Tag Archives: Claremont

Ricardo J. Quinones: 1935-2019

My dad died early Friday morning. He was a great father, loved his boys fiercely, a beloved and tempestuous literature professor at Claremont McKenna College, a husband, scholar and author. 

I’m only beginning to understand how much I’ll miss him.

Here’s my obituary for him, which I’ve submitted to the newspaper in our hometown:

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Ricardo J. Quinones, a long-time Claremont resident and retired comparative literature professor at Claremont McKenna College, has died from complications of a many-year struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.

Prof. Quinones was also founding director of the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies at the college, which now has a distinguished lectureship in his name. For several years, he served on the board of directors of the National Council for the Humanities, appointed in 2004 by President George W. Bush.

He died in hospice care at his home in West Los Angeles on Jan. 25, 2019. He was 83.

Prof. Quinones and his young family arrived in Claremont in an old Buick station wagon in 1963, straight out of Harvard University, where he earned his PhD under renowned literary scholar Harry Levin.

Over the years he became a fixture on the small, growing campus, a beloved teacher for generations of students, in love with his subject. He was chosen Professor of the Year in the mid-1970s. He was also at times a tempestuous figure. He protested the Vietnam War, supported the Civil Rights Movement, loved Robert F. Kennedy and voted for George McGovern.

Years later, with increasing encounters with a stifling political correctness in academia, his politics veered away from the Democratic Party, believing it had left him, though his favorite presidents remained Harry Truman and John Kennedy.

He was one of the first presidents of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers – which formed in 1994 in opposition to the politicization of debate in the humanities and as an alternative to the Modern Language Association, the mainstream organization of literature scholars.

Through it all, he loved reading and literature and all kinds of stories, baseball and basketball, movies, especially gangster movies, and The Godfatherabove all. He was as delighted by Bird and Magic as he was by T.S. Eliot and King Lear. During the 1963 move to Claremont, he entertained his then-two young sons with the stories of Odysseus, and his office was a famous chaos of books and papers piled in seemingly incoherent stacks, in a filing system only he could decipher.

In his long career, he wrote nine books of literary criticism, including three in retirement while battling Parkinson’s. He was a noted scholar and expert on the works of Shakespeare, Dante, and James Joyce. He was selected to write the entry on Dante Alighieri for Encyclopedia Britannica.

His last book, North/South: The Great European Divide, in 2016, was a discussion of Protestant and Catholic Christianity and their effect on economic development. His first book,The Renaissance Discovery of Time(1972), is considered a standard of literary studies of the period.

Novelist Charles Johnson used Quinones’ book, The Changes of Cain, an exposition on the Cain-Abel theme in literature, to influence his 1998 historical novel, Dreamer, about the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In retirement, he also wrote five books of poetry. His poetry tended toward storytelling. He wrote a poem about the plane that went down in that Pennsylvania field on September 11 – Shanksville– and another about his memories at age 10 of the men returning from World War II.

As the disease withered his muscles and twisted his fingers and toes, he nevertheless held poetry events, with actors reading his work, combined with a cellist or a violinist.

Ricardo Quinones grew up in Allentown, PA, the second child of Laureano and Maria Elena Quinones: He an immigrant from Galicia, Spain and a worker in a brewery; she a worker in a sewing factory, born in America to a large family of immigrants from Calabria, Italy.

Laureano Quinones had been born an illegitimate child, abandoned by his mother in his seacoast village in Spain. Leaving her baby with relatives, Eliana Otero fled to Argentina and was never heard from again. Laureano was raised by an uncle, taking the uncle’s last name of Quinones. At 20, he left Spain and, alone, made his way to Puerto Rico, where he cut sugar cane, then to New York and finally to Allentown, PA, where he met and married Maria Elena Matriciano.

They lived in the First Ward, a teeming, densely packed neighborhood of immigrants from Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Syria, who had large families and came to the town for its easily available manufacturing jobs. Bethlehem Steel and Mack Trucks were among the mainstays of the town.

Growing up, Ricardo Quinones was an altar boy and a copy boy at the Allentown Morning Call newspaper, where he one night shepherded the news that Hank Williams had died.

A friendly priest channeled him into college, something rare for kids from the First Ward, where many parents had little education and spoke English poorly.

