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Dear Reader: This essay is excerpted from “Keeper: a Brother’ Restoration,” a work-in-progress book project — a photo-homage to my late brother, Nick, who died at 15 — physically from a biking accident, but emotionally from the loss of our father after a traumatic separation and divorce when he was 7. On the other hand, I was only 2 at the time, and thus, with no living memory of a man named Dad, was unscathed. At least at the time.


                        “A snapshot is a glimpse into what never stops moving,

                        never ceases to express for itself something of our common feeling.

                        Every feeling waits upon its gesture. Then when it does come, how

                       unpredictable it turns out to be, after all.”

                                                                                                            — Eudora Welty

                                                                                                            “One Time, One Place


Eudora Welty nailed it; the unpredictable turns out to be key in this backstory behind two pesky snapshots from a sunny June day in 1946. What is it about this innocent pair of snaps that causes a knot in my stomach? The fore-knowledge of what they portend? The dramatic irony of what will unfold the following year? To be sure, that and more.

Nevertheless, the pair of troublesome images beckon. In fact, it’s more like a summons. Here’s something I must do, by command, an odious task that I definitely would prefer to just forget about and move on. But ah, here’s the rub. As Clancy Martin writes in “How Not to Kill Yourself,”

“In suffering lies the real juice of life.”

So suffer I must. Bring it on. Let me grapple with this pair of painful snaps, damn them to hell, for I must not look away — such is my summons.

Maybe I should pull back, break it down, get some distance, separation, look at these images like I’m gazing at someone else’s dysfunctional family. It’s the perspective that writer William Ury calls, “getting to the balcony,” so that I, like a mildly interested spectator,  can look down from a high-oblique perspective as the drama unfolds on the stage below.   So, what meets the eye?

A pie-slice of time

Now, let’s get in tighter.  In the first image, possibly shot by the grandfather, little Jock stares goofily at the camera while being held securely aloft by our mother, as father Arch smiles down at me — his expression obscured by the harsh shadows, but nonetheless, as I zoom in on the photo now, its tenderness causes me goosebumps. The tableau has been arranged in front of the screened-in kitchen porch at the rear entrance to the grandparents’ big house at 330 Tenney

Circle, Chapel Hill. A house and a town that will shortly figure hugely in the life of Nick — as well as his mother and little brother.

Now, zoom in on the horizontal snapshot: our father, Arch, 42, holds up his youngest son by his hands, like a puppeteer performing with a marionette. I am not yet a year old, and clearly can’t walk a lick. Meanwhile, brother Nick, 6, grins as he enjoys the spectacle, with grandfather Rush, 61, mugging comically for the camera with an antic pose.  The boys’ mother, Myra, 30, using her favorite “Kodak 35” camera that produces these distinctive rectangular images, records the moment of pose.

Look at the photos again. Notice another small but telling detail of the times: just behind the family grouping in the upper left side of the photo, see the little white boxy object built into the screened porch. Readers of a certain age will recognize this as the delivery container for the daily milkman, with doors both inside and out for drop-off and retrieval, and conveniently situated at chest height so the milkman and “Grammy Rush” (or more likely her maid/cook, Thelma,) don’t have to bend over to remove the heavy one-quart glass milk bottles.

Then, in both images, my attention is drawn magnetically to Nick, swathed in manly embraces of both father and grandfather, looking supremely happy,  returning the affectionate touch of both men, sure of his place in the universe. As we say in our family, he’s “in the love box.”

Grandmother Lionne, 61, un-pictured in this duo of photos, but ever the faithful documentarian, has penned on the back of the first crinkle-edged snapshot the vital information to firmly fix this pie-slice in time as:

“June 3, ’46. Chapel Hill. Nixon and Jonathan
also Charles Rush & Arch L.”


            God love the grandmother for being so fastidious! How many of my friends have family snaps with no such contemporaneous provenance, rendering them almost useless, floating blindly in time like leaves in a storm. Of what use is an old photograph that isn’t authenticated with “the Five W’s” that every beginning reporter must memorize: Who What Where When Why and then maybe How?

            Thus, the reporter in me kicks in. About these two haunting images, which, on the surface, appear as sweet and harmless as “Kodak Moments” — what do I know, and what do I not know?

I know the Who and I know the Where.

I do not know the What, nor do I know the Why.

And I thought I knew the When. Until I did some digging.

Turns out, in the year 1946, June 3 was a Monday.

That single fact opens a door to a new line of inquiry.


The When, What and Why

            That summer of ’46, the peripatetic professor Arch Lauterer, along with his little family, is  very much on the move again, having just finished a one-year gig at Case Western Reserve in his boyhood hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Now he is headed west to assume his dream job as chair of the drama department at Mills College in Oakland, California. The visit to the maternal grandparents Down South could very well have been the first leg of that long rail trip, from Ohio to N.C., then taking a break and letting the grandparents visit with the two boys, before the Lauterers undertake the arduous train ride to California.

