I could not have known my search for America would begin at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1946 fresh from wartime service in the Marine Corps I went back to Pittsburgh where I had enlisted in 1943 during the still dark and perilous days of World War II.
My association with the city began years before the war, during the 1920’s when my father, an itinerant worker, made his way up from Texas to the Midwest and the Rock Island Railroad which offered him work in Chicago where I was born in 1926. Over the years, our migrations brought us back to the city, time and again. On one of those trips my father got work with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and that took us to Pittsburgh where some member of my father’s family lived. Chicago and Pittsburgh were good for us, but my mother always harbored hopes of escaping the cold weather and returning to her people in New Spain, the Hispanic Southwest of the United States. A branch of my mother’s family—the Gascas—settled in San Antonio in 1731 as founders of that city. My mother’s desire to escape the cold didn’t happen. The specter of death—my father’s and my mother’s—aborted those expectations.
By 1940 circumstances lodged me firmly in Pittsburgh where subsequently I attended Thomas Jefferson High School in North Braddock, a suburb of Pittsburgh for a year then quit because I was considerably overage in that grade and because the drums of war ca11ed the youth of the nation to defend it.
Time and the war [Pacific/China] eased the trauma of family death; and in 1946 I was discharged from the Marines as a Platoon Sergeant, ready to face a post-modern world of hope, promise and renewal. I returned to Pittsburgh, caught by the lure of the city, its historic beginnings, its three rivers. It was to be the p1ace where I wou1d begin my odyssey, my search for America. In reality it was to be a search for answers, wondering what took my parents, Montezuma’s children, to those northern reaches beyond Azt1an [mythic homeland of the Aztecs]. It was as much a puzzle to me as Hemingway’s frozen leopard found near the western summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
In 1946 Rufus Henry Fitzgerald had been Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh only since February of 1945, having succeeded John Bowman who had “held his office longer than any other living American college president” except Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia. When I enrolled at Pitt as a freshman in the Fall of 1946, Fitzgerald had already resolved the difficulties of the university with the AAUP [American Association of University Professors] which had placed the school on the unapproved list in a dispute growing out of academic freedom. It would be years before I understood any of this.
My service as a university professor would not start until the 60’s with my appointment in the Department of English at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, far from the choking environment that gave Pittsburgh its sobriquet then as the smoky city.
Years later I would say the University of Pittsburgh accepted me as a student when the University of Chicago turned me down. It seemed natural for me to apply to Chicago for admission, particularly since I was born [and, to some extent, bred] in Chicago and the university billed itself as progressive in admissions. Formal requirements were often waived for talented and gifted students; and sometimes for the poor and underprepared. The University of Pittsburgh accepted me as a provisional student, fully cognizant I had only completed one year of high school. For Chancellor Fitzgerald had vowed that Pitt would do its utmost to take care of every veteran with policies to admit all veterans who were high school graduates and all veterans over 21 years of age as provisional students who were not high school graduates.
Just as it had for G.I.’s during the war, postwar Pitt welcomed veterans seeking education under the provisions of the generous G.I. Bill of education a grateful Congress had enacted for those who had served during the war. It was to be a hallmark piece of legislation whose returns to the nation in future years would be incalculable. Hundreds of thousands of veterans would fill American colleges and universities per terms of that Bill.
To accommodate the swift rise in enrollment, Pitt rented space at the periphery of the campus in Oakland, held classes in Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall nearby and moved upward with the Cathedral of Learning, the Gothic inspired high-rise built by Chancellor Bowman. That skyscraper was the showcase building of Oakland, Pittsburgh suburb which was the cultural hub of the city, home of the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Tech, Carnegie Library and Museum and Forbes Fie1d [in the shadow of the Cathedral of Learning] where the Pittsburgh Pirates played.
First envisioned in 1920 as “a tall building” actual construction on the Cathedral of Learning did not begin unti1 1926. It was “topped” in 1929, and the first classes in the building were not held until 1931. Originally planned to be 52 stories high, it ended up with 42 floors, 525 ft. high, the tallest and most commanding building in Pittsburgh at the time. It rose out of the ground of Oakland like an ancient Gothic landmark, built to last “for all time.”
Chancellor Bowman wanted the interior of the Cathedral of Learning to be as dramatic as its exterior. He did not want people to be disappointed when they entered the build-ing. To that end he envisioned a ring of nationality rooms as working classrooms, “not museum pieces surrounding the “commons room”—the main floor with high arches reaching 7 stories.
To build community pride and ownership in the building [and in the university], Chancellor Bowman appealed to the ethnic communities of Pittsburgh to help fund the building and furnishings of the nationality rooms. At Pitt one-third of the student body was foreign-born, and the nationality rooms were to be a tribute to the ethnic mosaic that was the city, recognizing the cultural heritages of Pittsburgh’s people.
