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Robert Neville: Personal Autobiography: Childhood

Part 2: Childhood

My parents both worked at the St. Louis plant of the Monsanto Chemical Company in the mid-1930s, which is where they met. Dad was a research chemist working on things such as oil additives for cars and, during the Second World War, for tanks and other armored vehicles. His work in the industrial war effort kept him out of the draft. He had gone to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, about fifty miles north of Eldon, his home town. Grandpa Neville had gone there for a two year degree in the class of 1898, so the family lore goes. Dad graduated with a B.S. in 1930; figure 17 is his graduation picture.

Richard P. Neville
Fig. 17: Richard P. Neville, Westminster College, Class of 1930
To support himself in college he took a job keeping the chemistry lab in order, and to do that he had to major in chemistry, a subject he did not much like. Westminster College later became famous when Winston Churchill made his “iron curtain” speech there; Churchill donated a Christopher Wren church from London where it had been blown apart in the Blitz. While in college, Dad worked as the paymaster for the construction company building Bagnell Dam which created the Lake of the Ozarks. Dad’s mother died of breast cancer, during his junior year I believe he said. Figure 18 shows his family shortly before his mother’s death.
Dad's family around 1928
Fig. 18: Dad's family around 1928, shortly before his mother's death: from left, James (Grandpa Neville), Richard (father), Harvey (uncle), Georgia Lee Fowler Neville (Grandma Neville), Georgia Lee (aunt).
After the B.S., he took a Master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Illinois. A few years ago I took an auto trip through the Missouri-Illinois area, tracing some of the little railway lines that would have gotten him from Eldon to Champagne/Urbana. I imagined it to be a lonely trip for a young man who had not been far from home. Dad was never happy as a chemist, and warned me to stay away from chemistry. He viewed his career as a pain and would have preferred to be a high school history teacher. Part of the disappointment in his career was that he had only a master’s degree whereas his colleagues at work had doctorates and advanced more quickly in the company. He worked for Monsanto his entire career until he retired at the age of 57. He was a deeply reflective person from whom I inherited the philosophy gene.

My mother went to work right out of high school in a dime store in Alton, Illinois, across the Mississippi from St. Louis. Originally a cashier, she became the company bookkeeper by default and was expert enough in that to get a job at Monsanto where she worked until just before I was born. Around 1952 she returned to Monsanto where she worked until she retired, together with my father, when she was 57. Unlike Dad, Mom loved her work and derived energy from doing the jobs of two or three people. She always felt under-educated compared with Dad but was just as intelligent and more entrepreneurial. While my brother and I were too young to be left at home, she started her own business making Masonite puzzles for small children. She had an industrial jigsaw in the basement of our house and paint sprayers in the garage. She also for a time ran a hobby shop near our house where she sold unpainted figurines and conducted painting classes, the “Off Hour Shop.” Neither of those businesses made money, but they were something she felt fulfilled in doing. When she returned to a regular job at Monsanto, the money was much better, even if it did not provide her with an outlet for her entrepreneurial ambitions. From her I inherited the dean gene.

My parents lived in a small apartment when I was born. See figures 19, 20, 21. But my crying disturbed the neighbors and so they rented a small house on Scanlon Avenue, the third house down from the top of the hill. I have only a few memories from that house, where we lived until the middle of my kindergarten year. Figure 22 shows me in a photo-portaitist’s idealized form, elven-eared and with gobs of “Stay-Combed” plastering my hair. In figure 23 my hair is in its usual state and I have discovered long-distance contemplation. The house was small but it had a piano that my mother played; my parents used to have “neighborhood sing-alongs” that justified me in staying up late.

Richar, Rose and Robert Neville
Fig. 19: Richard, Rose & Robert Neville, summer 1939.
Richard and Robert Neville 1939
Fig. 20: Richard & Robert Neville, summer 1939.
Rose and Robert Neville 1939
Fig. 21: Rose & Robert Neville, summer 1939.
Robert, age 2
Fig. 22: Robert at about 2.
Robert at about 2 1/2
Fig. 23: Robert at about 2 1/2.
Train set
Fig. 24: My favorite liturgical feast of the Christian year.

