Education, Coarsely

Towels and Clowns

©2024 Ben S. Pollock Jr.

She’s a Joan Crawford-Bette Davis balls-to-her-knees kind of woman.

My Beloved and I were recently married, so mid-1990s, when Marion Lewenstein contacted me that she and Harry planned to drive from Palo Alto to see their son, teaching at Cornell. Their itinerary put them at spending the night in Little Rock then to Montrose to see my onetime classmate Ann Jennings Shackelford, then to upstate New York.

Don’t worry, we’ve already booked a hotel. Is Southwest Little Rock close, she asked. Not a bad drive, I replied, though I would’ve lodged a regarded Stanford professor and her tech industry marketing executive husband downtown or midtown. Montrose wasn’t a direct path northeast, being in the southeastern part of Arkansas where Ann lived. She’s a communication consultant. Ann and I in our 1976-1980 undergraduate span were two of Marion’s journalism students.

As a house gift, Marion and Harry presented a couple of Stanford logo beach towels from the campus bookstore. Between the sure-to-fade bright red and their frankly souvenir thinness I put them away for safekeeping.

For about 30 years.

I first recalled them only in March 2023, as I was soon to attend a National Education Association higher education conference in San Jose. They were where I put them, in a sweater box at the bottom of the spare bedroom’s closet. Use ’em or toss ’em, right?

It was a faint hope that Marion would be around to visit, Palo Alto being just 17 miles from San Jose. Rather than “Google” her, I initially emailed Bruce Lewenstein, still teaching at Cornell, to learn that his mom passed away March 6, 2021.

Marion made it to 93. While my occasional emails in recent years did not bounce, I’d gotten no responses, either. As important as she was to me, I had not Sherlocked her whereabouts either.

  1. Time moves along and, for one reason or another with former and distant friendships, we all lose track, yada yada yada. OR
  2. I didn’t want to annoy her on my side of the catching-up email exchanges that I had let my last journalism job layoff stick, back in 2012, and moved to another career. She’s seen so many of us do that, she’d emailed on my previous layoff, later in 2001.

The towels are one representation of several sets of mixed feelings being explored here. I didn’t want them to wear out or fade, nor had I wanted to boast by displaying them.

But: The eighth anniversary of my full-time campus job is tomorrow, July 5. Well-educated folks abound. And me.

15-year-old Hopper dries his paws on a Stanford souvenir beach towel.
Fifteen-year-old Hopper dries morning dew from his paws on a Stanford souvenir beach towel earlier this month.

I hauled out the towels this spring. One towel now is draped over my home office chair. It brightens the 1960’s dark-paneled basementy space. The other serves as car towel across the back seat, to dry muddy paws and catch mulch that falls from our two Tibetan terriers when I drive them out for walks.

In picking how to use the towels, I chose irony. If Marion had known, I believe she would’ve grimaced then smiled.

San Jose was 16 months ago, the towels out 3, and I still have avoided writing about Marion, my chief professional mentor. Then I read in April of the Feb. 5, 2024, death of retired Stanford Band conductor Arthur Barnes. He too made it to 93.

Here we go. Four decades-plus out, of my undergraduate professors, these two stand out the most. Major parts of what makes me still tick on the grayer side of middle age are due to them.

The Distant Doctor

Marion and I were so close in the ’70s that she’d arrange for a road trip stop about 15 years after graduation. Barnes on the other hand would only barely have remembered me at any time, even during the three years I was in band. Somewhat like The Stanford Daily, the Band was a student-managed group. He would only know the student managers and of course music majors. For one rehearsal during the week before home games, Dr. Barnes would run us through his arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner and leave, with the drum major running the rest of practice.

Art Barnes conducts the Stanford Marching Band.
Art Barnes conducts the Stanford Marching Band. Musicians will see he’s signaling intonation issues. Photo by classmate Robby Beyers (1958-2021)

So why mention him? In fall 1970, Stanford played Arkansas in Fayetteville. The Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band was there. I wasn’t, rather watching the football game on ABC, 58 miles away in Fort Smith. The LSJUMB halftime show was a Salute to Summer, and partway through the musicians on the field dropped their pants. The ABC camera moved skyward and did not telecast the rest of the songs.