That layover in N.C. sounds like a wise plan, especially considering they are traveling with a 1-year-old in post-WWII America when commercial travel, primitive by today’s standards at best,  is just beginning to recover. Plus, it’s not even been a full year since the end of the war. The trains were probably peppered with GI’s still being de-commissioned.

But also, there might have been a strictly professional reason that Prof. Lauterer wanted to come down to Chapel Hill, and it might account for the relatively business casual dress in which we see Arch attired. Further, here’s why the fact that it was a Monday might be the key clue: It’s worth conjecturing that he may have just come from a morning meeting with the administrative leaders of the UNC drama department who had engaged him to design a new experimental theatre — a design that was innovative, bold, and avant-garde, way ahead of its time, and devoid of the classic proscenium arch.


Of my father’s theatre design for UNC I knew nothing, until a research trip in 2008 led me to the Tobin Museum of San Antonio where, to my utter astonishment,  I discovered his lost theatre of UNC, with detailed plans embedded in a doctoral dissertation, stored deep in the cool basement vaults of the Tobin.

Doctoral candidate Billie Dean Watts,  writing in his 1970 doctoral dissertation at Oregon University, (“Arch Lauterer: Theorist in the Theatre”) notes that Arch, after designing the theatre, 1943-45, made several trips to Chapel Hill to meet with drama department leaders.

Watts, who would go on to head the drama department at Angelo State University in Texas for 30 years,  devotes multiple pages to Arch’s innovative and forward-thinking theatre design for UNC, but says naught about how the deal came down, who approached who and how much Arch was paid for the work.
After discovering Watts and his work, I was in touch with him until his death in 2022 at age of 91.

Significantly, Watts reports that UNC drama department chair Samuel Selden told him, “I met him in the course of several visits he made to the University…” and that “Mr. Lauterer undertook to design an experimental theatre for our department that received the full endorsement of the staff but which because of a lack of funds was never built.”

However, later in the dissertation, Watts quotes an additional unnamed UNC source who says that there was significant faculty opposition that helped scuttle the plan — specifically Watts cites “dogmatic minds that have roundly condemned this design…”

So, Arch’s visit to Chapel Hill in that summer of ’46 might have been his last-ditch effort to sway the nay-sayers and salvage the deal, a failed Hail Mary play.

Not to be put off, three months later in September 1946, Arch published a lengthy essay in Theatre Arts Monthly titled “Architecture for the Theatre: a New Plan,” detailing his concepts and rationale for the new theatre at UNC that was apparently too modern, too experimental, and too far ahead of its time — at least for this traditional classic Southern university in this time and place.

Ironically, all these years later,  such a ” thrust stage” design, with the absence of the proscenium arch and its spare stage protruding boldly into the audience, is a widely accepted theatre design — one that UNC would eventually adopt and modify in the form of its current Paul Green Theatre — a full 30 years after shelving Arch Lauterer’s plans!  Completed in 1978, the present -day UNC Paul Green Theatre, designed by Odell and Associates, cost a cool $1.6 million, according to PlayMakers historian and drama department chair Professor Bobbi Owen.

Never Give Up

For Arch, although it might seem as if the day’s work at UNC was a failure, it turns out that time, persistence, broader minds and deeper pockets would eventually reward the far-sighted theatre designer. In the mid-’50s, Arch’s dream theatre would come to life on the West Coast in the form of the Florence Hellman Dinkelspiel Theatre Auditorium at Stanford University. To this day, it remains a part of that great university.

From the Watts’ dissertation, the photo of Arch’s theatre at Stanford, juxtaposed with a picture of the present-day UNC Paul Green theatre, bears an uncanny resemblance. Though the observer will notice immediately that Arch’s stage, with its Art Deco style, doesn’t “thrust,” so much as it gently ebbs.

Into the Weeds

Circling back now to the two black-and-white snapshots from ’46: because I know this physical setting of the grandparents’ home so well and judging by the position of direct sunlight and the deep shadows, it appears that these photos were taken around mid-day. That time frame would also support my speculation: that Arch , following his final attempt to convince UNC leaders, has just returned to the homeplace. And here he joins his family along with Charlie Rush, UNC’s head librarian, who has left his office at the university’s Louis Round Wilson Library to meet them for lunch back home at 330 Tenney Circle. That would account for grandfather’s formal suit, tie and fedora — his normal attire for a working day at the university.


Now comes the hard part. The part I have assiduously attempted to avoid confronting. Looking closer at the timeline, I now realize fully what these snapshots are trying to say to me:  that in just over a year’s time, Myra, having discovered Arch’s affair with “Alice,” will have evacuated from their new home in California and fled Back East with her two boys —to this very house — taking refuge from a marriage practically predestined to go bust.

As I look at these snaps today, they deliver a gut-punch, This doomed marriage may already be on the rocks. Posing gamely for the camera, Myra and Arch may already know it.  But Nick has no clue.

And they look so happy.

































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