By John Harvith
WHEN I FIRST MET STANTON CATLIN MORE THAN FIVE YEARS AGO, IT WAS BY HAPPENSTANCE. THE EPISCOPAL BISHOP OF EL SALVADOR WAS VISITING SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY, AND CATLIN, THEN A FINE ARTS RESEARCH PROFESSOR AT SYRACUSE, CALLED THE PUBLIC RELATIONS DEPARTMENT TO HAVE SOMEONE TAKE PHOTOS OF THE OCCASION. NONE OF THE CAMPUS PHOTOGRAPHERS WAS AVAILABLE, SO I RUSHED OVER WITH MY CAMERA TO PINCH HIT.
Following the photo shoot, I engaged Professor Catlin in conversation and dis-covered that we had many interests in common -- photography, film, music -- and shared fond memories of Oberlin College, where I had been director of news services throughout the 1980s. He later invited my wife, Susan, and me to lunch, and proceed-ed to regale us with stories about Oberlin College during his student days there.
As our friendship developed, Catlin --who dressed nattily and, at times, could act every inch the part of a charmingly befuddled but warm, authoritative, and witty professor -- never ceased to amaze us with the sweep and depth of his background and knowledge. In casual conversation, one would discover that he not only knew legendary Latin American artists from earlier in the century, but also musicians such as Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson; the photographer Edward Steichen, whose "The Family of Man" exhibition was the subject of a film documentary Catlin had co-produced when he was curator of American art at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts in the 1950s; Nelson Rockefeller, who had commended him on his curatorial work in Latin America during the early 1940s; major American artists such as Edward Hopper and Barnett Newman; "Baby Doc" Duvalier; and Varian Fry, who had arranged for the escape from Hitler's Europe of such important artistic figures as Marc Chagall, Wanda Landowska, and Franz Werfel.
After a year or two, Tod -- he asked that Susan and I refer to him by his lifelong nickname -- gave me some biographical material so that I could write about him "when the time came." By late last summer, he was fast losing strength in his valiant fight against cancer, and eager to tape recollections of his years at Oberlin and his experiences directly after his graduation for the benefit of an Oberlin audience. Even though his speech became increasingly labored in the course of our interviews, he persevered, stretching the limits of his endurance. He was an inspiring and moving teacher and historian to the end.
His father, in advertising in New York City, was "wiped" by the stock market crash, Tod told me, and needed his assistance. Tod joined him in New Canaan, Conn., after graduating in 1932 from the Loomis School. He helped develop a photography business "that was rather unusual. It made use of three-dimensional photography, rather far-out and unknown at that particular time." Tod became a photographer in his own right. "We lived in an affluent town, so I went around making portraits of houses." He also made posed studio portraits, projected the negatives on the wall, filled in the negative areas with charcoal, and created drawings. This undertaking was "quite successful" as a commercial venture, and was how he got into art, he said.
After a year, Tod had earned enough to supplement a fellowship that enabled him to enroll at Middlebury College. He described the Vermont college town as "very strict, and reactionary when it came to facing the problems of the Depression." Tod was labeled a campus radical. "They had a very strict code of dress. They were very deeply weighted to the system of fraternities. And I opposed them, so I was considered a black sheep." He was an activist for peace, which, he said "was the great student movement" at the time. He caused a stir by bringing socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas to Middlebury to speak after the 1932 election and by joining an organization called the Green Shirts and wearing a green shirt around campus, "which electrified some of the fraternity boys."
Tod was "brought up before one of the secret societies" on campus that "was blessed by the administration to keep a gentlemanly attitude and decorum." During his interrogation, Tod "was given hell for my outrageous, ungentlemanly conduct." But the society members relented after Tod told them, in response to questioning, that "a gentleman's attitude should be one of
fine feeling." That answer "knocked them off their pins. They did not punish me."
Tod was dissatisfied with the college in general, so he and his "closest and dearest friend" -- the late botanist Robert Zuck '37 -- arranged to transfer to Oberlin, whose pioneering history of admitting women and blacks held great appeal for both of them.
When Tod arrived at Oberlin in 1934, he said "there were student movements developing at that time that were dominating the discussions and the open political life of the campus." Perhaps the most inclusive was the Oberlin Peace Society, of which he became a member. He began by spearheading a successful campaign for better lighting in Carnegie Library. And he joined a coterie of fellow students who were to be his friends for life: Philoine Hillman Fried '40, daughter of labor leader and FDR advisor Sidney Hillman; Oberlin Review staffer Dorothy Oshlag Olson '39, who became a professional writer/editor, worked for Time, Inc., and was a documentary filmmaker; and Carolyn Plaskett Barrow '37, one of the few African-American students then at Oberlin and a fine-arts major who went on to be-come the First Lady of Barbados, where she still lives.