The band members wore swimsuits under the trousers and completed the formations with bare knees. Awed, a few years later, I applied for admission. With the acceptance packet including scholarship, student loan and work-study, I went. Dad had me wait to spring quarter to “Join the Band” (merely the formal fight song) to make sure I could handle the class work. Dad thankfully did not insist on As, as this was Stanford after all. So I bought a second-hand valve trombone in Fort Smith, and was fine.

Barnes by direction, indirection and likely misdirection was technically responsible for the skating-the-borderline nature of the madcap, satirical group. His 1997 alumni magazine profile “The Greatest Hits of Arthur P. Barnes – Musician, Mentor and Occasional Zookeeper, the Director of the Stanford Band Is Stepping Down” elaborates some.

Know Dr. Barnes? Nah. Can’t deny his influence, though. Thinking like a Band member and occasionally acting on it (not often enough), has been rudimentary to my adult life.

Prof-Student, Boss-Clerical

Not surprised by Bruce Lewenstein’s news, all I could do was reply with a brief thank-you, noting how vital she was for me. He wouldn’t remember, but we’d met once, in Marion’s office on his visit home from the out-of-state university that he attended. We’re roughly the same age.

Professor Marion Lewenstein
Professor Marion Lewenstein

Post college and before the mid-’90’s dinner at our Little Rock home, My Beloved and I, having begun dating, went to my 10th class reunion, delayed a year for the school’s centennial, in fall 1991, where we spent an hour in Marion’s new office. At this point she had retired from teaching but had a paying gig as Stanford Faculty Senate secretary.

Next visit, and the last in person: summer 2001. I had come to San Francisco (34 miles from Palo Alto) for a conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and she had us over for dinner. Harry was in a wheelchair by then. He told us about the accident during their bicycling vacation in Portugal. While he explained how he’d adapted to his disability — he only had a limited use of one hand — Marion grimaced. These years were tough.

Harry that night had for us an alternative take on Tolstoy’s “All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”: Every disabled person is handicapped in a different way, he said. That his wheelchair sat him higher than the usual wheelchair was his example. Public urinals for the disabled are set lower, so no benefit to him.

Besides Bruce, Marion and Harry had a daughter whom I never met. Sadly, artist Bailey L. Merman died of cancer in 2023, age 61.

Marion taught journalism, I became a journalist. There’s more to it. As she was the Communication Department’s internship and job coordinator, she was granted a work-study student as an assistant. It became my third and longest campus job, a good 2 1/2 years. (Freshman year I worked in the Map Collection of Green Library then for an academic quarter I updated the clip library of The Stanford Daily.)

I worked for her perhaps 15 hours a week. That involved letters and calls — no email yet — to newspaper and magazine editors and TV and radio news directors across the country, seeing who would take interns, preferably paid. (Besides wages, interns generally learn more when paid, as budget pressures compel bosses to find them real work.) My sharpest memory was unjamming photocopiers. As that skill grew Marion fielded calls for me to assist other Communication offices.

Obviously I took classes from her as well. It must’ve been after she’d left class one day that a fellow student in History of American Journalism admiringly said, “You know, she’s a Joan Crawford-Bette Davis balls-to-her-knees kind of woman.”

I didn’t see her that way, but other students? Not a phrase you forget, even after 40-plus years.

This was more of a small lecture class. Besides the textbook facts and dates, Marion must’ve included anecdotes from her magazine reporting career including covering an Angela Davis trial for Time Magazine earlier in the 1970s and later specializing in science and technology reporting for the Time-Life-Fortune-Discover family.

Marion became a professor from her experience, not her education. She was the only Stanford faculty member with no college degree.

It wasn’t just her policy but the department’s to be tough in grading. In the reporting classes, misspell a word, your assignment dropped a letter grade. Misspell a name, you got an F on that paper. Yes, some people are said to be unable to spell. Well, we had no choice but learn how there. (Rather, it’s knowing to look up every word you have the least suspicion about.)

Maybe such students dropped the course.