Like his father before him, he left the comfortable enclave and struck out into the world – taking a bus alone to Chicago and Northwestern University, a private school where upon his arrival he was the among the poorest students on campus.

Originally intending to be a journalist, he fell under the mentorship of Donald Torchiana, a Northwestern literature professor, and from there his career focus shifted to academia. 

At Northwestern, he also met his first love, Lolly Brown, a student from an upper-class family in Des Moines, Iowa. They were married in 1956. Their early days were spent in Europe on a Fulbright Scholarship, studying in Italy, Germany, and France, where he played basketball for a club in the town of Clermont-Ferrand. 

He came to Claremont as the town was morphing into a place of great musical, and artistic effervescence. His friends were poets and artists, then later political scientists and economists. His sons attended Oakmont Elementary, El Roble Junior High, and Claremont High School, and he sent them to Berkeley, Yale, and CMC.

He encountered death too young. His mother died when he was 11; his father when he was 22. His second son, Nathanael, died at 18 in a car accident in February, 1979, followed by his wife, who died of cancer that May.

After that, he raised his two youngest sons – Ben and Josh – alone. They went on to become attorneys. His oldest son, Sam, is a journalist and author.

In the late 1990s, he met Roberta Johnson, a literature professor at Kansas University specializing in Spanish women writers. They fell in love and married in 1998. One of his books of poetry is titled Roberta. She cared for him through his illness, along with his wonderful caregivers, Anthony, Marlon and Ferdie. 

In 2008, he survived the rupture of an aortic aneurysm, something few have done.  Then, in a kind of slow-motion torture over many years, Parkinson’s took most of what made the man. He could only shuffle toward the end. Yet he wrote every day, pecking away through each morning, until the very end, when it took that from him, too.

Apart from cigars, Italian food and red wine, books were the only material possessions he loved. At his home, his shelves remain the earthly expression of his fertile mind. In his stacks is Heaven: A History, and The History of Hell. One of his favorite poets, the storyteller Robert Frost, stands in between Joe Stalin and Martin Luther; Henry Kissinger’s World Order next to Lord of the Flies — testament to how he enjoyed throwing ideas together and seeing what the collision produced.

On Christmas Eve, when his sons’ families were about to meet for dinner, they thought it best he not come over but instead head to a hospital for his low blood pressure. It didn’t seem safe. But he insisted on being at the dinner. Demanded it. Marlon Batiller, his dearest caretaker, told him, if you can stand, I’ll take you. He stood. On this, his last family Christmas dinner, more fragile than ever, he read For the Union Dead by poet Robert Lowell.

A few weeks later, on his last time out of bed, he asked Marlon to pull him up and into his wheelchair, and roll him into the dining room. There, on the table, sat the readings for his next project. It was to be a book about the 1800s, though he wasn’t sure yet what. His reading for it included Treasure IslandHuckleberry Finn, biographies of U.S. Grant, Napoleon, and others.

He’d grown to love Grant. He added him to his list of favorite presidents and defended him vigorously as mistreated by history. 

That morning, emaciated, he sat in his wheelchair beside his books. He held the Grant biography. Then he leafed through the Napoleon. The books were new, and thick, and heavy and he re-read a bit from each. 

Finally, he placed them back on the table and he sat in the chair in silence just looking at them one last time. And after a great long while like that, he asked Marlon to wheel him down the hall and back to the bed, where, two days later, he died.

A public memorial service will be held Sunday, April 7 at 12:30pm at the CMC Athenaeum.

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My High School Reunion: Claremont

My 40th high school reunion is this Saturday. I’m going.

I’ve been to all my high school reunions. They’re fun. Kind of weird, awkward at times, but fun. I like to think of them as great social experiments. Seeing where people landed who started more or less in the same spot. Not quite like those 7 Up movies from Britain, but something like that.

I grew up in Claremont, a small college town 35 miles east of Los Angeles. It was a great place to grow up, if you overlooked the milk-chocolate smog covering the huge mountains nearby.