I still remember those elevator rides in the Cathedral of Learning [dubbed “‘the tower of ignorance and “‘the inverted mineshaft” when I was there]—taking an express e1evator to the 18th floor, transferring to another express elevator, then a local to the higher floors. With binoculars we had a pretty good view of Pirates’ games from the offices of the Foreign Languages Department.
The Pittsburgh of the 1940’s boasted a population of some two million–one-fifth foreign-born; one-third, children of immigrants—representing 43 countries, including Italy, Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Russia, Hungary, Ireland, Scotland, Lithuania, Sweden, Wales and Mexico. Mexican Americans were scattered across south-western Pennsylvania from Midland in the north, near the Ohio line, to Johnstown in the east. In metropolitan Pittsburgh, Mexican Americans lived in barrios (enclaves) on the north-side, south-side, Sharpsburg, Munhall, Duquesne, Pitcairn, Trafford, Wilkinsburg, Braddock, Wilmerding, East Pittsburgh, Rankin, Brinton and other places. All tolled, there were some 55,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the greater Pitts-burgh area during those years. Later, that number would increase significantly.
By 1948 total university enrollment [at all its centers] exceeded 30,000, and in a public speech Fitzgerald expressed concern about that enrollment. Still, the university had an important mission in postwar Pittsburgh: Fitzgerald imagined the University of Pittsburgh as part of “a society in which education, religion, government and industry cooperated in making great individuals and a great society,” asking “Why not here?”
That was the philosophy of the University of Pittsburgh in the days when I ranged through the campus and library stacks, devouring knowledge like a penitent after a long fast. It was a philosophy that sustained me at high pitch of intellectual curiosity. Now, from a perspective of more than 65 years, I realize what an extraordinary education I received at the University of Pittsburgh. It was my intellectual cradle. Reading Room at Pitt
I was ready for Pitt, though not intellectually prepared for it; not prepared, that is, any more than I was prepared for the public schools of the United States. Until I was 6, I had spoken mostly Spanish, learning very little English until then. And in the schools of the Southwest, Texas was no exception. Many Mexican American children started first grade in segregated schools and, more often than not, Mexican American children starting school principally as Spanish speakers were detained in first grade an additional year, their school records characterizing them as “Mentally Retarded.” I repeated the first grade twice. And, like Winston Churchill who in writing about his early life explaining his fai1ure with Latin forms wondered if that had any bearing on his later faci1ity with the English language, I too have wondered if repeating first grade twice did not encourage me toward the Ph.D. in English?
Facility in the English language would come later. As a freshman student at Pitt I was far from articulate. Oh, I could express myself in the vernacular (sermo rusticus). I had, after all, been a Marine Corps sergeant for whom earthy Anglo-Saxon epithets were not strangers. I had a vocabulary larger than Rocky Balboa’s—not much larger, but larger nevertheless. I was past grunts and groans and knew somewhere inside me lay a trove of language whose key I had but to find.
I found that key in the library and in scintillating lectures of professors like Michelangelo De Vitus, Anthony Mastroni, Abraham Lauf, Mario Pei, Storm Jameson. I found it in my work with the Pitt News, the drama club, speech club and ROTC. I found it in the Pitt swimming team and track team. My years at Pitt were years of transformation, the clay of Mexico becoming American, Montezuma’s children finding Quetzalcoatl’s fulfillment in a place far from Aztlan—the mythic Aztec homeland.
It seems to me, my years at Pitt were years of “running,” running to work, running to classes, running to catch streetcars. I worked three jobs at times, took more courses than necessary, and rode the fractured streetcar [77/54] from the Southside of Pittsburgh to Oak1and. I was always with a book and studied everywhere. Once, when working for a janitorial firm on the 11 pm to 7 am shift, I was charged with cleaning the lobby of the Pittsburgher Hotel. I made a deal with the supervisor to let me study from whenever I finished my chores unti1 7 am. The job was paced for a full shift. He agreed, provided the job met his specifications. It did.
Not once did he ever fault my work or find it shoddy. He remarked once that if ever I abandoned my studies I had a future in janitorial work. Over Christmases I worked for the Post Office sorting mail and worked for Kaufmann’s department store loading packages into trucks at night for next day delivery. I worked as a laborer in the Jones & Laughlin Steel Mill on Second Avenue; and I worked in the flues at the U.S. Steel Mills in Duquesne. All the while I made time for music as a jazz guitarist, having studied with Joe Negri and George Barnes.
