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Robert Cummings Neville: Personal Autobiography: Yale

When I was thinking about college during senior year in high school, most of my friends applied only to local institutions; so I applied to Central Methodist College in Fayette, Mo. But I had also heard of Harvard and Yale, and so applied there, looking up their locations in the back of the dictionary. The Ivy League alumni groups in St. Louis arranged for the promising students to be interviewed and the interview report became part of the application. Harvard did not interview me. Yale did, however. I went to the Yale interviewer’s house late one evening and found him to be a seriously drunk old man; being a teetotaler at the time I was uncomfortable. But whereas Harvard later sent me a rejection letter expressing surprise that I thought myself a plausible candidate for admission, Yale accepted me with a full scholarship plus room and board if I held a college job, which I did. To this day I have a deep appreciation for elderly drunks. Yale changed my life.

My father drove me from St. Louis to New Haven in the fall of 1956 and helped carry my stuff to my fifth floor room in Bingham Hall. The next thing I had to do was stand in line at Connecticut Hall to get linens for my bed, so he shook my hand, turned, walked through Phelps Gateway, and drove back to St. Louis. Anxious as I was about getting along by myself at college, I was shocked at the abrupt end of childhood, which I knew at the time had just taken place. Dad had always said that his major criterion for my college was that it be a thousand miles from home. For him, college was about leaving home and finding a larger world. My parents sent me $15 a month spending money my freshman year and then $20 a month thereafter though college. But I was on my own. Figure 61 is my high school “portrait,” when I was 16; Figure 62 was taken at the same time as I tried to look “cool.” Figure 63 is my college senior portrait photo, taken when I was 20 and so very much more sophisticated. Compare figure 63 with my father’s college senior portrait, figure 17.

Formal portrait as a high school senior, age 16.
Fig. 61: Formal portrait as a high school senior, age 16.
A 'cool' high school senior.
Fig. 62: A 'cool' high school senior.
College senior portrait, age 20.
Fig. 63: College senior portrait, age 20.

I arrived at Yale with a fundamentally religious orientation; I hung a print of Warner Sallman’s head of Jesus on my dormitory wall. My two roommates were Jewish and Greek Orthodox respectively and they tolerated my piety, although they believed it was “Midwestern.”

Donald Siegel, freshman year roommate.
Fig. 64: Donald Siegel, freshman year roommate.
I began attending the local Wesley Foundation and by sophomore year was its program chair. Halfway through that year, however, the president of the Wesley Foundation asked me to leave because the members thought my program of “liturgical dance” was too radical (it was ten years too soon). The president, Dick Celeste, was extremely diplomatic about that touchy issue and went on to become governor of Ohio; I ended my association with the Wesley Foundation and retained only its enthusiasm for the Methodist young people’s magazine, Motive. For all the rest of my time at Yale, including teaching there after the Ph.D., I was associated with Battell Chapple, the University Church. Sidney Lovett was the chaplain in my early years, and when I was a junior William Sloane Coffin took over, from whom I learned a great deal.

More important than these “ecclesiastical” transitions was the spiritual or emotional one concerning religion. Warner Sallman simply was not legitimate at Yale. Within two months I realized that my intended Protestant Methodist Christianity had to be far deeper and more critical than could be borne by my home and high school piety. I met people who had been to Europe! Most of my classmates used words I had never heard pronounced! The great spiritual question was whether exposure to the great cultures of the world and the modern ethos of science and critical philosophy could be compatible with a serious religious life. Toward the end of my freshman year I read Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be and found the path on which I’ve been ever since. As narrated in my “Intellectual Autobiography” in this website, I was helped to find a religious identity sophisticated enough to allow vulnerability to criticism by many people, but especially by John E. Smith, my mentor. From Tillich I learned that the sophistication of higher learning is not incompatible with being religious but actually requires it. In later years I came to understand the difference between Christian theology focused on the identity of Christianity and Christian theology that says Christian identity ought to be conformed to whatever is true, and thus is dynamic and consequent to inquiry, feeding on challenges. That point came to me first from Tillich and is discussed in reference to him in the first chapter of my Realism in Religion.

