Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Interview with Pierre MacKay: Part 3

What follows is the final part of my interview with Pierre MacKay, who was a Regular Member during the 1959-60 year. (Catch up on parts one and two). I'd like to send him my most emphatic thanks for so generously sharing his stories with me and my impromptu oral history project. Thanks, Pierre!

You’ve made several comments that indicate the School was in dire straits financially during your Regular Year. Was it an issue that weighed on everyone? I don’t think as students we were adequately aware, but the School went through a near crisis. And then people like McCreadie and Williams and a lot of non-Academics who were devoted to the School revamped the Board of Trustees and they did a fundraiser that was just spectacular. By the end of it there was this sudden explosion of fellowships, which the school had never been able to offer before.

When was this? In the 70s. What do you mean ‘revamping’? I don’t know how the old Board of Trustees worked, but I can kind of guess that it was a New England and East Coast club with occasional reliance on hugely generous donors. For instance, the first Annex to the library was pretty well a personal achievement. The Gennadion was Rockefeller money. And I think there were huge donations by other people, but that’s so chancy. In the aftermath of the Second World War, when a lot of Classics departments closed down, when they started up again the American School no longer had the ties to the universities so it had to be completely redeveloped. And I have great admiration for the people who re-established the refinancing of the school. I gather the present economy is causing a little worry, but I bet it’s nothing like that one in 1970s.

You just mentioned that a lot of Classics departments had closed down or went defunct in WWII. What was that scenario? Well, people went off to war. There were things the universities had to do. And the University of Washington Classics department essentially ceased about 1943 and started up again when John McDiarmid came to re-create Classics in the University of Washington. There were many, many universities where the same thing happened. It was just not seen as a priority. And a lot of the School faculty went into the intelligence services. There are very funny stories of Sterling Dow and his contemporaries trying to decide to mark a railway on a map of Bulgaria as ‘completed’ or ‘not completed’ or ‘useful’ or ‘not useful’. Sterling Dow was a visitor the second year we were here and he was splendid. A splendid person to have around. Sterling would quite openly talk about the intelligence side of his war-time years. Every once in a while we’d be sitting on a hill on the old Thebes-Athens road and a convoy of military vehicles would come by and Sterling would say, “Now, how would you estimate the size of the troop contingent going by and what is it intended for?”

It hadn’t been that long before you came that WWII ended. Were there a lot of people around who had been involved in the War in Greece? A lot, a lot. Vanderpool had spent two, two-and-a-half years in a concentration camp because he’d insisted on staying in Athens. [Bert Hodge] Hill somehow managed to browbeat the German authorities so completely in Corinth that they let him alone. This is getting off the history of the school, but it is part of the whole history of Classics, not merely here but in Western Europe generally: there were a whole lot of people whose education was generally, essentially, shut down by 1941 and who came through the War and when they decided what to do at the end. They KNEW what they wanted to do, they weren’t uncertain; they KNEW it because they’d thought about it. I think it produced a generation of scholars, and not only in academics - there were all sorts of developments in new music by people who had been kept silent for six or seven years and had not had to waste their time on the concert circuit and who had thought about what they wanted to do. So it was on the British and the American side: Bernard Knox, Angie Hammond, and people who were very tight-lipped about it, like Bradford Wells in Yale who was the head of Cairo Station during the war (though you’d never learn it from him). Virginia Grace was very active in the intelligence service. So many of these people.

Did they talk about it a lot? It all depends on who you were talking to. You almost couldn’t shut Bernard Knox up about it, he had so much fun. His war was real fun. Of course, he started out early – he described his adventure into the Spanish Civil War as “six weeks running away from Franco and six months running away from my own side.” But he ran a bunch of partigiani in north Italy. He had the time of his life. Sterling Dow was a homebody but he got lots of fun out of it. Brad Wells, now. One of the reasons Brad Wells couldn’t really tolerate Bernard Knox was that when Brad Wells was told to destroy his papers, at the end of the war he did so and he never spoke about it again. Of course, Bernard was ALWAYS talking about it! He gave me instructions on where to put the charges if you were blowing up a bridge and you didn’t think you had quite enough explosive to do it with complete efficiency. It was apropos of nothing at all. There were so many of them [who’d been involved].

You said that you left in ’61? Do you know what impact Vietnam had on the community here at the School? No, I don’t. That’s when I really lost touch with the School. I was in Egypt ‘64-5, Turkey ‘65-6, and then moved out to Washington. I was so involved in Arabic and Turkish at the time that I sort of lost touch with the School to a very large extent.

