Tuesday, December 17, 2013

introduction, a synopsis

Robert F. Winne at 4 months old with his mother, Miriam Cook Winne

My father, Robert F. Winne, was born on December 27, 1924 in Brockport, NY in a corner bedroom at his grandparents house. His grandparents were Alfred Clark Thompson (the president of Brockport College, or Brockport Normal School as it was called then) and Lina Cook Thompson. His parents were Robert F. Winne Senior and Miriam Thompson Winne.

My understanding is that he was adored by his parents and grandparents. He often described his upbringing and the lifestyle he was born into as idyllic, compassionate and loving, and it is my opinion that in many ways he tried to get that back again in some way for the rest of his life. A loving family, friendly neighbors who always had their doors open for visits from other neighbors (both children and adults) and pulling together as a community when times were tough were compelling and enriching for a boy. It was this call to neighbors and people in need that would inform his personality as a peace-loving, compassionate and gentle soul with traditional family values.

I saw a little of the world he grew up in when I was a little girl before the modern age of being inside automobiles, garages and houses were the prevalent trends of our nation and isolated families from each other. We would travel to Brockport to have Thanksgiving dinner with my grandmother, Miriam, and I got to experience the neighborhood first hand. I can attest to the fact that the neighbors were very friendly to each other as I thought all of them to be my grandmother's best friends. They also kept a good eye on her when her husband passed away, always asking how she was when she stepped out of the house.

I remember her yard and grounds as being particularly lovely in Spring with winding paths through islands of pachysandra and lilly of the valley that had within their borders dwarf flowering trees, azaleas, rhododendrons and other ornamental shrubs. My father would try to recreate some semblance of those gardens in the last house he lived in.

During summers of The Great Depression his parents sent him off to live on a gorgeous farm on one of the Finger Lakes in upstate NY with the Williams family. The Williams farmed the old fashioned way, non-mechanized with a team of horses. My father loved to tell us stories of his summers there and draw out maps of where everything was located inside and outside the house. Even though he had to spend his days working (which he didn't mind as it was a learning experience with patient gentle folk), he was eternally grateful to his parents for giving him the opportunity to be with this family on their farm. I always carried around visions in my head during my own childhood of his evenings with lanterns on the porch overlooking the sun setting on the lake with popcorn that they harvested on their own land and ate in the evenings.

Indeed, I would have been happy in the same world my father inhabited as I have always been attracted to small quaint towns with Victorian houses, loving supportive families, tight helpful communities and farms (and spend quite a bit of time as an adult in my own garden or at pick-your-own farms, my favorite of them on old Winne land).

The summers were spent with extended family on an island in Georgian Bay (pictures to follow).

When he was 14 years old, Ken Webb came to the town of Brockport to present a summer camp he had built in Plymouth Union, Vermont, a combination farm and wilderness camp set on a long lake surrounded by the Green Mountains in Vermont (and indeed, it was called Farm and Wilderness Camp). My father and his parents (as well as some other families from the town) were there for the presentation, which included pictures of the beautiful surroundings. My father and his friend, Chuck Meinhold were swept off their feet, as it were, and attended the first year the camp ran. It was a rough and rugged experience at first as there were few buildings in place at that time except for an old farmhouse and some half built cabins in the woods. Over many years the camp slowly got built by campers, staff and a few experts who decided to join the cause. Thus began my father's life-long relationship with the camp that ended only until he was in his sixties (though never ending in terms of the very good, deep personal bonds he had forged with people there).

The camps were very much in tune with his values of friendliness and community, but new values started to emerge too, especially as its founder decided to run the first non-discriminatory camp in the nation despite that half the camper-ship pulled out in the process (indeed, it was a question of morals and values, which my father always found compelling). He adopted these values as his own and would become a Quaker just like the founder once he had left his parents home. Indeed he told me many times that Ken Webb was one of the most influential persons in his life, only second to his parents and grandparents. From Ken Webb, he learned the teachings of Ghandi and began a lifelong interest in peaceful protest in political change.

He always remarked at how good his school and teachers were. In those days teachers were spinsters. Indeed, if you didn't want to get married, the choices were slim. But you could be a teacher. It commanded respect and you were still around children all day (albeit other people's children). Because spinsters didn't have many distractions, most of them put all of their energy into teaching. Brockport College being so near may have also played a part as in those days it was a teaching college (and not the university that it is today). As a result of his excellent education, he excelled at many subjects, with math and art being his best (math and art is where I excelled too -- a chip off the old block).