Milk was delivered to the house by a horse-drawn milk-wagon. But a motorized garbage truck hauled away the trash down the alley behind the house. My first professional ambition was to be a sanitation engineer, in pursuit of which I followed the garbage truck with my coaster wagon picking up “gleanings” that I brought home. My mother guided me into other professional directions. My parents must have thought that I liked motion and travel (see figures 31-33).

Robert with parents
Fig 25: Dad, me and Mom.
Me with Dad and Grandpa Neville
Fig. 26: Me with Dad and Grandpa Neville.
Mom, me and Grandma Angle.
Fig. 28: Mom, me and Grandma Angle.
Mowing lawn
Fig. 29: An attempt to teach the work ethic.
tired of mowing lawn
Fig. 30: Another attempt at the work ethic, less successful.

Note the bandage on my shoulder covering my smallpox vaccination in figures 31 and 32; it actually made me quite sick. Ever concerned to teach evenhandedness, my parents taught me the Indian side (figure 34) as well as the cowboy side (figure 35).

playing fireman
Fig. 31: Me as a fireman.
on a tricycle
Fig. 32: Me as a cyclist.
on a swing
Fig. 33: Me as a swinger.
Fig. 34
Fig. 35

The United States being at war in those days affected everything. Playing soldier was a major activity then and for several years after the war ended (figures 36 and 37).

War preparedness.
Fig. 36: War preparedness.
Martial Discipline.
Fig. 37: Martial Discipline.
My father taught me to “spot” German airplanes and I remember being with him at night on the second floor porch of our new house in 1945 looking for enemy planes. We pulled down blackout shades on all the windows; many foods as well as gasoline were rationed. I learned to brush my teeth using hand-soap. We worried about German submarines coming up the Mississippi to St. Louis which had a number of war-related industries (including Monsanto). Of course I was taught to shoot a real gun as early as possible (figure 38).
Fig. 38: Marksman.
My brother, Jim, who was born as the war was ending, had none of these early anxieties, exaggerated as they were. But he saw real military action in the Vietnam War, fighting in the great battles at Danang and Can Tho.

Neville residence at 6052 Marmaduke Ave.
Fig 39: Neville residence at 6052 Marmaduke Ave., St. Lewis, MO.
Early in 1945 we bought a house at 6052 Marmaduke Avenue (figure 39). It was less than a block from Mason School where I had begun kindergarten in 1944 although the Scanlon Avenue house was a much longer walk. I began first grade in 1945-46 and graduated in January, 1953, from eighth grade, having skipped a half grade around seventh and eighth grade. The school policy was to admit a class in January as well as September and each class spent two semesters with the same teacher, in the fall coupled with the class ahead and in the spring with the class behind. For most of my years I was taught in classrooms of 48 or 52 students, depending on the semester. Nowadays that seems outrageously large, so the teachers must have been heroic in those days and I admired them all. All were single ladies, as was the Principal, Miss Thole. Miss Binnington, the sixth grade teacher, stands out in my memory as most demanding and idiosyncratically wonderful. She had us memorize famous quotations every day, tested on Fridays. She had a beautiful soprano voice and frequently sang to us, most often Schubert’s “The Trout,” which she sang in German. She did the music teaching for all grades and conducted the school orchestra; her classroom had a piano.

Throughout grade school I had many adventures with my classmates, and those in the higher and lower classes with which we met alternate semesters. Figure 40 documents one such, a radio quiz program with Raymond Shepherd and Richard Gephardt who remained friends through high school. Ray and I remain close to this day; Richard went on to the U.S. Congress where he was Majority or Minority Leader of the Democrats in the House for a number of years. I was also close to Lloyd Schuler through high school (figure 41). In eighth grade I was senior patrol boy (crossing guard) and developed a crush on Sana Tucker, the senior patrol girl. Figure 42 shows my grade school graduating class.

newspaper clipping
Fig. 40: A news photo and article showing me, third from left, Raymond Shepard, fourth, and Richard Gephardt, fifth.
Floyd Schuler and me.
Fig. 41: Floyd Schuler and me.
My grade school graduating class
Fig. 42: My grade school graduating class
Floyd Schuler, top row left,
Me, next row left,
Sana Tucker, second row from bottom, left,
Ray Shepard, bottom row, third from left.