You said that you were the token Byzantinist during your Regular Year - we still have some of those. What was it like being that, since there was probably even less interest in Byzantine Greece at that time period? Well, I had gone through regular Classics courses. I had not come out of a history department with minimal experience in Greek. I had taken the full requirements of a Berkeley PhD, which meant I had taken a lot of Greek. It should have meant I’d taken a lot of Latin, but my father was my graduate advisor by an accident of personnel. I suggested to him that the rules of the university said that a PhD student at the university should have a competence in two classical languages, and I said, “does that mean classical Arabic?” and he said, “Well, I don’t see why not.”

What was your dad doing at that time? He was a Latinist, although I had a feeling that he never really wanted to be one, but that was what was available when he got his position. And then he was called down from Vancouver to Berkeley to become Chairman of the Department there. So you’d already had some Arabic when you came to the American School. Was there a happy rivalry between the Classicists versus the Byzantinists, ‘cause we always make fun of our token Byzantinists about it (in a loving way of course)? Well, they didn’t know where I belonged. All my official credentials were in ‘Classics’ Classics. My interests seemed a bit bizarre. I could hold my own in Greek prose with most of the people here.

Were there a lot of archaeology or art history kids that had come over? Darn little art history. There was a lot of the formal Bryn Mawr style archaeology. How many Bryn Mawr students did we have? Theo…I think Ione was Bryn Mawr. Anyway, it tended to be pot-people, sculpture-people and people who wanted to lead an excavation, like Joe Shaw who made quite something of it. It was an extraordinary year. The list just goes on and on and on.

You said you went a different direction after your Regular Year and before coming back to the School. When did you come back and what were the circumstances? I’d retired and I went through 5 years of part-time re-hire and I was bound and determined that I would try for the Whitehead [visiting professorship], and I got it!

What was your Whitehead seminar on? I saw the students and I said, “The thing I see in this body of students, is there are very few people who have had adequate time in Greek,” so I did a site reading seminar in Greek. I thought it was more important than any sort of esoteric thing that I could involve them in. The fun of the site reading was that we did one of the Lysias speeches about the aftermath of the democratic restoration, which involved a man who claimed to be a democrat; he was up in the mountains at a steep site. Everyone crowded around him and said, “I know what that man did, that man is NO friend of the democracy.” They grabbed him and dragged him across to where there's a steep cliff and said, “What we really ought to do is throw you off right here.” And just after having read that description in Lysias we went up on to the mountain. It was great fun.

Was that when you lived upstairs in Loring? Oh, the brief time of living upstairs was when by shear accident at a conference in Istanbul, I heard about a conference for Medieval Chalkis run by the Hellenic Institute of Venice. I had just come very close to the conclusion that what we were looking at there in Chalkis was the Dominican Priory church, so as soon as I heard about it, I wrote to the Hellenic institute and said I had several things I could do on this subject. Fortunately, they said I should do the Dominican topic, which I did with some hesitation because I was proposing an identity for the building which had never been proposed and which meant it was NOT a Byzantine monument, in any sense whatsoever. And then Nikos Delinikolaos, the restoration and conservation archaologist, who oversaw the reroofing and the cleaning up of the walls, sent me his paper, and in one of his illustrations was St. Dominic on one side and St. Peter on the other – WHOOPEE! So I went there and focused my paper to say, “If you don’t believe this, wait ‘til my colleague presents!” Oh, it was wonderful. He said afterwards that he had the same feeling I had, that the hostility he was going to get there was such that he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to present. But the two of us together had a tremendous time. And so I was just here in Athens for a few days, which was when I got to use the ‘Queens' Megaron.’

When was that? 2001-2002. When were you the Whitehead? 2002-3. What would you say is most striking about what has changed and what has stayed the same here at the School? Well, the thing that’s the same and what I absolutely support is the system of four trips in the fall. I just think that no other foreign archaeological school does this; particularly for people coming over from the other side of the Atlantic it is sooo important. Even people who could afford a private car would never see the things we got to see. Other than that, well, this time around I can’t get over to the Teas and Ouzos much, but they’re pretty much the same as they used to be. So, the basic structure of the day is still the same, and good. The staff is immense compared to how it used to be.

Well, thank you so much, Pierre, for sharing your stories with us. It’s lovely to be reminded of them.


beisbolfan2007 said...

I stumbled upon your interviews with Pierre MacKay, and enjoyed them very much. Colin Edmonson was my father, and I knew Pierre MacKay in Athens and in Seattle. Thank you for documenting some of the wonderful history of the American School.
Nancy Edmonson Jensen

Katie said...


Thanks so much for your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the interviews!