Childhood for boys meant wearing knickers. I forget the age where he said he shed the knickers for long pants. I think it may have been puberty.

One life long interest that my father had was in music. He started playing the piano at age 4. He lunched with his Thompson grandparents every day, and after his meal he had to sit at the piano for a half an hour or more and practice while his grandmother sat next to him. He told me that he learned to read music before he learned to read the written word. What was a chore when he first began, later became something he looked forward to as his skills grew. Later on, he also dabbled in guitar and saxophone (unfortunately the saxophone was destroyed in a cabin fire at Farm and Wilderness and his parents never had enough money to replace it). The piano was where he was most skilled and he played it up until a couple of years ago before he got sick. In fact he became such an advanced student, when he was looking around at colleges he was accepted into Eastman School of Music, but decided that architecture was a more sensible career (less poverty) and attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on the GI bill instead.

Which brings me to the next phase of his life: the war, or more specifically World War II.

My understanding is that he was admitted into the Army Core of Engineers, but was put into the infantry. He was inducted in 1943 and served in the 75th Infantry Division, 289th Infantry Regiment. Out of his unit of 40 men, he was the only one not killed or wounded. He carried a Browning Automatic Rifle as point man for the unit. His 19th birthday was spent in full combat during the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes in Belgium.

He talked little of the war until he was an old man. When I approached him about the subject from his 30s into his 60s, he would get a sad look on his face and shake his head "no"; i.e. he didn't want to talk about it. The first times he was able to talk about it, his voice got shaky and he would only recount a single memory and then say, "Don't we have better things to think about?" He would much rather talk about the Williams farm or even hardships he saw during the Great Depression than relive that war.

I have his letters from that time, a cassette tape with his interview about the war and my own memories to share, so many of the later posts will focus on these instead of overwhelming this introduction with the particulars of his experiences in combat.

Immediately after the war my father worked to supervise frontline POW German officers. He said that it was during this time that he realized how impersonal war was. "A lot of these German officers were really decent guys. They were forced to go to war just like I was. I realized that the enemy in any war isn't the boogey men they are made out to be; indeed, people you are shooting at could be saints or your finest friends outside of combat. War wasn't something I wanted to partake in again; there is too much immorality seeing as how most countries make laws against murder. The result was that after many talks with Ken Webb about all of my personal struggles with the ethics of war, I became a Quaker."

Bob Webb, Ken Webb's son, noted how much my father changed after the war. "Here we were these happy go-lucky kids jumping off of rafts and laughing it up and then after the war, Bob was a changed man and you could tell he was struggling with a lot internally."

Indeed my father told me that after the war, he got invited to some parties in his hometown to celebrate the end of the war. He was not in a celebratory mood, even if he was relieved. "The problem was I was depressed and they probably misinterpreted it as not being friendly. I lost my entire unit, my officer was killed and landed right on top of me, I saw some horrible things, concentration camps, letting revenge and arrogance get the better of some of the men in my unit. And I wasn't feeling joyous. And I couldn't seem to force a feeling of joy. I never really told them what was wrong with me because men just didn't talk about feelings in those days," he said to me once. His idyllic childhood where manners, open doors, polite and friendly discourse were commonly being displayed, had been abruptly shattered by memories of war battles and the realizations that people could be awful towards each other.

My father battled with depression all of his life and it always centered on how people treated each other. It was as though the war informed him of the worst of human nature and even when he saw it in much more subtle forms in pedestrian life, it could effect him deeply. He couldn't understand why people didn't care as much about their integrity as he did about his and it would stun him when people were brazenly hurtful.

A predilection to depression was also probably due in part to his sensitive artistic nature. As we both discovered later in life, artistic minds are a little different than the minds of the general population: we are much more prone to post traumatic stress disorder in terms of intensity and duration.

As for his college years, he often spoke of them as being different than one might normally expect because there were so many older students in their early twenties attending under the GI bill along with men who were just leaving home for the first time (note: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute only admitted men in the 1940s). The result was working very hard and partying less than student populations do nowadays.

On the weekends he worked as an usher at Troy Music Hall (it was his way of being able to hear lots of classical music concerts at a time when his money had to be going towards his education).

Following graduation he worked as an architect under a new name (Frank Winne) for a couple of firms in Houston, Texas and Boston, Massachusetts, spending long days sitting at the drawing board and evenings pursuing cultural activities like classical concerts and fine art exhibits. In Boston he also became part of a professional modern dance troupe who also hired amateurs like my father for their performances. Sitting all day at his job made him decide that he would rather be a teacher of Architecture, so he returned to Troy, NY and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) to teach and to get his masters. He retired from RPI in 1988.

