The feast of S. Dominic, August 4th, was Bob West’s Year’s Mind. Here are a few memories of Bob, Conn, and Susan West:
Robert and Conn West and their daughter, Susan West, were friends of many people at Saint Stephen’s. From the beginning Bob and Conn visited the parish periodically, and I visited them at home, but they retained their membership in the local Episcopal parish, where they frequented the more traditional 8 a.m. service. Susan was more militant and joined the local Anglican Catholic parish in Nashville, where she lived, as soon as it formed. The Nashville parish did not flourish, but near the end of her life a good parish priest reconnected with her and helped her final days very much.
Dr. West was a Milton scholar and long-time chairman of the English Department. He was from Mississippi and, if memory serves, the son of a former head of the American Medical Association. Conn was from Nashville, where the family had owned since the 1850s a grand home in what later was, from the concentration of Nashville stars in the area, called ‘Hillbilly Hollywood’. Susan lived in the old home place and ran dairy cows there and on another farm that she owned further in the country. The grand house, on the Franklin Road, was next door to a Roman Catholic high school. The Roman bishop of Nashville took Susan to lunch periodically to suggest that she might want to donate the property to the diocese. She didn’t, but kept accepting the free lunch.
I endeared myself to Susan shortly after we first met, because we shared a common professor at Duke, George Williams from the English Department. Susan had him near the beginning of his career. I near the end of his career audited a class with him on the Metaphysical poets, read Lancelot Andrewes’s sermons with him as my tutor, and eventually had him on my dissertation committee. Susan and I had the same experience with Mr. Williams: we both thought we were fairly good writers until our first paper for him came back bloody with red ink. Since Susan knew that after classes with George Williams I could take criticism, she felt very free to offer it. One year my Christmas card from her came with this beginning:
Following the ‘but’ was some well-reasoned assault on a newsletter piece or sermon from me.
Years before I knew Susan more than slightly, I had gotten to know her parents moderately and then her mother very well.
Dr. West was much in the mold of English professors familiar to me from my undergraduate career at Kenyon College and then from George Williams. Dr. West, however, was certainly a very well rounded man with many interests beyond his academic pursuits. He was a husband and father, a churchman, a volunteer assistant tennis coach at the University of Georgia under Dan Magill, an author of Western novels, and an automobile racer. Stories abounded.
One summer Dr. West and his pal from the Notre Dame English Department, Tommy Stricht, raced cars in the Midwest. After a race near Chicago they spent the night with Tommy’s uncle, the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago. In the morning Cardinal Stricht had an early Mass, then joined the younger men for breakfast. The English profs had a race later in the day in Milwaukee and asked the cardinal for directions. He replied that he had a driver and didn’t pay attention to directions; however, he knew where to get them. He had an assistant bring a telephone to the breakfast table and they called the Archbishop of Milwaukee, also at his breakfast. Evidently a mere archbishop was more attuned to such worldly matters, and directions were obtained. I told this story years later to Archbishop Lewis, and his comment was, ‘Well, it’s not that difficult. Head towards Lake Michigan, turn left on Lake Shore Drive, and keep going until you hit Milwaukee.’ Perhaps that was what the Archbishop of Milwaukee said.
Dr. West and Susan kept their interest in tennis all their lives. When Dr. West died his pallbearers were members and former members of the university’s tennis team. When one of them asked Coach Magill what they should wear to the funeral he had a one word answer: ‘Shoes.’
After Dr. West’s death Conn joined Saint Stephen’s outright as a member. At that point she was shut-in, and I took her communion monthly. She combined a deep pessimism about national and world affairs with a Christian cheerfulness about ultimate things. Her world by then was rather restricted, but she enjoyed Susan’s periodic visits from Nashville (especially in football and tennis season), her faithful helper, Annette, and her books and friends.
Conn was a graduate of Radcliffe College, to which she deliberately did not contribute. While at Radcliffe she was a friend of Marion Schlesinger, who later still was grandmother to a young parishioner, Hugh Schlesinger, and friend of Hugh’s mother, Betty Alice Fowler. Conn also was a connoisseur of Persian art, exceptionally well-read, and a longtime friend of many at Saint Stephen’s. Marion and Dot Montgomery were favorites. When Marion presented a 400 page master’s thesis to his advisor, Dr. West, he was told to trim it by 100 pages. The next draft was 500 pages long. At that point Dr. West gave up. My late friend, Bill Provost, was Dr. West’s last English department hire from his time as chairman. Conn was friends with a number of older ladies in the parish such as Susan Tate, Hart Smith Shiver, and Chick Hodgson. It was from Mrs. West as well as Mrs. Tate that I learned of Julian Miller’s mother, Miss Mary, of whom it was said that in her vehicular presence pedestrians were divided into two categories, the quick and the dead.
I was on a post-Christmas holiday when Mrs. West died. The curate, Father Parsons, conducted a rather bleak funeral in strict accord with Mrs. West’s instructions, namely without any music, sermon, or additions to the Book of Common Prayer Burial Office. I then flew from Ohio to Nashville to inter her body, which was done in a tremendous downpour. When Susan drove me to the house afterwards as the sun came out I admired the apparently new metal roof. I asked her when the roof went on. She said, ‘1858 [or thereabouts].’ So much for my keen powers of observation.
As noted above, Susan was a careful and critical reader of the parish newsletter. At one point the parish decided to acknowledge in the newsletter and later on a plaque gifts above a stated level for the installation of a pipe organ. Susan objected vehemently to such vulgar publicity. I told her that such stratagems increased donations. She assured me that that was true, and that when Duke alumni publications included lists of donors she always read them carefully and avidly sought out information concerning what her former classmates and acquaintances had given. Nonetheless, she said, if we included her name on a plaque she would personally come to the church and remove the pipes which her money paid for.
A couple of years later I returned to the Nashville house, which Susan had largely restored. After that visit I told Bobby Gibson, the family lawyer in Athens, how pleased Conn would have been to know what Susan had done. I said, ‘Conn always said Susan couldn’t afford to fix the house. A couple of custom-made shutters alone would cost $10,000.’ At that Bobby made a face, snorted, and said, ‘Susan can afford to do anything Susan wants to do.’ In any case, at her death, Susan left a nice bequests to Saint Stephen’s. Another generous bequest went to Annette, who had cared so well for her parents as she would later care for our parish friend, Charles Beaumont, another English department member. Susan left one of her farms to a favorite cousin and the Nashville house was left to the public on condition that its trees not be chopped down. The house sat on the largest undeveloped piece of private land within the city limits of Nashville. The large residue of her estate went to animals: one-third to the Clarke County humane society, one-third to a charity working to preserve African elephant habitat, and one-third to a Tennessee home for aged circus and zoo elephants. Susan loved elephants, along with the Georgia Bulldogs, dairy cows, tennis, and the Book of Common Prayer.