Bio Bits

It was an amazing life, almost any way you slice it–starting with her early rural girlhood outside Reno, where her father became central figure in a university fire-storm that had major influence on her sense of justice from about 10 or 11 on. It eventually exiled the family to remote Hawaii, then helped blunt pathological McCarthyism, transforming university governance statewide.

Extensively covered by national news magazines & local media at the time, and a basic of Nevada history since, the full story has not yet been told. Its reality had a profound impact on Virginia in various ways, especially her strong sense of justice, fairness, and right action, as in her dad’s example.

Arguably that story had already been told–though with a starkly different ending–in Walter van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident. As his narrator only realized by the end of the book, however, Walter himself already knew how important it was to stand up to a would-be lynching, even an academic one, and he did so in this case. Cue the theme to western classics like The Magnificent Seven, as Frank & Walter were joined by other young guns, shrewd luminaries & a group of charmingly fierce “university women.”

Her father, it may be noted, was an ex-eagle scout, Hawaiian born son of an army officer & Stanford-trained island teacher. He earned his Cal Berkley PhD in biology, specializing in ornithology, becoming hiking pal & Sierra-Club tent-mate of Ansel Adams. At home in desert, rainforest & high Sierras (where he did winter snow surveys), he was also Chair of the University of Nevada Biology Dept. in 1952. Neither an ideological partisan for anything but good science & responsible citizenship, he happened to be serving a term as chair of the local chapter of the AAUP (American Assoc. of University Professors), a duty which apparently made him a target.

Skipping that fight for now, suffice to say it was one time (apart from Hollywood) when the good guys won, though when the dust settled, the Richardson family returned to Reno only long enough to see the fight through, then resettled in the northwest, where Frank served as a distinguished professor at U.W. & zoological curator of the state museum. Ginny worked summers as a lifeguard, starred in the school play as Anne Frank, graduated from Shoreline High with a scholarship to Radcliffe.

Two bits worth noting before moving on–one from Reno, one from Seattle. In Reno, their close neighbors along Plumb Lane were the Houghtons, including artist & mother Edda & daughter Kitty, who was Ginny’s 1st roommate–in the hospital nursery! Born a few days apart, they grew up together as neighbors, like siblings in different households. A clubhouse of their own sported its own banner. Insights (& influences) on Virginia’s character can be found in notes from both Edda & Kitty over the years.

Kitty’s life was itself remarkable–Peace Corps in Nepal, U.N. in Bangladesh during its bloody independence struggle, PhD in linguistics, training in international finance, Commerce Dept. assignments from Vienna to Shanghai, leader in the 99’s (famous group of women pilots), inspiration for the Catherine Houghton Arts Center at the White Mountain School in New Hampshire, and Gus’ “godmother,” among other highlights.

Virginia had other close friends in both Reno & Seattle, but Kitty remained closest over the years, sometimes dropping in from the sky in her little plane (once with a couple young daredevil Nepali women pilots on their way to a 99 event). Susie Middleton & a few other humans aside, Ginny’s closest friend from Seattle might have been Crocus–a wild crow her family rehabilitated & released after an injury, who then showed up at her upper story window each morning for a greet-&-treat as she woke.

Crocus disappeared from the neighborhood when Ginny flew east to college, –but showed up at our wedding 4 years later! As we faced the Justice of the Peace in her parents’ living-room, we looked past him through the large window facing the front yard, where her father had set a stuffed black bear en route back to the museum. Crocus sat on the bear’s head during the ceremony, then teased their black lab with air-droped corn cobs after.

Crocus seems to have had a cousin in college, Iris, in far off Cambridge, an injured bird of some kind, maybe from the commons ‘Cliffies walked through en route to & from classes, rehabilitated by Ginny & her roommate Carol in their room, in violation of dorm rules. They made a sign to hang on the door, with a drawing of the flower & the name IRIS, when Iris was out in their room, re-learning to fly, so their friends wouldn’t just open the door.

Carol and Ginny were in one or more musicals together. Ginny often remembered her as a dancer, calling her in French something like “les jambes,” “legs.” They had some fond times in Tucson recently, where Carol seems to be dancing still. Ginny took her French to another level, meanwhile, spending a year between sophomore & junior years in Paris at the Sorbonne, studying language & culture, especially the arts. She traveled widely, albeit on a student’s budget, including Greece & Spain.

Back at Harvard-Radcliffe for the fall semester in 1963, we may both have already been in shock when we met–the evening after JFK was shot. A few weeks later, she listened to my 21st birthday jazz show on WHRB, featuring the Audubon All-Stars, Yardbird’s “Ornithology,” & all the pieces I could find related to birds; the rest is love-story history.

We became formally engaged in front of Widener Library during the next Valentine’s Day blizzard, with all classes cancelled & almost no one about–except, it seems, Erich Segal, who described the scene in Love Story, in which she teaches him what a snow angel is, as we more or less then made a circle of them together. [Segal was at Harvard at the time, and the book out sometime later. We told the story to Ali McGraw once, at one of Victor di Suvero’s Santa Fe shindigs, but never contacted Segal to ask….]

I’m not sure what courses & professors Ginny considered her favorites, though I know she loved one on old lit with Alfred, maybe on the oral epic. Not so impressed with Watson’s bio, despite his Nobel Prize, but had great respect for the ethno-botanist Shultz, as well as for Eric Erickson, whose “Lifecycle” course is the only one we took together (though in different sections). Another favorite of hers might have been at the Design School, but stressful, as her somewhat shaky architectural model threatened to fall apart as the deadline approached.