He also had teaching appointments at Pennsylvania State University, Barnard College and Columbia University.

As for marriage, he was in his late twenties when his parents put pressure on him to find a wife, get married and start having a family. When he was at Farm and Wilderness Camps he thought this might be the place to look first, as a woman there might be more likely to have many of the same values he aspired to. And indeed, that is where he met my mother (at the Timberlake Lower Lodge to be exact, a building he was later hired to dismantle, redesign and rebuild just after they were divorced 17 years later -- life has some ironies!). They were married when she was 20 and he was 30.

I don't feel at liberty to discuss their marriage as my mother is still alive, but suffice it to say that it was unhappy for both of them.

There are a couple of things that I can reveal, perhaps. It did seem to me that he was crazy about her (she was beautiful and smart). They also had enough similar interests to keep their marriage going for quite a long time (my opinion).

But it also seemed to me that while they were married he didn't feel free (to reveal his feelings, to talk about what was going on inside him, to take much initiative) with the result that his actions in regards to her were completely baffling and mysterious to me. Indeed he was often silent and tense and ran away from conflict by delving deeper into projects.

After the marriage was over, a huge outpouring of emotion, thoughts, revelations, explanations, heart and soul ensued. Our relationship changed forever: I became his confidante throughout the rest of his life. I looked at him differently from then on too. He became much, much more dimensional to me. And he was no longer "the silent father" of my youth as conversation flowed easily between us on a daily (or almost daily) basis. I can assure my readers that there was nothing inappropriate between us, but I often wondered how suitable it was to be the person he revealed his innermost thoughts, feelings, secrets in addition to getting advice (centered around what he could have done better in any given situation) as I was so inexperienced in life and it was the first time in my life where anyone ever revealed so much about themselves to me. Being the confidante was life long, or at least up to the time of his dementia when he couldn't get his facts straight and would dwell on things endlessly from the past as though they had happened yesterday. The result is that I became defensive and protective of my father most of my life and it extended into every aspect of his life from politics, causes he was involved with, to issues around his job (the job issue, in fact, happened when I was attending RPI as a freshman around the time architecture students were in revolt, a situation in which roughly half the students and half the faculty were in direct conflict with the other half of the students and faculty ... I will go into more detail about this in other postings). I felt then, as I do now, that he researched and researched and back-checked and thought things out so thoroughly (and could always admit to any mistakes he had made along the way, a rarity as I found out in the rest of the general population), that it was easy to be his advocate in almost all situations.

In all other ways, he was the ideal father. I was closer to him than anyone else in my entire life until recent years (when a family of my own became compelling).

We had so many experiences together: taking modern dance classes together, going to many, many art museums and art exhibits together, haunting old neighborhoods with stunning Victorian houses (which he loved to take pictures of and envision living in during another era), meeting at Farm and Wilderness or in Williamstown, concerts (ranging from classical to jazz to folk), going to many alternative movies together, craft fairs, going to visit various communes and communities, traveling and camping out in his van, and attending various spiritual centers. I attended uncountable numbers of his professional lectures and slide shows. We attended city hall meetings together when he was trying to save particular buildings from demolition (the city had the idea to rid itself of the old architecture in order to make room for more modern architecture, a folly, as my father would see it -- more on this in other posts). We went to popular dances together as well as being a spectator for modern dancing troupes and the New York City Ballet (we saw a lot of them during the rein of Balanchine who my father respected because he was a visionary, someone who took ballet into another dimension and stretched it almost to its ultimate, though he still preferred Modern Dance, particularly the direction of the Jose Limon Dance Company). We both took life drawing workshops with Larry Kagan. We went to Cape Cod together (or I met him there) during summers, when he first started going with his second wife, then as a bachelor and then with his third wife and grandchildren in tow (the bachelor years being the most memorable). We made lots of artful photos in his darkroom together (some projects dragged on for weeks or even months). I also sat in on my father's yoga classes which he taught on Sundays at RPI when I was a teenager and my twenties (a meditation session was featured after his classes and I often stayed with him through those sessions as well). We both studied Eastern religion together, particularly Hinduism (of which yoga was part) and the Tibetan tradition (through the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in particular: via the book The Myth of Freedom). I will talk about our study of Eastern religion in a longer post: it was a riveting subject for him because it espoused many of the same kinds of Quaker ideals, but there was more concentration on working on oneself to achieve the peace and purity of mind and action though enlightenment and ego-less involvement in the physical world. He even studied with a psychic for awhile (a little known fact that he didn't want anyone to know about when he was alive because he didn't want to be thought of as "a kook" as he put it -- one session was with the renowned psychic and artist, Marina Petro). In the earliest years he took both of his children to Troy Music Hall classical concerts where we would sit in the balcony while he drew the conductor or musicians before him on the stage.