My brother, James Harvey Neville, was born January 25, 1945, on my father’s birthday (anniversary), which I found fascinating. How my parents managed the move to a new house and mange a new baby at the same time I can’t imagine, though I do remember my mother falling in front of the new house in the snow, carrying Jimmy and breaking her arm! The rest of my childhood was shared with Jim in all the complicated ways that brothers have. That Jim was five and a half years younger than I made a considerable difference. We were not close together in school, though many of his teachers had been mine and some put him down for failing to be “good,” like me. Physically we were always at very different stages; when I left home for college at 17, he was only 11. By the time he was six and my mother went back to work outside the home, I was frequently assigned to be his baby sitter, which was not a healthy relationship. Where I played the role of the good boy, he came more and more to play the bad boy role, the rebel. He excelled at music and made money semi-professionally playing sax with groups in high school and later, but flunked out of a number of high schools. He finally finished at a military school and after that joined the army for at least one if not two tours. Leaving the army he came to live with my wife, Beth, and me in Yonkers, N.Y., when I was teaching at Fordham; he took his own B.A. at Fordham, in philosophy no less, meanwhile marrying one of my favorite graduate students, Suzanne Niedzielski. Jim was by far the smartest person in our family, with an IQ of 150, compared with mine of 115! When Sue finished her doctorate she found a job teaching philosophy at the University of Hartford where Jim went on to get a master’s degree in musical composition (at the Hart School of Music). After several years of marriage, they divorced and, after several more years, Jim married Milda Garrett with whom he was extremely happy for twenty one years. She had five children by a previous marriage who became his children; and he loved being Grandpa to their burgeoning family. Very sadly, he died of lung cancer at the age of fifty five, having been a smoker since age eight.

James Harvey Neville, Robert Cummings Neville, 1946
Fig. 43: James Harvey Neville, Robert Cummings Neville, 1946.
My brother at the back door of our house on Marmaduke Ave.
Fig. 44: My brother at the back door of our house on Marmaduke Ave.
Brother Jim dressed for his military band.
Fig. 45: Brother Jim dressed for his military band.
Jim Neville
Fig. 46: Jim Neville, third from left.
James Harvey Neville.
Fig. 47: James Harvey Neville.
Jim Neville and Milda Garrett Neville
Fig. 48: Jim Neville, top row, second from right, Milda Garrett Neville, front row center.

Though I myself had no musical talent, it was always a part of my life. My parents started me on the piano at age five with Mrs. Emerine Cross.

Me at the piano.
Fig. 49: Me at the piano.
She had annual recitals for her students (all in the Mason School neighborhood) and we still have a record of one of mine, though it requires a graphite needle to be played, something to which we now lack access. I loved Chopin and had a small bust of him on the piano. My father was a music lover and had some old records of Wagner and Caruso; the “Venusburg” music from Tannhauser gave me the motional vocabulary to appreciate puberty. Dad took me to the St. Louis Symphony beginning at an early age, and still in high school I frequented the Symphony with my friend Ray Shepherd. But I was a terrible musician and hated to practice. My twelfth birthday present was permission to abandon music lessons and so my keyboard career peaked with John Thompson’s Third Grade Lesson Book. When I was in high school, one summer I was commissioned to play the organ at our church for the services (they must have been desperate) and used John Thompson for the prelude and postlude. Later in life, like so many people, I wished I could play well and sought an instrument easy enough to master for group performances. A student at SUNY Purchase, Marc Blatte, taught me where to put my fingers on the flute and said to make it sound metallic; that was enough for me to play well enough to join informal ensembles, though I still had no talent. Meanwhile, my voice changed abruptly in the sixth grade to a very low bass, with a “performance” low D. I’ve sung in church choirs and high school choirs ever since, always useful for the low notes. In my forties I studied voice with Peter Maravell in Long Island, learning much of the standard bass operatic and sacred music repertoire (still no talent); in my fifties I studied voice with Julian Wachner who taught me to sing on pitch; in my sixties I studied voice with Douglas Kevin Wilson, a truly superb teacher, who almost made me overcome the fact I still have no talent!

