Thursday, April 14, 2016

My Adventures with Katherine Anne Porter

In 2002 I did a post about meeting Katherine Anne Porter when I was teaching at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas.  That post was followed by several others.  Not long ago, a former colleague of mine at HPU sent me a couple of photos from that meeting that I'd never seen before, and I decided to consolidate my previous posts into one sort of new revised one.

Dr. Roger L. Brooks, the president of HPU, was a former English professor and an avid reader and book collector.  He was also something of a promoter, interested in getting publicity for the college, and in 1976 he invited Katherine Anne Porter to come to  Brownwood for a symposium on her work and a celebration of her birthday.  Ms. Porter was born in Indian Creek, Texas, which is near Brownwood, or would be if it still existed.  It's a ghost town now, or it was the last time I was there.  Maybe it's revived.  Nope, it doesn't appear to have revived.  At any rate, Ms. Porter's parents are buried in the Indian Creek Cemetery, and she hadn't visited their graves since WWII.  A visit to that site was part of the inducement used to get her to come to Texas. It worked, and she accepted the invitation.

Nobody wanted to cause Ms. Porter any problems, so we faculty members were weren't allowed to hover around her after she arrived.  I was taken to the motel where she was staying to meet her, along with a couple of others.  When I was introduced to her as "Dr. Crider," she held out her arm and said, "Oh, Dr. Crider, the pains start right at my wrist and go all the way up my arm!" I explained I wasn't that kind of doctor, and she let me off the hook, but I worried about her the rest of the weekend.  I was told that she was a bit of a worrier, herself, and that nothing was wrong with her arm or any other part of her.  I hoped that was true.

As I mentioned, the college held a symposium in conjunction with Ms. Porter's visit, and scholars from all over the country came to read papers.  I'm not sure they were interested in visiting a small backwater university, but you can bet they wanted to meet Ms. Porter.  Two of them I remember were Joan Givner and Darlene Unrue, both of whom have done excellent scholarly work on Ms. Porter.  Joan Givner went on to become Ms. Porter's chosen biographer, and I suspect that she no longer remembers that I was the one who introduced her to Ms. Porter in Brownwood, Texas, 40 years ago.

Some of the HPU faculty members were allowed to go with Ms. Porter to the Indian Creek cemetery to visit the grave of her parents.  I wasn't included, but I'm told it was quite a congenial trip, and the group even had a picnic on the cemetery grounds.  At the far left of the picture is Almola James.  Closest to the grave marker is Elva Dobson, and Ms. Porter is beside her.

Someone had to scout out the location of the grave beforehand, and I did get in on that trip.  As you can see in the photo, I was a skinny guy.  The woman in the center is Al James, and the fellow kneeling down is George C. Pittman, the chair of the English Department.

Since I didn't go on the trip to the cemetery with Ms. Porter, I was rewarded with a seat beside her at the birthday banquet.  In the photo, left to right, are George C. Pittman, Katherine Anne Porter, me, Judy Crider, Robert Dobson, and Elva Dobson.  Here's what I remember about the banquet.  Ms. Porter wore a white wedding dress that she said she'd bought in Mexico when she lived there in the 1920s or '30s.  You can see it in the picture.  What you can't see is the big emerald brooch she wore pinned to the dress.  I hardly notice things like that, but you can bet my wife, Judy, noticed.  People think of Judy as a shy person, but she wasn't.  She was very good at talking to people, and she asked about the brooch.  Ms. Porter said that she'd made a big bundle of money from the movie sale of her novel, Ship of Fools.  She said, "Some people buy boats.  I bought emeralds."  This made perfect sense to Judy.

Ms. Porter made a talk at the banquet, and I suspect that there's a recording of it buried somewhere in the HPU archives.  I'd love to hear it again.  I'm pretty certain she talked about the wedding dress, and she might even have mentioned the wooden coffin that she'd also bought in Mexico and that she planned to be be buried in.  Several of us had heard that she kept the coffin in her home in Maryland, but that hadn't been confirmed.

It was confirmed later, however.  Two members of the English Department, Dr. Charlotte Laughlin and Dr. Alta Ada Schoener, were invited to visit her in Maryland, and they got a picture of the coffin, which was under a sheet inside a closet.  That's it in the photo to the right.

As for the symposium, it was typical of that kind of thing, with people reading papers on Ms. Porter's life and works.  It's all laid out in the article to the left.

On Sunday after all the other festivities, HPU had its graduation ceremony, where Ms. Porter was to be awarded an honorary degree.  She was seated on the stage with the other dignitaries, who included a local doctor, just in case something went seriously wrong.  Nothing did, although somehow or other Ms. Porter had gotten the idea that she was supposed to hand out the diplomas to the graduates, a job usually reserved for the college president.  Dr. Brooks, however, wasn't going to embarrass anyone, and when Ms. Porter got up to hand out the diplomas, he went right along with her.  She got tired part of the way through the ceremony and had to sit down, but about half the graduates in 1976 got their diplomas from her.

After her death in 1980, Ms. Porter was cremated.  I have no idea if her wooden casket was used.  For some reason her ashes weren't returned to the Indian Creek Cemetery where she wished to be buried until 1981.  Here's the bulletin from St. Mary's Catholic Church in Brownwood for April 5, 1981, and you can see the mention of Ms. Porter's interment.  At some point a stone was placed in the cemetery as a memorial to her, and you can see it on the left.

And that's the whole history of my experiences with Katherine Ann Porter.



George said...

Wow, I really am impressed by your encounter with Katherine Anne Porter. She was a great writer. I love her COLLECTED STORIES.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Man, you and Judy look so young there. I love the white jacket. Also, Judy's long hair.

Bill Crider said...

George, we used that book as a text in freshman English the semester she was at HPU.

Jeff, I miss the old days.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks for the consolidated memoir, Bill. The first Porter book I've owned was the mass-market Signet edition of FLOWERING JUDAS. There are certain aspects of days passed that are hard not to miss.

Mike Stamm said...

I picked up a copy of PALE HORSE, PALE RIDER (also a mass-market Signet edition) in 1975. I haven't read it since, but those three novellas really stuck with me; time for a re-read, and a look at Ms. Porter's COLLECTED STORIES and SHIP OF FOOLS. Thanks for the memories, and the reminder.

Gerard said...


Cap'n Bob said...

I never read her books but for some reason I thought Ship of Fools was a great movie--before I saw it. But one of my jobs in Nam was to go to Special Services and get a movie for my company to view in the evening. Being engineers, we had a large screen erected in the company area. I was all excited and went around telling everyone that we'd be seeing Ship of Fools that night and be sure to go. Half way through the first reel we knew it stunk. When our projectionist showed reel 3 instead of reel 2 after the first reel most people said f*** it and left. I don't think it was shown in its entirety that night, and I never encouraged anyone to see a movie again.

Bill Crider said...

The movie was shown during the symposium. We were all polite about it. I don't think anyone like it, though.