Academically I started off at the bottom, getting C’s and D’s the first semester. This was quite a shock for someone who had been high school valedictorian. But then nearly all my classmates had been at the top in their prep school or high school class, and by definition half of us had to be below the median at Yale. Learning slowly to read well, to write, and even a bit to reckon, I finally graduated magna cum laude and in graduate school received only the highest grades. But I was always surrounded by people palpably smarter than I. In grade school and high school, my friend Ray Shepherd always beat me in the math tests. Senior year in college, walking home from taking the graduate record exams, two of my roommates, Dick Beals (figure 66) and David Krantz (figure 67) were arguing about which one of them had gotten one of the math questions wrong while I was suppressing tears about not finishing the last third of the exam.

Ray Shepherd and me during our college years. Ray went to Tufts.
Fig. 65: Ray Shepherd and me during our college years. Ray went to Tufts.
Richard Beals, roommate.
Fig 66: Richard Beals, roommate.
David Krantz, roommate.
Fig. 67: David Krantz, roommate.

My college curriculum involved Directed Studies the first two years and a philosophy major the last two. The Directed Studies program had the conceit of compressing a four-year liberal arts education into two years, leaving time later for the major concentration. So I studied two years of philosophy, literature, and German, a year of art history, European history, calculus, biology, and a semester each of economics and sociology, all as part of Directed Studies. In junior and senior years I took two semesters of religion (both with Hans Frei), four semesters of Greek, and the rest philosophy. Junior year I began taking graduate courses with Paul Weiss, an amazing intellect and teacher; his son, Jonathan, was in my class and had been in Directed Studies. In graduate school I continued with only philosophy courses, though I mostly studied with professors who had not been my undergraduate teachers; John Smith was the main exception. All in all I had four courses on Kant’s first Critique, four on Hegel (one on the Phenomenology and three on the Lesser Logic), two on Plato, two on Aristotle, two on Leibniz, one on Spinoza, some wonderful surveys of epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics taught by Brand Blanshard, two courses on medieval philosophy taught by George Lindbeck, and several courses on pragmatism, Continental philosophy, and analytic philosophy.

Those were glory days for the Yale philosophy faculty. But I learned as much or more from fellow students, beginning freshman year and continuing through graduate school. Jonny Weiss, Eric Walther, and George Smith were the most fearsome of my undergraduate philosophical classmates. I came eventually to room with Dennis Longwell and Ned Carleton, both philosophy majors. In graduate school my first year I spent many hours with William Wiebenga and Robert Ehman, especially the former; the second year I met nearly every evening with Carl Vaught and often Stephen Erickson, and Gresham Riley. The standard graduate school load in philosophy was five courses a semester; but most of us sat in all the other courses that were offered so that the common experience in classes made a fine foundation for constant debate and inquiry. The ethos in those days was set by analytic philosophy, under the inspiration of Wilfrid Sellars. This meant that one’s first response to an idea was to refute it, a skill I developed with a sharp tongue. But behind the debating atmosphere was a genuine sense of friendship and support. The basic idea behind my dissertation was hammered out in many conversations with Carl Vaught and Steve Erickson, among others. My wife, Beth, whom I dated during the third year of graduate school, remembers tippling with my friends at the Old Heidelberg. She was astonished when Vaught shouted in a loud voice, “Neville, if you say that you’ll have to prove God!” Beth reports that I responded calmly, “Don’t worry, I’ve got that problem solved.” (Beer came by the pitcher.)

Not all my friends were philosophers. But the friendships were in many respects more important than the philosophy I learned. William Derveniotes (figure 68) was my roommate all four years of undergraduate school.

William Derveniotes, roommate.
Fig. 68: William Derveniotes, roommate.
Worldly-wise, he taught me to read James Reston in the New York Times and to take the world very seriously and Robert Neville not so seriously. He took me home to Schenectady on school holidays and taught me how to smoke, drink alcohol, and to cut a loaf of bread with a knife (I had never seen an unsliced loaf). We helped each other through every crisis, or so I thought. Without a single sexual touch we lived together emotionally, intellectually, and physically for four years. He went to U. C. Berkeley for graduate study in history and with that distance the intensity of the friendship suddenly evaporated, though we kept in touch. About ten years later I learned that he was gay and had been infected with AIDS. We visited frequently after that until he died of the disease. How could I have lived with him so closely for four years and not know he was gay? How could our friendship depend so much on proximity that I was not present for him when he came out and entered the San Francisco life-style that ultimately infected him? Although I did have other gay friends at Yale who were out to me, the rather universal homoerotic horseplay of an all-male college in those days allowed this most important thing between us to go unspoken.