As years passed, I noted that I kept in far greater touch with friends from high school than folks whom I met later in life had kept in touch with theirs. John Kennedy, David Fissel, Scott Edwards, Sara Kaviar, Norman Gee, Paul Rohrer, Arthur Cain, Alison Cain, and a few others. I’ll see a few of these folks, though probably not all. They’re all doing well, scattered about.

With John, I went to my first rock concert: Mountain and Canned Heat at the Long Beach Civic Auditorium. 1974. That was a loud show, and Leslie West and the guys from Canned Heat sure were fat. Canned Heat’s singer wore big blue overalls with the word “Boogie” in rhinestones across the chest.

Around that time I was forming fierce, highly convincing arguments that Leslie West was the world’s greatest guitar player. I had a lot of those kinds of arguments back then. I also argued that Kiss would be a “where are they now” story by the time we graduated.

Years later, I spent a lot of time traveling around Europe playing guitar in the streets and plazas for money with Arthur Cain. That was a lot of fun. Good thing to do.

A few of my high school chums have died. Steve Arena and Phil Cornell passed not long after high school. I wish I could see them again.

One guy I haven’t seen almost since before graduation is Robert O’Conner. We were Buddhists together in a group called Nichirenshoshu Sokagakkai of America (NSA), where we chanted Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

It’s from Japan but was pretty big in the states back in the 1970s when a lot of California suburban kids assumed that any eastern religion was cool and worth checking out. Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner were members.

I started when I had pretty long hair.

For NSA, I cut my hair. For a while I even tried to learn the bagpipes. I was also in a couple pageants – on the outfield of Angel Stadium and once at Dodger Stadium – that looked something like Up With People.

As a Buddhist organization, NSA was wary of appearing too eastern and mystical and weird, so it went the other way, wanting to assimilate into the squarest of American culture. Hence these pageants – dancing to show tunes on the Dodger outfield. For NSA during the USA Bicentennial, I literally marched in a nighttime parade up 6th Avenue in New York City dressed as a Minuteman with a three-corner hat and a suit lined with lights that were battery-powered and lit up in 4/4 time. No lie.

I was a Buddhist from end of my freshman year at CHS to my sophomore year in college, then I quit. I was happy to be in it when I was – helped me weather adolescence — and happy to leave it when I did.

Through Facebook, Robert tells me he’s got a nice husband and career as an artist in Hawaii, all of which makes me feel good. Looks like he’ll be at the reunion, so that’ll be nice.

I played basketball in high school, though not well. I didn’t improve the way I should have. Senior year was a tough one. Had a falling out with the coach, who never could pronounce my last name, but that wasn’t why we had a falling out. He resigned a year or two later, though not because of me. He went on to coach a college team that holds the distinction of being the only team to lose to the Cal Tech basketball team in the last 30 years or so.

Oh well. I still love the smell of wood-floor gyms. I still play basketball and I’m teaching my daughter, who’s 10.

Unlike most folks at the reunion, whom I suspect are close to grandparenthood, I’m just getting started in the fatherhood game. I’m liking it, though.

When I was young, Claremont was a guitar mecca. This was due to the influence of the 1960s/1970s, the five colleges in town, and a local music store: Claremont Folk Music Center, where I took my first guitar lessons (folk music, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”) from Dorothy Chase, who owned it with her husband, Charles. Ben Harper is their grandson.

(Claremont also had one of the first In-N-Outs, which taught us all what good fast food is.)

Claremont had(s) David Lindley and one of Emmylou Harris’s lead guitar players, whose brother was my guitar teacher later, after I learned to bend notes, which changed my life entirely. After I was taught that bending guitar notes was possible (Jimmy Reed, “Bright Lights Big City”), it seemed to suggest all kinds of things might be bent as well.

It wasn’t long before I was listening to Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality on our family’s old record player over and over. And from there, many years later, to George Jones and Sun Ra. Guitar-note bending will do that.

I think I probably knew 20 people who played guitar. I kept playing, though not well. Three chords, maybe a minor 6th. Enough to play Rolling Stones songs. (Never a major seventh, though. I can’t stand that chord. Ever heard “Color My World” by Chicago? That starts with a major seventh.)

Anyway, the best guitar player in my class was a guy named Pebber Brown. Maybe I’ll see Pebber this reunion. When I want to, I can watch him teaching and  shredding away on Youtube.