He was always interested in my art and insisted on seeing all of it. He attended almost all of my exhibits and even came to most of my craft fairs. He read almost all of my poetry and fiction, at least up until he contracted dementia, and even a long dense novel I had written in my twenties.

He was non-judgmental of my projects and understood that art projects are experiments which don't always come out as planned. He had a particular interest in my preliminary drawings (the seeds of my inspirations) and I had an interest in changing some of my designs so that they would appeal to the color blind (as he was color blind). He always displayed an intense interest in everything I did (in other words, it was never a superficial interest: he always seemed to want to know the inner workings of my mind, intentions and emotions).

It was a profoundly deep relationship which I suspect most daughters do not have with their fathers.

As a child, he would be the last one I talked to before going off to sleep. I would tell him of my innermost fears and hopes and he would pause for awhile and then offer his most thoughtful advice.

He never disciplined me by hitting, slapping, shouting or through intimidation, ultimatums or threats. All he had to do was shake his head and softly say, "I'm very disappointed in you", and that was enough to make me cry my eyes out and want to straighten myself out (for him). A person of high integrity can do that. Most people cannot (as I've found, criticism often comes from hypocrisy, and not integrity).

However, he didn't have that kind of magic with everyone. I have witnessed throughout my life, particularly in political situations, where he was made a laughing stock, ridiculed, interrupted, shouted over, bullied, strong-armed, demeaned, not taken seriously and criticized without provocation or warrant. It was heartbreaking to watch a profoundly deep, sensitive and thoughtful man who chose his words very carefully, who treated everyone like a gentleman (with respect and dignity) and was an expert in his field being trashed and treated that way. He had enough inner resolve not to give into the temptations of stooping to his adversaries' level, but I could tell that sometimes the temptations were just under the surface and that he was struggling with them. Often he would pursue a train of thought or oration against these great odds if only to talk to the people who were on the side-lines or possessed a softer stance (who might hear him). He wasn't going to be a doormat, but he wasn't going to be silenced either even if the odds were not in his favor. I saw that it takes great character to be this way. Martin Luther King once brilliantly said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." And: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter." (quotes © here, the type of quotes my father tended to remember when he was in situations that were adversarial).

As for our nuclear family, I would describe it as odd. There is a photo of the four of us where my brother is sitting on my mother's lap and I'm sitting on my father's lap on the stoop just outside the front door. "That's the classic photo," my father said on a number of occasions.

The family was, in most ways, "split" down the middle as though my mother and brother were one team and my father and I were the other team. When they divorced, I lived with my father and my brother lived with our mother. Indeed it continued through most of my adult life where my brother and mother spent vacations and holidays on the west coast together and my father and I spent a lot of time and significant holidays together on the east coast. Then in the last years as my father developed a slow-progress dementia it switched so that my mother and I were spending family time together and my father was seeing a lot of my brother.

And indeed, my father enjoyed his time with my brother sightseeing, spending time getting to know a Russian community, having grandchildren and great grandchildren on his knee, being fed and pampered with exotic meals by a master cook (my brother's wife) and going on British-run cruises in Europe where he could take pictures and see famous buildings and art first-hand.

It is my opinion that my brother and father were/are polar opposites (though they had some interests in common).

In saying this, I'm revealing that I think my father and I had the most in common. It is one reason I am undertaking the writing of his biography, because I think I may have understood him enough in all his aspects so that readers can know him as well as I knew him. He was worth knowing and the way he thought about things was uncommon even if he was living a common life without fanfare or acknowledgement beyond his teaching and building projects.

How we were alike spread into many areas:

We were both teachers with masters degrees in art. Mine was in the fine arts; his was in architecture. But in a way, our approach to projects and working within our fields were/are similar: like architects, I use rulers constantly; I plan compositions with a lot of preliminaries (usually); my drawings are very detailed; I often use borders or architectural elements to frame a visual story. I believe if we switched professions, his fine art compositions would look like mine and my architectural drawings would look like his.