During our two college years together we loved jazz & flamenco, discovered Ravi Shankar & Rabindranath Tagore, ate ice cream by the bucket, enjoyed Jacques Cousteau, tropical fish, Hermann Hesse, Kipling’s Kim, cross-country drives, camping off the grid, mountain hikes with her family, alternative realty friendships with Buddy & Trudy, Ron, Martha & Jerry….

We had no clear game plan, but an accidental elevator meeting Virginia had with a Radcliffe staffer ended up leading to a teaching offer for both of us at the Selwyn School just outside Denton, Texas. Our explicit deal was to take lower pay in return for lighter load, leaving time for other interests (e.g., writing, outdoor adventures, adding to the family). We didn’t stay around for graduation, but headed south for Texas–where we arrived at the school at night, & dunked in the courtyard’s rock-pool, only learning later it was a favorite of local snakes, especially an occasional Cottonmouth. (Rattlers, rabbits & tortoises were far more common in the surrounding fields.)

At the time, there were lower, middle & high schools, the last both day & boarding. As the fall term approached, it seems two or three of the other recently hired faculty either never really existed or resigned before starting, and we were drafted to take charge of the boys dorm & fill in “temporarily” on the otherwise uncovered duties–classes, coaching, play-directing, even driving the bus on a few hairy occasions. As it ended up, when the dust settled, the headmaster & his wife ran the girls dorm, while we ran the boys’, switching off as “faculty-in-charge” on alternating weekends.

Ginny taught 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th grade sciences, 10-11th grade biology, French I & II, and possibly a few others. As much as possible, she took her students into the field, & outside. Students started bringing her rescued tortoises, most of which she gave a good head start toward a field with a pond. A few hung around our faculty apartment at the dorm’s end, showing up for a treat, like a strawberry or chomps on a banana when she got home.

If I needed to choose 3 or 4 bits from her/our boarding school time, they’d have to include: adding Raga, our faithful long-haired shepherd, who later saved our lives on possibly more than one occasion; losing would-be daughter Maya at about the 6th month (with headmaster’s insensitivity to the medical contingencies having a bearing on our Peace Corps interest); & finishing with a bang, co-directing JB for the graduation play (with highlights including a censorship drama & revival 17 years later in an amphitheater named for one of our former young actresses).

Given how little we knew going in, when we signed up for India 38, a Peace Corps program bound for West Bengal, we had multiplied our know-how many times over by the time we’d circled the the globe. Of the 100 trainees, we may have been the only two to have specifically requested a program in West Bengal–, Tagore country, & Satyajit Ray’s (Apu Trilogy), as with the feeling of coming home–my rose of Bengal, with village children bunched close or following a step behind….

But first there was training–starting in Columbia, Missouri, housed in war-time barracks at the campus edge, with classes & field-work scattered. Organized in a hurry as part of a geopolitical maneuver that took some aid from India with one hand & gave an escalated number of Peace Corps volunteers with another, the program was supposedly “agricultural extension,” to help Bengali farmers grow more & better rice, though two or three of the 100 trainees had ever grown more than grass, & none had ever grown a single grain of rice (or other grain, for that matter).

That 5 of the 100 were women–spouses or fiancees of male trainees–also came as a surprise to organizers, only registering when trainees actually arrived & experts realized the program imagined was unsuitable for the women, meaning they had no plan whatsoever for what they might do, beyond learn more or less the same language. This challenge turned out to be an opportunity, as the 5 got to imagine their best service (child care extension) & organize their own training (everything health-promoting, including techniques learned assisting in live-births at the local hospital).

Virginia’s interest in that focus was more than theoretical, all the more so as we soon discovered–on the Q. T.–that we were expecting! (Working back, it looks like our last wilderness camp in the high Cascades not long before flying to Missouri had done the trick.) Not having a poorly planned program became a boon, even as the pregnancy presented a dilemma–since the Peace Corps then had a rule against sending volunteers who were either pregnant or had dependent offspring.

Once in country, however, it was a different issue entirely. Then the local Peace Corps doctor was to evaluate the medical feasibility, while the district supervisor considered effect on assignment. With a program about child-care, one may imagine some potential advantages in having some hands-on personal experience (& an actual child).

Here I must share a shock the very first hour in our barracks room, when a knock on the door produced a clipboard-holding Returned Volunteer staff member as surprised at seeing Ginny as she was seeing him. Dennis had graduated from her high school a year before her, in her brother’s class. Since he knew conditions best in the very area we were heading, so when we learned what was up, we confided in him. He strongly advised holding the info private until we were settled into our assignments, explaining that a number of his program mates had had children in country, enhancing all their relationships, and that the local doctor & director were both highly supportive, &, like him, likely to consider the situation an advantage…..

Two bits of background worth noting from before our arrival. One is that, well before finishing, the men’s training program started to fall apart. The problem went beyond the fact that all our rice died in the November cold, as might have been expected, & threatened the entire language program, as all our Bengali speakers had taken offense at certain mis-managements. Being a year or two more experienced than most of our mates, Virginia & I were drafted by them to help negotiate a workable solution–a good turn that would come back to bite us later….

The second bit happened en route, on Air India, in the dark high over the mountains, en route from Beirut to New Delhi with our group, when our little one (Gus) quickened, giving his first kick…..

The next chapters, Delhi to beloved Bengal, Japanese rice farm, time back in Delhi, Raj Batra, the Taj, Bangalore, Srirangapatna, Scott’s Bungalow, Children’s Clinic, cobras & kraits by our priest’s hole on the Kauveri, Sangam, St. Martha’s, & on to Pondicherry… Ashram…school, Auroville…is in progress separately, eventually in a clickable file into which I can more easily include some eye-popping photographs….