incessant snare-drumming from every direction.


Moving slowly up the west side of the square (toward its only public house) was a clutch of Gilles, chief characters in the Carnaval de Binche and participating only in Tuesdays events. Not speaking French, I’ve been left to google their history and role in the larger story. But their strange rhythmic behavior—hardly marching as we know it—was mesmerizing in the same spastic way that a rugby scrum defies description. I haven’t checked youtube, but I’ll bet there’s something there to satisfy your curiosity. It turns out there are random gangs of these Gilles moving about the city as Monty Python might have staged the Normandy invasion, bumping into one another like mating moths.

Not a particularly worldly person, I was left to the limited range of cards on my mental rolodex for comparison. Happily, Cecil Elliott came once again to my rescue.

Syttende Mai

In the winter of his first year at NDSU—he came mid-year, starting on January One—Cecil was inordinately curious about his new home, though I don’t for a moment believe that any place Cecil lived ever became his home. Scarcely four months in the saddle, Cecil found himself at West Acres, the regional shopping center, in the midst of displays and folks in colorful native costumes. Ever curious about local lore, he presented himself at one of the displays, one that no doubt offered an array of baked goods. “What’s behind all this celebration?” he cheerily inquired.

“Why, it’s Syttende Mai!” one of the be-ribboned and hyper-aproned ladies replied, no doubt offering a sandbakkel or other goody.

Innocent of our wiles and ways in these parts, Cecil followed with “What’s that?” a not unexpected question for which there was one likely reply: “Well, it’s the 17th of May.” Even without a working knowledge of the Scandinavian languages—minus Finnish, of course—this was hardly likely to satisfy Elliott, who pushed ever onward toward enlightenment.

His “Oh? What happened on that day?” was met with furrowed brow and a decided drop in the temperature. “It’s Norwegian Independence Day” intoned one of the celebrants, the starch in her apron beginning to crack. To which Cecil delivered the coups de grâce: “Really” with a tone of Thanks awfully for that worthwhile information, “Independence from whom?”

One by one the ladies glanced at one another with disconcertion and drifted off in the sense of Move along now; nothing going on here; nothing to see, because, apparently, no one knew.

Eventually only one lady remained, all the others having found something more demanding of their volunteered but valuable time. “Why, independence from Sweden,” to which Elliott pushed on: “Oh? When?”

Silence, even in the middle of a hectic shopping center, can be deafening.

Had I a rudimentary ability in French, I wonder what sort of explanation for Carnaval de Binche might have been forthcoming.

In Praise of Goats


“He grazes much but produces no wool.” —Cecil D. Elliott on academic productivity.

Infamously, Lafayette Ron Hubbard—yes, the “L” stands for Lafayette; would Scientology have caught on if he’d kept it?—once quipped that it would be easy to fabricate a religion. A creepy observation on my part as I prepare to spend eleven weeks in Belgium, which has just criminalized Scientology. Enough said.

I blogged here some months ago about our friend Cecil Dean Elliott, chair and faculty-colleague at the Department of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Cecil was supportive of all my research activities and rarely expressed concern over the discrepancy in my work habits between productivity and product: I can and do investigate a topic to death (and very likely until death), yet never seem to bring the disparate, divergent threads of each project to any degree of fulfillment. The frayed edges of the fabric are always more interesting than the density and uniformity of its weave.

One evening over cocktails at The Northern (a.k.a. Northern Exposure, until they were sued by the T.V. production company of the same name) Cecil spoke of a former colleague from his years in North Carolina: “He grazed much but produced no wool” was Cecil’s one-line cautionary tale, a whop up the side of my nearby head, there being only some gin and tonic between us. I’ve embraced that analogy—perhaps too enthusiastically—and written about it here before. Shortly thereafter, a friend (who, for the time, being shall remain unnamed because I haven’t asked permission to quote him) messaged me on FaceBook® and, as friends sometimes do, shifted the trajectory of my life. Here’s what he wrote:

You mentioned a less than complementary appraisal of your professional output … foraging widely and producing little wool? This metaphor is predicated on the assumption that you ought to be a sheep … you are not a sheep, you are a goat. Goats are independent by nature and curious, thus less inclined to herd behavior. Goats are able to survive and thrive in the wild … to my knowledge, there are no sheep outside of domestication. Some goats offer wool, others milk and cheese. Be proud of your goatliness. This random, delayed response was brought to you by an afternoon of driving around town, and sanding the trim and casement in my porch for painting.