Another guy, Martin Maudal, played some wicked drums in a band with Pebber, but now he makes guitars: Maudal Musical Machines. I think I’ll see Martin. Also, a guy from my class named Robert Elhai is a composer and writes soundtracks, last I heard anyway. Jim Earl and Barry Lank once had a pretty hip comedy duo. They were in my class – that’s Claremont High School, 1977.

Sid Robinson is a city councilman in Upland. We’re about that age now where some of us are city councilmen, or supervisors, or principals, or something in charge.

All in all, not a bad production for one high school class – and I’m leaving out a lot of folks.

I’ll be interested to see whether any of the girls I had crushes on show up. I remember, though, that that was a tormentingly large group, so probably some of them won’t. Not sure if my old girlfriend will or won’t.

Actually, I don’t know who’ll show up. Of course no one wants to go to a high school reunion on parole or something. A guy from the CHS year before mine aimed high and ripped off a Brinks Armored Car of $1 million. Very successful at his chosen trade, he was never seen again. So reunions tend to be kind of self-selecting. But then the really successful folks often have moved far away, so there’s that balancing it all out. Karen Huffman, our homecoming queen, ended up, last I saw her many years ago, as a curator at the Getty Museum. How many schools’ homecoming queens that you know ended up curating exhibits at major museums?

My grandfather, an illegitimate kid abandoned by his mother and thus an outcast in his Spanish village, always wanted to go home to show all the folks who’d treated him poorly that he’d made it in America, all by himself.

But the Depression, World War II, and the distance from Pennsylvania to Spain kept him from doing it. He (on the right in the photo) died in the 1950s, never having gone back.

I know that family reunions are huge business in Appalachia. That’s because so many have left the region, gone in search of work, yet don’t lose the connections to back home. Many go home every year, sometimes for months. West Virginia’s family-reunion business is massive, I was reading someplace. Same with Kentucky’s. Literally people do not lose touch with the place they left 50-60 years before.

So I have something in common with them.

Same with Mexican immigrants.

Years after high school, I lived in Mexico for a long time where I learned that they have their own version of these reunions – realizing yearly what my grandfather wanted to do just once but never could. They would return to their home villages for the annual fiesta, and throw huge parties, come dressed in fancy clothes. Usually it was the migrants who could afford to spend a lot of money who would go home. You didn’t want to go home poor-mouthing it. I remember they didn’t tell too many people back home about how hard they had to work to earn that money. (Mexican cops got used to shaking these folks down as they drove home. Highway 15 along Mexico’s Pacific Coast was a treasure-trove for cops.)

All that makes me think that the urge to go home and see everyone you grew up with is pretty universal – particularly if life’s been good.

ONE FINAL NOTE: That urge is a big reason why poor guys in Mexico get into drug trafficking. The kind of money you can make and the rep you develop are great ways of showing others back at the local fiesta how really well you’ve done, and of having other guys envy you, and of getting all the girls to want to talk to you. Especially if you’re buying beer for everyone in the plaza.

So maybe a high school reunion is really just like some get-together of local Mexican drug traffickers or an Appalachian family reunion.

I kind of like that way of thinking about it.

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Kaleidoscope, Death, and Claremont’s music scene back when

My hometown of Claremont, California’s own Kaleidoscope was one of the great bands of the late 1960s.

David Lindley and Chris Darrow were two of its mainstays.

My dad bought Side Trips at a street fair at Pitzer College where the band performed, brought it home and we played the hell out of this album for the next five years, until it basically could not be triaged.

Kaleidoscope, like many musicians in town back then, melded folk, bluegrass, psychedelia, Middle Eastern music, R&B, and about two dozen instruments between them.imgres

Makes you realize how rich in musicians, guitar players mostly, was Claremont in the late 1960s and much of the 1970s – due largely to the Folk Music Center and the five colleges, which, apart from CMC, had a pretty rich hippie scene. I remember because I accompanied my dad to a few anti-Vietnam marches when I was like 8 or so. Got a shirt stencil-painted with a clenched fist. Those were the days.

We were from the Claremont that’s south of Foothill, which only people from the town then will understand.

There’s great original music all the way through this record. But the dirge “Oh Death” seems fitting to the season.

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