We were also both musicians (me professionally, he a near-professional, at least in his abilities). We both wrote musical pieces and liked an innovative approach to playing tried-and-true musical compositions. Our musical tastes were both in the classical and folk arenas (though I enjoyed rock for awhile too and admit this wasn't something he enjoyed outside of later Beatles albums, Jethro Tull, Emerson Lake and Palmer and other innovative groups that weren't too loud or boisterous).

We both spent our twenties heavily involved in dance (he in modern dance, me in ballet).

Indeed, we both had such similar habits and interests across the board. For instance, we both read a lot and tended to xerox if we found something we might want to reference later. We both lived in towns in a neighborhood and in a Victorian house. We both liked pattern in our decor. We both gardened. We both kept a lot of reference materials around for our respective arts. We both suffered from the same physical ailments. We both liked long walks and hikes. We were both photographers. We both had darkrooms (in the day) and spent a lot of time developing our own pictures. We were both builders (me with sculpture, he with woodworking). We both explored similar fields of study (art, music, culture). We both thought things out very carefully and studied things in depth (in terms of details, planning, repercussions) sometimes to the point of immobility. We were both sometimes overwhelmed by the time commitments of some projects and would stop midway (and often at the same point in terms of hours invested). We were both relatively quiet reserved people who would generally lend our thoughts if we were asked and people took an interest in us. Neither one of us is/was overly demonstrative. We both could get bogged down in depression if we weren't careful. We were both into causes and sometimes the objects of bullies and users. It wasn't until he died and I explored his studio that it became obvious to me that we were so much more alike than I ever realized when he was alive. Indeed, it was like looking into a mirror. I believe he realized the depth of our connection before I did as he always said to me every time we saw each other for visits, "Ol', Lees, you're a chip off the old block." I'll be writing about what I found in his studio in further posts.

In later years he traveled with his wife and had a pleasant community of neighbors and friends.

He also was spending more time with my brother (at the prodding of my stepmother who liked the big open spaces where my brother lived) and I was spending more time with my mother. My father did feel a bit threatened by my relationship with my mother. They were divorced, as I've said before, and he had shared so much of his inner self with me that he felt very vulnerable to betrayal. With his dementia, he could be totally obsessed with my mother and could go crazy with worry that I might be talked into going against him and would sometimes cry on the phone about it. As much as I reassured him (and even focused on the good and positive things she said), he never felt at ease. The time I spent with her was growing to be a lot more than the time I spent with him, especially in these last years, not because I didn't love him or because there was anything wrong between us, but because it was a time when my own nuclear family was taking on importance and precedence and I needed outlying family to travel to us to be part of raising a musician who often played in symphonies and recitals on the weekends and sharing in our life within our own household (and there were reasons why this was sometimes problematic unless I traveled to get him). Plus, I really wanted to explore the relationship with my mother since she and I had previously been so distant emotionally in prior years (indeed, I believe we never really knew each other and there was a lot to know, including love and experiences to give and receive).

But my father was always the apple of my eye and always will be. It was the last significant thing I told him before he died. I know that I will never know anyone like him again. There are a lot of gentle souls out there, I'm sure. But someone that shares all of the spiritual, emotional and artistic spheres with me in tandem with his purity and integrity? Never. I have never met anyone even remotely like him. The realization that this was all disappearing from the world and from my own life was beyond a pain I'd ever known. It seemed to me that the world needed a peaceful generous heart like my father (much as the world needs a peaceful nation like Tibet within its sphere). It was the kind of pain that could kill a person (or so I thought).

But somehow I gathered enough strength and resolve (plus there was another "family health emergency" which needed my attention that it could distract me from my own feelings of loss for awhile). Then last January, I put my energies into care-taking my father (with my brother and my father's wife). It was much like taking care of a young child (except going in reverse from toddler to infant) and I knew that eventually that just as his parents and grandparents welcomed him with love into the world, his children and grandchildren would be bidding him a loving farewell from the world: a full circle.

I started this blog as a way to gather material for a full book (for family) and to organize highlights of his life and of his writings, photos and thoughts. The project seemed overwhelming at first and also was emotionally taxing as I was still in deep grief. But in writing it in this way, as an on-line blog as the preliminary to a book, I can also get feedback (just in case my facts aren't right or there are grumbles about what I focus on). I hope the stranger to this blog will find something of interest too, particularly the historical pieces I will share.

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