When I was nine I joined the Cub Scouts and Dick Gebhardt’s mother, Maureen, was my Den Mother. At eleven I joined the Boy Scouts, went to scout camp that summer, and advanced a rank or two.

On the way to Scout Camp, age 11.
Fig. 50: On the way to Scout Camp, age 11.
But I couldn’t learn to swim and so soon dropped out. I drowned four times by the time I was thirteen and had to be resuscitated each time; once was in the Lake of the Ozarks where I was rescued by my cousin Georgia Lee. In college, however, I rejoined the scouting movement as the chaplain at Irondale Scout Camp for two summers, making many good friends among the camp staff.

My talent in athletics was even less than in music. Nevertheless I was a devoted baseball fan. My father took me to some or all of the games of the 1944 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Browns, though I remember none of that. Later I went to many games, and saw Satchel Paige pitch, among many others. I was a good organizer, and so turned my sandlot baseball friends into a real team in a recognized league with a real coach. But I was such a poor player that I was kicked off the very team I had founded! That was a blow, especially because I lost the friends who had been on the team and were now embarrassed for me. My father dutifully taught me the rudiments of football, drawing diagrams of the positions and buying me shoulder pads. He put a basketball hoop on our garage and taught me to shoot baskets. Best of all, he played catch with me every night when he came home from work and there was never any competition there. But after losing the team, my heart was not in any of that. Because of a foot injury I was exempted from gym in high school and only later in life developed a strong sense of physical accomplishment. To this day I can barely bring myself to attend a professional baseball game, despite the fact that the Boston Red Sox are a dominant religious institution where I live. Watching football on TV is a companionable activity my wife and I share.

I grew from little boy to gangly adolescent in my grade school and high school years. Southwest High School was about 2 miles from our house and I walked in good weather and took the bus in bad. Whereas I was close to everyone in grade school, high school was huge and I had to select (or be selected by) my cliques. I was in all the choirs, operettas, and plays possible, and so hung out with the artsy crowd. I was also involved in student council, which is where I kept up my friendship with Dick Gebhardt and made many new friends. My tablemate in biology class, dissecting a frog and other animals, was Barbara Canning who brought a handkerchief saturated with perfume to tuck around my collar as I carved away; it at least complicated if not overcame the smell of formaldehyde! She was my date for the senior prom (figure 58; Ray Shepherd is second from the left, top row). Ray Shepherd remained my best friend throughout those years and we went to many cultural things throughout St. Louis as we became old enough to maneuver on our own. Several nights a week Ray and I played bridge, first with his mother and father, Tom and Mable Shepherd, and then with my parents. We became quite adroit bridge players, absorbing the strategies of both families. Tom Shepherd came from Eldon, Missouri, like my father. Their own fathers knew one another there. The story is that one of their fathers got lost in a nearby cave and the other was with the search party that found him; the family stories disagree as to which got lost and which was the rescuer. Ray and I are content not to pursue the issue, although surely there must be newspaper records that would resolve it.

Around age 8.
Fig. 51: Around age 8.
Around age 9.
Fig. 52: Around age 9.
With my dog
Fig. 53: With my dog "Peppy," age 10.
With Grandpa Neville's dogs
Fig. 54: With Grandpa Neville's dogs, including Peppy (hind view), age 11.
With Mom and Dad, age 12.
Fig. 55: With Mom & Dad, age 12. Photo credit: Jim Neville.
In my back yard, age 13.
Fig. 56: In my back yard, age 13.
With Dad, age 14.
Fig. 57: With Dad, age 14.
Senior Prom
Fig. 58: Senior Prom.