Philoine Fried recalls that Tod "was known as a very strong activist on campus, but respected as a very personable person. Some people known as radicals at that time were very confrontational and would get people's ire up. Tod was not like that at all, but he had very strong convictions, none-theless." Fried remembers Tod's involvement with a campus program for tutoring the town's economically disadvantaged adults -- largely African-American -- in liter-acy and arithmetic. Dorothy Olson remembers working with Tod to help Recha Jaszi -- the wife of celebrated government professor Oscar Jaszi -- in her efforts to arrange sponsorship for persecuted scholars in Hitler's Europe so they could settle in the U.S. Carolyn Barrow recalls Tod's participation in the College's 1936 mock presidential convention, in which he was assigned to do a keynote speech for, of all people, Herbert Hoover!
As a junior, Tod was elected president of the nonpartisan Progressive Union, which kept track of current events; the Cosmopolitan Club, which was the inter-national student group on campus; and the American Student Union, which Tod called "the predecessor of what was the student uprising" of the 1960s and 1970s. Always a music lover, he was a member of the A Capella Choir and attended Artist Recitals and Musical Union concerts with Dorothy Oshlag. He remembered the Oberlin of the 1930s as "a well-related social academic community; everyone was friendly. We had some disagreements, but they never got out of hand." Nevertheless, "at the Cos-mopolitan Club we had a problem over dancing... blacks and whites dancing to-gether. There was a tension there that had not been resolved." Although he said that Oberlin "was the paragon" for integration ["That's why I was there"], he remembered that one day in geology class, the professor was asked, "What do you think about racial intermixture?" "And his answer was that it should not be accelerated," Tod reported. Fundamentally, he said, "the basic liberalism of Oberlin College, the philosophy and principles of fairness and being respectful of other points of view, carried over all the way" throughout his career.
In the fall of 1936, Tod had "resigned from everything except the American Stu-dent Union" to "get the National Youth Act passed. The National Youth Act was formed to obtain further support for student loans." Tod then spoke about "a big march on Washington, from all over the country, to put pressure on Congress and on the President." Tod joined an Oberlin contingent of 14 students on the march, despite official resistance from Oberlin President Ernest Hatch Wilkins, who was, according to Tod, a committed scholar, "one of the most advanced of the people of that gen- eration in Italian Renaissance literature."
Wilkins, who was involved in the inter-national peace movement, "was rather tight-lipped, with a nice human expression in his eyes, very rational about approaching his subjects in a scholarly way," Tod said. "His most outstanding, memorable characteristic was that he memorized all his speeches. He spoke after having completely mastered his text without a feeling of improvisation on the platform, so to speak, and he was very respected for this. He was a bit dry in his self-presentation, did not mince words, and he was not a person who was dedicated to being a socializer of any kind, but serious about all of the subjects that he addressed. He stood straight and usually with an academic gown... which he wore whenever he was speaking in front of a convocation, every noon, practically. He had white hair and maintained a sense of discipline and of academic decorum whenever he appeared. Although there were problems in campus life, primarily over the political situation in the world at that time, he tried to keep a general perspective of decency and justice, without going overboard. I think he would have been very loath to support student activities that were interventionist. He and I were on pretty good terms, but he was very much against the idea of taking a delegation to Washington on the National Youth Act. So he called me and asked me if I could desist. I said I just couldn't back out, you know. Because the cause was right."
Tod recalled that the Washington protest "was rather dramatic, because we got down there and staged a march around the White House, and the leaders were trying to get in to see Roosevelt to make their demands, and they couldn't." The organizers simply had the protesters "stop where they were, surrounding the White House on the street," because "they didn't know what to do with the parade. The press came out with their Movietone cameras" and "raised the cry that this was a sit-down strike at the White House... [It] created quite a sensation na-tionally." Eventually, the students just walked away. "But the background of all of this was, of course, the Spanish Civil War and the whole issue of fascism, and Hitler and Mussolini building up the crisis between liberal and fascist societies."
Tod wanted more participation on the part of the student body in the political life of the country. "I was actually most concerned with our intervention in Spain because of the obvious interventions of the Germans and the Soviets."
The ASU vice president, fellow student Paul MacEachron '39, decided to go to Spain to fight on the Loyalist side with the Lincoln Brigade, and wanted Tod to join him. [MacEachorn was later killed in Spain.] "I decided against it because I found out that he was actually following the cause of the Young Communist League." The student movement at Oberlin then "was very divid-ed about the question of advocating from a Communist point of view and a liberal point of view." Although "it took me a while to get there," he eventually discovered that the Communists "were really uncompromising" and "not able to see more than one side of the overall ideological issue. The Young Communist League's tactics were, to me, offensive. They were trying to make it appear that their view was the same as the liberal point of view of the American Student Union. They were actually occluding, cheating... and this was going on undercover. This was the determining factor in my rejecting the whole effort to become the leader of the overall [interventionist] movement at Oberlin. So MacEachron went and I didn't, and he became a victim. There's the question of being loyal to an attitude of fairness and integrity, to one's belief in fairness within our perspective of democratic honesty, and that's where I stand today."