Too bad this person never met that person.

To write in praise of goats will appear self-serving, since I will seem to be claiming for myself those admirable behavioral traits. What the sheep-versus-goat observation did, however, was stimulate my ongoing fascination with religion. How (I inquired rhetorically) would Christianity have developed if Jesus had tended goats as a young man, rather than sheep? Shepherds can be “good”, but so can herders of goats. It is my intention during the next few months to re-write portions of the New Testament from the perspective of goat-ishness and to imagine the trajectory of a very different dispensation.

Happily—for the time being, at least, until the Tea Party makes heresy a punishable crime—I can do this in America. Is it worth noting that there are only two letters separating “heresy” from “hearsay”?

PS: Look at the goats in the pic up top! Sheep are disinclined to do anything like that, while goats seem forever “on point”.

Cecil (on design)

Learning about architecture in North Dakota is like studying medicine without cadavers —Cecil Elliott (through Prof Steve Martens)


Approaching its centennial year, the Department of Architecture & Landscape Architecture must have had several occasions to question the logic of being where it is, and how the hell it had managed to survive ninety-nine of them. What could Elliott have been thinking when he came to be its chair in the winter of 1975-6? I’d never heard the Cecil-ism above, so special thanks are due Steve Martens for bringing it to our attention. But I would counter it here, however—or at least offer another of his observations for balance—with his admonition about tourism.

On another eve—preparations for the first Foreign Study excursion in the Spring of 1977—he spoke to the sixteen or seventeen students (and me) about the value of visiting foreign shores: “If you can’t walk from campus to downtown Fargo and see something new, or something old in a new way, then you’re not ready to leave the country.” Perhaps not even to leave the campus!

What I believe he meant was that design, in a universal sense, and its lessons are everywhere. The unprepared, unwilling, jaundiced eye—whether American in Britain or British in America—was a waste of valuable time and good money. I was privileged to be with those students, several of whom constitute my friends even today, for three weeks. Yes, we were innocents abroad and huddled for safety and security at #8, Vicarage Gate, W8 for those four-day weeks, with three-day weekend excursions on our own or in smaller numbers. But we were fucking Pioneers, and I’ve been able to relive the experience and extend the learning curve by pushing farther with each new trip: to Scandinavia, to very foreign France where I had no language skill whatsoever and little tolerance for snooty Parisians, to Bohemia where we were abandoned by Czech Rail at Kutna Hora, and eventually to Istanbul, where my Elliott-inspired observational skills enabled me to experience the Çemberlitaş Hamamı (a Turkish bath opened in 1584!) without serious consequence for international relations. Let me tell you that story another time. In the meantime, ask Lisa Jorgenson or Dan Salyards or Justin Miedema about the encounter.

Design problems are ubiquitous and their solutions manifest in the least likely places and the most inopportune times. And, again, I can tell you from personal observation of CDE in the design studio that learning is a two-way street. His example (and those of you who may have had Cecil in a studio/laboratory can chime in any time) was poetry in motion. He was Yoda with better grammar long before “Star Wars” had been written. He knew which buttons to push and how many times were required before the point was made. And that was true for students, faculty and even administrators like our dean Joe Stanislao, who came to a better understanding of the department that grew each year and constituted an ever larger portion of his domain. Joe eventually had the good sense to make CDE the Associate Dean. [When asked how an associate dean differed from an assistant dean, Cecil replied that he had merely to associate.]

In faculty meetings—especially the earlier, more colorful ones where Larry Loh and Edgar Smith lept across the conference table toward one another’s throat—I enjoyed watching him doodle on lined pads, creating exotic alphabets like Sequoyah’s for the Cherokee or Brigham Young’s for the Salt Lake Valley, but with a Cyrillic twist. Or is that a Cecil-ic twist?

