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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Laurie's Head

I don't know that I can play this straight. No one else has seemed able to. My first experience with Laurie's head was seeing Marc Raney, former VP for Advancement, carrying it in the elevator en route to the Northrup fourth floor supply room last spring. It was a bit shocking, seeing Marc with a head -- in addition to his own -- bigger than most, and with what appeared to be some slight damage. It was shocking too, apparently, for secretaries who went looking for office supplies only to come face-to-head with the University legend.

In a ceremony on September 13, 2010, Laurie's head (a plaster sculpted head - not a bust - of former TU President James Laurie) was presented by its artist, Phil Evett, and installed in Laurie Auditorium. Evett, a former TU art professor, looking out over the graying and balding crowd noted that for awhile he actually thought he might have died. What probably should have been a somber and formal ritual seemed to turn into a series of head jokes worthy of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The Trinity old-timers, it turns out, are just like us. Current President, Dennis Ahlburg actually set the tone, announcing first that Dr. Laurie built the campus and while the Ahlburg legacy is to renovate it.

President Laurie retired in 1970 and died later that same year after being stricken with hepatitis. At Laurie's retirement ceremony in May of 1970, Andrew Cowles announced that the new auditorium on campus would bear Laurie's name. At that same ceremony, professor Frances Swinney thanked Dorothy Laurie, who by all accounts was universally revered, for her grace as a "respecter of life and love." The same Frances Swinney had a front row seat at the September ceremony this year. (I actually met this hip, charming, and witty lady at a function this fall.) Reverend Raymond Judd, who presided at Dr. Laurie's funeral, was also back and offered an invocation at the ceremony. Dr. Laurie was beloved as a remarkable, giving, warm, and principled man. Raymond Judd came to trinity as a student when Dr. Laurie arrived as President.

The ceremony led me back to the Doug Brackenridge history tome of Trinity. In it, he details the Laurie years, which saw Trinity move to the current location, often referenced as the "miracle on the hill." Current professor and former Dean of Students Coleen Grissom confirms that Dr. Laurie had the presence and vision that made him a pivotal institutional figure. He hired her back to Trinity after she initially left. That should be enough proof of his judgment. He knew all employees by name before his first day on the job. He would spend money the University didn't have to build the campus we have today. At his retirement a speaker noted that he "always insisted that Trinity live within its means, even if it had to borrow money to do it."

This was one of the best University events that I never looked forward to. The artist went on to discuss how, in the initial stages of this secret commission, he would stealthily stalk President Laurie at various events to get the right perspective for his piece. When the widow of President Laurie was first being shown the auditorium that would posthumously bear his name, she actually unexpectedly turned a corner to be faced with the stunning head of her late husband. No one noted the irony James "Woodin" Laurie was immortalized by plastic. The unique style actually does give the appearance of an incomplete sculpture, which makes it more art and less figurine.

Laurie's head sat in the studio of Professor of Phil Evett until a retired professor, Frank Kersnowski, worked with Trustee Jim Dicke (art expert - see Dicke Art Building) to have the head displayed in Laurie Auditorium. It went from studio, to supply room, to where it sits now, in the Laurie Auditorium lobby.

This has created for me a rush of nostalgia for a time I didn't even experience. The ceremony, with all of these elderly University relics, was spirited, funny, warm, and personal. Dr. Evett said he would replay the day in his thoughts in the months ahead because its meaning and being back on campus with his old colleagues and memories. The day was an incredible reminder of the vibrant life of a past so often dulled by black and white photos and historical footnotes. It could not have been a better tribute to a man, a head, and mostly, a heart that still beats strong today.

1 comment:

Lynette Kenyon said...

I'm glad he has a better home now! he was a bit shocking in the supply room!