Intensity frequently characterizes college friendships, and that was the case with many of mine. Peter Kirschner was a powerful friend freshman year, a man enamored of Mozart’s Magic Flute who could sing Papageno’s arias. Gerald Busby was a student in the Music School freshman year but transferred to Yale College to major in philosophy. He became a professional musician, composing and performing at the keyboard. He set one of my sermons to music and had me preach it in the music at one of his recitals at Carnegie Hall—even without musical talent I’ve performed at Carnegie Hall! Gerry composed a special piece for our 50th Yale Reunion. Gary Knoble, whom I met my first day at Yale, came from Salt Lake City, even farther from Yale in miles and culture than St. Louis, and we clung together in shared fear and affection. [figures 69, 70] Roommates shifted with different living accommodations throughout college. Gordon Mork (figure 71) and Alexander Lukens (no photo) joined our group. Senior year we had an apartment for eight, seven of whom are depicted in figure 72, a graduation picture (Alex Lukens took the picture).

Gary Knoble, Bill Derveniotes and Peter Kirshner in front of the Commons Dining Hall.
Fig. 69: Left to right: Gary Knoble, Bill Derveniotes and Peter Kirshner in front of the Commons Dining Hall.
Bill Derveniotes and Gary Knoble with me in my freshman room.
Fig. 70: Bill Derveniotes and Gary Knoble with me in my freshman room.
Gordon Mark, a roommate.
Fig. 71: Gordon Mark, a roommate.
Gordon Mark, me, Dennis Longwell, Bill Derveniotes, Dick Beals, Ned Carleton, David Krantz.
Fig. 72: From left: Gordon Mark, me, Dennis Longwell, Bill Derveniotes, Dick Beals, Ned Carleton, David Krantz.

All in all, my time at Yale was a journey of increasing focus, of narrowing and sharpening of my philosophic skills and ideas. It was a period of compression.

Irondale Scout Camp Staff, 1961.
Fig. 73: Irondale Scout Camp Staff, 1961. I'm second from the right, next to top row.
I was encouraged to take my graduate school comprehensive examinations at the end of the first year of classes, which I did. I was told at the end of the second year of classes that the department would give me full funding if I finished my dissertation in one more year, which I did. Thus I completed my Ph.D. in three years, defending the dissertation when I was 23 (I was 24 by graduation time). Aside from walking all over the large Yale campus, about the only physical exercise I got was working as a Scout Camp chaplain at Irondale Scout Camp in Missouri during the summers (figure 73).

But a countermove was in the works. After we graduated from college in 1960, my roommate Dick Beals went to Harvard for graduate study in mathematical economics. There in the lunch line he met a woman named Beth Egan who was working on an MAT degree in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She took a shine to Dick and his Harvard friends and thought that he would be a good match for her housemate, Nancy Farwell. She introduced them, they fell in love, and eventually married. Meanwhile, Dick could take only one year at Harvard and returned to Yale to study mathematics where he took a Ph.D. and spent the rest of his career as professor, and eventually chairman, with a brief time at the University of Chicago. Back at Yale in 1961-62 he noticed that my “focus” was rather lonely, so he and Nancy introduced me to Beth Egan. We double-dated, going to a hockey game at the new Eero Saarinen rink in New Haven and then returning to Dick’s room to read Ionesco plays together.

Dick and Nancy Beal's wedding.
Fig. 74: Dick and Nancy Beal's wedding. Beth Egan is behind Nancy and I am behind Dick.
By the end of the evening I was madly in love, though Beth had a cooler response to me. We dated through the winter of that year and then she broke off our relationship in late spring. We both attended Dick and Nancy’s wedding in the summer of 1962 but she does not remember me being there, despite the fact that in every picture we are side by side (e.g. Figure 74). When I returned from winter break in January, 1963, I found a Christmas card from Beth, which I took to be an invitation to call, not knowing she had sent out hundreds. But I called and wooed with determination. By March we were engaged, a few days before I defended my dissertation. By June we were married.

On May 29, 1963, I was ordained a deacon in the Methodist Church in Missouri. On June 8 Beth and I were married in her home church in Claverack, New York. On June 10 I received my Ph.D. from Yale. What a completion for a Yale education! From then on, my life expanded in every direction.

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