Sequoyah_Arranged_Syllabary_ Deseret_second_book

His letter-forms were elegance incarnate with their serifs and swashes and ligatures, as finely crafted, I think, as the mind behind the felt-tip pen which drew them. Listening to Elliott was instructive; to discretely watch was privilege itself.

Cecil (on politics and religion)

tolerate [tol-uh-reyt]

verb (used with object), tol·er·at·ed, tol·er·at·ing

1. to allow the existence, presence, practice, or act of without prohibition or hindrance; permit; 2. to endure without repugnance; put up with: I can tolerate laziness, but not incompetence; 3. (medicine/medical) to endure or resist the action of (a drug, poison, etc.).

Cecil was indifferent to few things, least of all politics and religion. Odd that today those two topics are so inextricably linked; in the 70s and 80s it would not necessarily have been the default opinion.

In November 1980 Ronald Reagan (the principal reason I prefer to not be called “Ronnie”, thank you very much) was elected with 50.7 percent of the popular vote. Dennis Colliton, Elliott and I converged at the Tree Top restaurant/bar for drinks that Wednesday afternoon for commiseration. Surrounded by bloated gloating Chamber-of-Commerce downtown businessmen—the only women in the room were serving, not consuming, unless it was behind the scene—we may have been the only mourners in the room. [The Tree Top was a long-time dining establishment atop the US Bank in downtown Moorhead. Too bad it’s closed: the view of F-M from just six floors above grade made this place look pretty good, especially on a sunny fall evening.]

Napkins and felt-tips at hand, we began listing all those organizations that suddenly required our support, moral, financial and otherwise. Each of us made a “Top Five” and then compared. Organizations like the ACLU and Sierra Club got three of votes; others with only one showed our individual preferences and predilections. Memory does not always serve, but I recall check books coming out and several being written while we sat there eave-dropping on nearby conversations. I wrote a dozen in the next few days and have only increased that list during these last thirty-plus years.


On religion, the Gang of Three (that’s what Kathy Colliton called us) were also of similar mind. I append here a map from wikipedia showing religious tolerance around the world. In its scale of values, the U.S. fares pretty well: we are tolerant of all religions. Legislatively, that may been true; today I don’t believe it is in practice, given states like Alabama whose legislature introduced bills establishing Christianity as the state religion, and by that meaning the fundamentalist End-Days snake-handling speaking-in-tongues sort from “Elmer Gantry”. Look at this map, instead; a map of non-belief. For Elliott, “freedom of religion” inherently meant “freedom from religion”.


At a secular institution, which thirty years ago had significantly less racial and religious divergence than it does today, staff were inclined to roll out holiday decorations for the front office and library. And each year, CDE issued a department memo prohibiting such preferential displays. What he said was “When we decorate for Hanukkah, Ramadan and comparable Hindu and Buddhist celebrations, then we can decorate for Christmas”. What he meant was “Over my dead body!” Well, they got their wish.

It is one thing to be non-religious, to be indifferent to religion and its systems. It is something else to be tolerant of religion, to “endure without repugnance; put up with” religion as a cultural institution. And it is another thing entirely to be as anti-religion as Cecil was: he was downright hostile to its presence among us, in a Christopher-Hitchens Richard-Dawkins sort of way, though I suspect few of us experienced that attitude directly.

CDE was tolerant, in the dictionary sense, of few things: mediocrity, for instance, or indifference. He held a high standard of personal behavior and was willing to put himself on the line for it. How many of you knew, for example, that he volunteered as an escort at the Women’s Health Clinic? It is one thing to write a check, to hire cultural surrogates for our dirty work; quite another to put on a fluorescent green vest and hold your tongue.

Kathy calls me “the last man standing” of that “Gang of Three”, which I consider an honor, and of which I hardly feel worthy. Elliott’s and Colliton’s shoes are large ones to wear.

Cecil (on nostalgia)


noun: 1. A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past; 2. A wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition; 3. The condition of being homesick; homesickness.

