Tales of a Kindhearted Curmudgeon

Towering figures cast long shadows, as was abundantly clear in recent retrospective appreciations of the life and work of UO art historian and art professor emeritus Marion Dean Ross. The author of landmark scholarship regarding Oregon’s built environment, Ross was a pioneer in the study of Pacific Northwest architecture and in promoting historic preservation in the region. The celebration of his work as scholar, teacher, mentor, and UO benefactor (giving more than $1 million in the early 1990s for the acquisition of library materials) included a display in Knight Library, a companion website (www.libweb.uoregon.edu/aaa/ross), and a lecture by Leland Roth, professor emeritus of art history and the former Marion Dean Ross Distinguished Chair in Architectural History. Roth has collected anecdotes showing the personality of the beloved but sometimes-prickly Ross, and presents them here.

Marion Dean Ross (1913–91), professor of architectural history at the University of Oregon from 1947 to 1978, was a demanding teacher who held his students to very high standards. Many have reported how they dreaded his examinations, and how he could put them ill at ease with a well-intended but sharp remark. Movie director James Ivory ’51, an architecture student at the UO before shifting to film making, recalled a particular slide-illustrated class lecture. Ivory was making sketches from the slide of a building Ross was explaining, when Ross happened to walk along the side of the room. On glancing down and seeing Ivory’s sketches, Ross stopped lecturing and inquired loudly, “What are you doing, Mr. Ivory!” Collecting himself quickly, Ivory responded, “Learning about architecture, sir,” to which Ross replied, “Well, all right then.”

Other students took copious notes. One former student told me he had opted to write a research paper instead of making a detailed building model, an option Ross offered his students (and many architecture students did opt for making a model). Documenting his paper with the necessary footnotes regarding his sources, the student was unable to verify some fact and so, somewhat stymied, quoted Ross’s lecture from his notes. Later, when the paper was graded and returned, next to this hastily cobbled footnote was Ross’s written rebuttal: “I never said that!”

The point was that Ross wanted his students to be as serious in their work as he was in his. Even years after graduation, former students might find themselves facing continued high expectations. Ross never learned to drive and never owned an automobile; his firsthand encyclopedic knowledge of Oregon architecture was gained through the kindness of friends and colleagues driving him around the state to visit building sites. When making his annual summer visits to Europe to observe and photograph buildings from Scotland to Sicily, Spain to Turkey, he benefited from the dense network of rail transportation that made travel relatively easy. On one trip northward through Italy, Ross chanced to cross paths in Naples with his former student Wallace Huntington ’52, by then a successful landscape architect and also a friend. On learning that they both were headed to Rome, Huntington offered Ross a lift in his rented automobile as a chance to continue their conversation. Ross then inquired about the proposed route, ostensibly so he could see what towns they might visit where he could examine Roman ruins or view Renaissance buildings. The road Huntington mentioned followed the Mediterranean coast. Ross disappeared for some moments with the road map, then returned and, with evident exasperation, tossed the map on the table, proclaiming, “Just as I suspected. It’s all nothing but scenery!”

Ross, an active lecturer, often was transported to these events by friends. On one occasion, he was driven to Portland by friends and students to give a slide-illustrated talk at the Oregon Historical Society. While the professor was busy with conversation as they entered the building, a greeter helpfully attempted to relieve Ross of some boxes, suggesting they might best be left in the cloak room. Ross firmly snatched them back, and without breaking stride marched onward, scolding her with the rebuke, “Oh, don’t be such a busy-body!” In his wake, Ross’s escorts explained in embarrassment that he was the evening’s featured speaker and those were his slides.

Ross presented an intimidating figure, intellectually because of his education at Harvard, and architecturally because of his extensive travels to inspect buildings of all ages and places. But there was a hint of perceived physical intimidation, as well. He carried a cane, the legacy of having once been hit by an automobile just off campus, and with the cane, he pointed to buildings when taking students on tours, or smacked the side of the lectern to call for the next slide (in those days when slide projectors were operated by student projectionists). Years later, architect Otto Poticha, a frequent adjunct professor in the UO architecture department who knew Ross well, questioned whether he really needed the cane any longer. Ross equivocated a bit, concluding by saying, “but nevertheless it is still very effective.”

A group of Ross’s former students and professional colleagues—all eminently successful in their respective fields—produced a festschrift of essays on a range of architectural and design topics at the time of the professor’s retirement in 1978, to honor the beneficent impact he had had on them individually. Wallace Huntington began this anthology with a biographical introduction, observing that Ross was an impatient man: impatient of “bad wine, and shoddy scholarship; architects who can’t delineate an arch, and cooks who can’t prepare a simple meal; a misspelled word, an awkward phrase. Against these things he rages with ill-concealed contempt.” Indeed, Ross’s reputation as something of a gourmand seemed to grow with each retelling, and one close friend of Ross’s told me that he was given firm instructions by his wifenot to invite Ross to dinner since she was at a loss as to what to prepare.

Outwardly Ross seemed to be a curmudgeon, a misanthrope, and his pithy retorts reinforced that perception, but mean-spiritedness was not in his nature. Impatient, yes, but Ross was kindhearted and generous. If he was sometimes curt with students in insisting on high standards, it was because he cared about them, and how their studies might affect their future lives. One former student told me how she enjoyed Ross’s classes, but in her junior year felt drawn to classes in anthropology. Shortly after she mentioned to the departmental secretary that she was changing her major, she received a summons to the department chair’s office. With trepidation she appeared, and Ross questioned her closely about her decision. She had demonstrated promise, and he was concerned. She did switch her major, went on to earn a PhD, and became the longtime director of an anthropology department and museum at a major university. But what she remembered years later was how Ross called her in because of his concern for her future. He may have been abrupt, even stern, but his deepest concern was that his students reach their highest potential; not just in his classes, but in their future lives. In the way he cared about his students, Marion Dean Ross exemplified the measure of a true teacher.