All this while, married with a family (two boys), taking full loads at the university and completing the Air Force ROTC program from which I received a reserve commission as a 2nd Lieutenant and later “called to active duty” because of the Korean Conflict.
I remember the personalities who came to Pitt during those early postwar years. Jonas Salk came to the Medical School in 1947. The English novelist, (Margaret) Storm Jameson, came to Pitt as Distinguished Visiting Professor in 1948. Tom Hamilton, All-American Navy quarterback in the 20’s, came to Pitt in 1949 as Coach of the Pitt Panthers football team from the Naval Academy where he had been Athletic Director and Captain (USN).
In those years the custom at Pitt was to serve tea in the Commons Room on special occasions. On one of those occasions Professor Jameson was in the receiving 1ine next to the Chancellor. Progressing through the 1ine, I gave my name to Helen Pool Rush, Dean of The Commons Room Women, who presented me to the Chancellor who, in turn, presented me to Professor Jameson. In a gauche and naïve moment I remarked on Professor Jameson’s accent whereupon she drew herself to an imposing height, gave me one of those withering stares only the English are capable of and said, Young man, I’ll have you know you’re the one with an accent!” then turned away haughtily, leaving me agape.
I learned an important lesson that day. Years later, in 1954 when I spent the better part of a year in the English north country looking for Hamlet’s ghost, I sought to find Storm Jameson to tell her how much she had influenced me but, alas, I never did. I also never told Abraham Lauf what an important part of my life he had become as I developed into a writer. I studied creative writing with him at Pitt. Years later in an NCTE volume dedicated to Eng1ish teachers, I paid homage to Abraham Lauf and his place in my life.
Only now am I cognizant how Pitt molded me. I went on for the Master’s degree in English [with Spanish and French minors] and earned the Ph.D. in English [British and American literatures with Linguistics minor]. I’m certain my success with those two degrees was due in large part to the education I received at Pitt. Though I now have a Ph.D. I still do not have a high school diploma.
Education was not an easy process for me. At least not in the beginning. My first day at Pitt I was stopped by an upper-classman who, ascertaining I was a Freshman, admonished me for not wearing my Freshman beanie. In choice Marine Corps language I told him what he could do with his beanies. By the end of that first semester I made A’s in my two Spanish classes and F’s in three other classes. Since I was already a provisional student, I was advised I would have to lay out a semester unless I could persuade one of the professors whose classes I failed to raise my grade to “D” which would give me the extra grade point I needed to be retained as a probationary student during the Spring semester of 1949. Two professors turned me down. My Eng1ish professor 1istened to me, and agreed review my work to if in good conscience he could give me a “D” for the course. He changed my grade. The next semester I took English 102 with Abraham Lauf and earned a “D”. It was a proud moment or me. I sometimes wonder if that incident did not propel me toward the Ph.D. in English.
Pitt was also my political cradle. My first foray into American politics began there in 1948 working, like Norman Mailer, for Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign as can-didate of the American Progressive Party. I joined the World Federalists and flirted with nebulous causes. Those were the heady days of my intellectual youth.
In 1985, almost 40 years after my acquaintance with Pitt, I went back to Pittsburgh for the funeral of my sister Rebecca’s husband, Howard Frisbee, and made a sentimental trip to the university. It looked the same, but it was deserted this particular day in November of Thanksgiving week. But I felt the presences of those long-ago years. And for a moment–only a moment–I thought I saw the huddled figure of the young man who was me then, sitting in a corner of the Commons Room poring over lore that would prepare him to be the man he wanted to be.
Chancellor Fitzgerald stayed at Pitt until 1955. By then I was traipsing around Europe, well on my search for America, myself and the myriad questions that would surface in subsequent years dedicated to the Chicano movement and its literary renaissance in which I would play a role I could not have imagined during my days at Pitt but for which Pitt prepared me nonetheless.
I learned at Pitt not to wait for life to happen, but to be at cause in creating the realities I aspired to—facing life full front, wresting from it the fruits of its promises. In the Gardena I ate not just one apple—I ate the whole orchard.
Alberts, Robert C., Pitt: Story of the University 1787-1987, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.
Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de. “Remembering Abraham Lauf,” From A Celebration of Teachers, National Council of Teachers of English (New Edition), 1986
“A Writer’s Life: Living Left of Center—A Literary Journey,” Prepared for the Southwest Conference of the Written Word, October 3m 2015. A version posted as “Tools of the Trade” on Historia Chicana and Fuerza Mundial Global, May 31, 2012
Copyright 2016 by Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, Scholar in Residence (Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Social Policy), Western New Mexico University. All photos used in this blog are either in the public domain or are used under teh “fair use” proviso of the copyright law.