People may confuse an interest in history for an unhealthy preoccupation with the past. But just because Cecil (and I) taught architectural history, don’t conflate that with nostalgia. Indeed, Cecil may have been the least nostalgic person I’ve known. In my case, anything of that sort might more legitimately be a certain wistfulness: my fascination with a personal long-ago is not so much about what was as with what might have been. I hope that’s a difference. Perhaps not.

For Elliott the past was a series of failed and incomplete experiments. As with James Carse in Finite and Infinite Games (a favorite book that’s given me considerable insight), the past presents us opportunities to finish what’s been undertaken by others; we can finish it, fix it, without being fettered by it.

As an architect in North Carolina, while he taught at N.C. State, he produced houses for faculty and other member of a progressive university community, designed as clean Modernist flat-roofed statements in concrete block and lap siding. Once he told me of a minister who asked for a church design. Elliott inquired about symbols and signs, to which his client replied “Give me something that works for the money we’ve got and I’ll invent the iconography.” In fact, iconoclast—a breaker of sacred images—far more accurately describes Elliott’s position on the whole question of precedent.

He was a Modernist in every sense of the word. Solutions came from the nature of the problem and the range of available resources. He approached our curriculum that way. Likewise teaching assignments. And when it came to budgets and other administrative matters, Cecil played that game better than “his betters”.

Some administrators are trickle down; others grassroots. The former impose the will of upper administrators on faculty and students alike; the latter represent student and faculty interests and lobby or leverage for their support (the font from whom all blessings flow). We were fortunate to get one of those.

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.

Cecil (on family)

Cecil had been our department chair about three years when my father died. At that point his mother and older brother were still living. His mother still in Oklahoma and Ernest retired from government service in Washington, DC; I never met either of them. So when my dad died (from forty years of unfiltered cigarettes) and I became the last/only surviving member of my family, he may have sensed the same impending situation for himself.


He spoke of family, but not often. There was a cousin still living in Oklahoma who apparently evidenced more than a fare share of the Elliott eccentricity. It was her wont to read the Saturday newspaper—recall this was when we still had newspapers—with a pencil in hand. No, the pencil had nothing to do with crosswords; Cousin Bernice (I don’t recall her name, but that one works for me) turned immediately to the wedding announcements and proceeded to punch out the eyes of brides in both wedding and engagement photos.

Watching television—Bernice had little else to occupy her time—she enjoyed “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” but, again, for reasons you might not guess. When MTM appeared on screen, Bernice removed her slippers, threw them at the T.V. and shouted “Shit ass bitch!” And you thought your family was kooky.

Ernest had worked in the Veterans Administration as an editor of a multi-volume history of Walter Reed Hospital. Retiring at the age of 50, Ernest had settled into a predictable low-impact routine of shopping: he could invest days in the simplest purchase, entailing research into the array of options, visits to multiple stores multiple times for hands-on comparison, and elaborate payment and shipping/delivery options. A full day could consume the re-lining of kitchen shelves. And trips to the Post Office were logistical operations worthy of D-Day.

In the mid-1980s we got the first installment of “Back to the Future” and the topic came up during coffee. Elliott rarely went to movies (or watched television, for that matter), so he was interested in this shard of popular culture. I explained the plot line and talked at length about my favorite character, Dr Emmet Brown, played to comic perfection by Christopher Lloyd. “Christopher Lloyd made a movie?” he blurted with considerable surprise, more comment than query. Except for Christopher Lloyd’s TV role on “Taxi”, how would Cecil have known who he was? “He’s my ex-brother-in-law,” I was equally surprised to learn. Cecil had been married to Lloyd’s sister Ruth. “He was an un-employed actor for ten years. That leech ate us out of house and home for the better part of that time.”

When his mother came to Fargo for the remainder of her life, she lived at Bethany on South University, probably a happier setting for its comforting landscape of tall trees. When I’m old(er) and feeble(r), please don’t banish me to the ‘burbs.

So, there was the elder Mrs Elliott, a Baptist among Lutherans and no doubt feeling fairly alien. During one of the election campaigns, she had a casual conversation with her fellow inmates: “You’re voting Republican,” they expected. “Hell no,” she retorted, “I may be old, but I’m not crazy!”

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.