While I was in high school, the desegregation ruling came down and St. Louis demolished the “Negro” high school in the system. All students were then to go to the high school in their geographic area; but there were no African Americans in my district at all, housing segregation being what it was. So I never went to school with African Americans until college, when there were three in my class of nearly a thousand at Yale. Nor were there many Jews in my high school, so far as I knew. Both Mason School and Southwest High School were on the edge of the Italian neighborhood, “The Hill,” and so there were many Roman Catholics. We Protestants had a sense of being a minority, though not a small one. Though I did not know it at the time, Southwest was not a prepossessing intellectual place. Hardly any graduate left the state to go to college; Washington University and St. Louis University were fine enough for the better students. Dick Gebhardt’s older brother Donald graduated the year before I and went to Drake University in Iowa. One of my classmates went to Dartmouth. But there was virtually no experience in the School of sending people away to the prestige colleges and universities. I graduated first in my class by .044 points; the second in the class became a math teacher and subsequently gave my brother, Jim, a hard time when he was her student, probably because he deserved it but also, I’ve always suspected, to get a bit of revenge.

High School was more important for me than church, but not by much. Although my father was an atheist, he believed that being raised in church was important for moral education. So my family attended Dr. Fry Memorial Methodist Church from the time we moved to Marmaduke Avenue. My father was on the official board, sang in the choir, and taught the adult Bible class for many years. I grew up in Sunday School and the Methodist Youth Fellowship. My parents had me baptized when I was nine, and I remember the minister, Elmer Brown, putting his hand on my head crushing the crust of Stay-Combed with which my mother had tamed my hair. When I was fourteen or so, our youth group went on a retreat with several other groups and I then felt strongly called to ministry. I announced this at the next Sunday service when I had been asked to give a report to the congregation on the retreat. Since I had not mentioned this call to my parents, they were somewhat shocked by this public profession of a ministerial calling, however superior it was to garbage collecting in their eyes. But I went on to become a local preacher in the Methodist Church when I was fifteen and served a summer parish at Kingdom House in downtown St. Louis when I was seventeen before heading off to college. The ministers at Fry Church recognized the importance of my interest in religion, particularly Rev. Raymond Sturgis, who had married my parents. I was made editor of the church newsletter and performed many other chores around the church, spending a lot of time with Rev. Sturgis. Equally important to me, however, was Helen Baldwin who was leader of the youth group and teacher of my Sunday School class. She had an uncanny way of combining theology and spiritual piety, all with a rigorous intellectual focus. Ray Shepherd and I grew together as friends and as intellects under her tutelage more than from any influence at high school. I think Helen was the first woman I ever loved, despite the ten year difference in our ages. Helen was a teacher, beginning at Mason School but going on to be a principal and then School Superintendent in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she still lives a vigorous life.

When I first got to college at age seventeen, the shock was so great that I believed for a long time that I had received no culture at all growing up. In high school I had written only two papers, each on one side of the same sheet. But in retrospect that was a vastly mistaken judgment. My father made sure that he took me to the opera, the symphony, and plays when I was old enough to understand.

Richard P. Neville
Fig. 59: Richard P. Neville, a wise man.
He gave me the basics of the sports common in the neighborhood. Moreover, he taught me that character is something to be built up from within and to be recognized in others not by superficial markers such as skin color but by behavior, empathy, and the capacity to give and receive respect. Racism was the great sin of our St. Louis culture. My father insisted on using the public drinking fountains reserved for “Negroes” as well as the toilets so segregated. He taught me to ride on the back of the bus with black people. When I was about eight, he told me that when he was in grade school, the teachers and everyone else thought that left-handed people were bad, “sinister,” and that left-handedness had to be corrected.
Fig. 60: A battered photo of me after High School graduation and before the effects of Yale.
So the teachers tied down the left hands of left-handed pupils so that they had to write with their right hands. Wasn’t that silly!, he said, and I laughed in agreement. In the same way, he said, people would come to see that racism segregation were silly and that the harm they caused would be regretted the way the people in the 1940s regretted torturing left-handed kids thirty years earlier. He was wise about that. I tell that story these days to my LGBT friends who despair that cultures of bigotry can ever change. In the fall of 1956 I left home for Yale and never lived in St. Louis again except for short visits.

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