As a first winnowing, applicants for graduate degrees would be cut if they addressed their query letter to Department of Communications instead of the singular Communication.

As far as spelling interview subjects, Marion and the other faculty members required source lists for each of the weekly assignments, complete with phone numbers. Yes, students would be fact-checked.

In her reporting classes, Marion would type her critiques on rough canary paper. They were single-spaced and rarely less than a full page often going into a second page. The submitted articles would have their share of red marks. I’ve kept those papers somewhere.

I’m sure classmate Ann in east Arkansas has comparable memories. As Marion obviously enjoyed seeing former students, I’m sure there are legions of us.

Marion’s most famous student likely was Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Checking online, I see he was six years younger. Our paths never crossed. Marion was interviewed after his execution, where she called him “Danny.” I could sense the pain in her printed words.

Do I regret not seeing Marion since 2001? Of course, but gee, life is long. There are scores of people. For you, too. Certainly for her as well, being a teacher.

As I last saw her in summer 2001, that means at the time I was editorial page editor of The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas, also writing a weekly column. This would have pleased her, that another one of her students stayed in the profession and managed to work up to a good job. I went to grad school after that layoff for a master’s in journalism, during which I was a graduate assistant and taught a bit then and later — don’t recall if I emailed her about all that.

Bruce has relayed this memorial page full of remembrances. I’ll move on after recommending another obituary: “Journalist Who Pioneered Coverage of Silicon Valley – Marion Lee Lewenstein.”


There are four runners-up for Stanford influences. (My transcript aids my memory.) Ian Hacking taught me American Philosophy winter quarter of junior year, gave me a hard-earned B but I realized I loved philosophy (My major was Communication, Journalism Concentration, with a secondary major of American Studies.) Spring quarter of freshman year I got an A minus for another philosophy class, Introductory Symbolic Logic by Patrick Suppes, an experimental class as he lectured once then turned the lessons over to a digital format with the computer program he wrote, pioneering it in 1977. Confused at first, I had to lean on an eccentric graduate assistant who responded with riddles never answers. He and I became friends; later he helped me indirectly in Marion’s Investigative Reporting class.

An early class I loved was Lawrence Berman‘s Medieval Jewish Thought, earned an A minus in winter quarter of freshman year. Only one student besides me enrolled in that class, which given the size he taught in his office. There was absolutely no way you could fudge the voluminous required reading with only two students! I’d run into Larry sometimes in the remaining three years, and he always remembered me.

Still living though retired is the former rabbi of Stanford Hillel, Ari Mark Cartun. He helped me my path along my Jewish faith. A 2015 retirement profile amply explains his significance for apparently thousands of us. Mark (as he was called then) continually offered 1 credit-hour courses on many elements of Judaism, and I took as many as I could. He deserves more elaboration, but here we are. I trust that Rabbi Ari Cartun is well, with many appreciative former students and congregants.

Did I say four runners up? The recently late nimrod Ken Fields — in a lecture class on American Short Fiction, where I earned a C minus in spring of junior year — gave a sarcastic answer to a sincere question of mine that provoked raucous laughter from my fellows. I remember the humiliation though not exactly my words nor his. I vowed never to do that to others in any situation. (I believe I asked about the capriciousness of story ideas and the difficulty of developing them. No doubt I spoke less well. Did I deserve that? No.)

Now, as of yesterday, a sixth Stanford connection. Someone just posted on the Stanford Band alumni Facebook group, the obituary of trumpeter Andy Fehrenbach at age 64. We were not close, but besides the Band, he was in the pit orchestra with me in a student production of the musical Hair, my junior year, he’d have been a frosh or sophomore. He was the assistant musical director, running rehearsals when bassist Peter Maradudin had to study for a test or something. I loaned Andy my cassette of Hair’s original Broadway cast recording, to help him with tempos etc. He never remembered to return it, so even through my senior year, that was a running joke between us.

The deaths they just keep on coming.

“Towels and Clowns” is an irresistible and intended pun on the show A Thousand Clowns. It doesn’t necessarily tie in with this Brick, but the components of this Brick don’t themselves knit that well, either.

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