A conversation with Tom Penchoen
This conversation took place at Tom and Marie-Louise Penchoen’s home near Hood River, Oregon. Participants were Tom and Marie-Louise, along with John Robin [J.R.] and Else Allen. The conversation began with J.R. and Tom.
Photo Captions: Tom shows their garden near Hood River to Else / Tom Penchoen today / A brook runs through the Penchoen estate / Tom and J.R. / Tom, Marie-Louise, and Else. “Harry,” whom the Allens named after a British prince, lies in the background
J.R.: Where did you live in Deerfield when you first came as a student in your junior year?
Tom: On the east side of Main Street. There were a few other boys there, and I snored pretty badly, which they found annoying, so I decided to give them a little bit of relief. Each evening I moved my mattress into the attic which was just behind a door to the side of the bedroom. I didn’t tell our dorm master about what I did, so he got very upset about the situation when he learned about it. You can’t have a boy in a great prep school like Deerfield sleeping in an attic, while all the other boys are sleeping in their own rooms. [Laughter] So they put me in another master’s house where I would be alone, right next to the chapel.
J.R.: That must have been fun.
Tom: In my senior year I was in the New Dorm, on the second-floor west, next to the dining room.
J.R.: Was Bill Hinshaw with you there?
Tom: I think so. Bill Cullen was there too, the red-headed basketball player.*
J.R.: I sure remember him. He was one of the nicest boys in our class.
Tom: Yeah. He had terrible nightmares and would wake up screaming and shouting, unaware that he was having these tirades. The whole floor would explode, with people sticking their heads out of the doors and asking what was going on.
J.R.: Now he has totally disappeared from the face of the earth. We have no idea what ever happened to him. He was a superb athlete and a very nice boy. What did you study when you were a junior? French?
Tom: Oh yeah, I did French.
J.R.: And English. You would have had Mr. Suitor as a junior and then Mr. McGlynn for your senior year. You must also have had Mrs. Boyden because she remembered you. That would have been in your senior year. Do you also remember Larry Bohrer who also taught chemistry?
Tom: Yes. Yes I remember him.
J.R.: He got married a few years after our graduation, and at our fiftieth reunion he and his wife came to the first banquet and sat at our table. By then he had Alzheimer’s but pretended that all was well. I’m in fairly close contact with his wife now.
Tom: And I had Art Williams in history. But nothing else rings a bell. You just hit the ones that I do remember.
Tom: I had a problem with a boy who lived on Albany Road very close to the center of Deerfield. There may have been six or seven boys living close together there. I went over there to confront this boy with the fact that I thought he had stolen my lacrosse stick, which he had.
J.R.: Did you get it back from him?
Tom: I got it back from him. I didn’t want to get any of the masters involved with this but just wanted to get my lacrosse stick back. In the process one of the masters got wind of it. They decided to call him in, but I didn’t talk to him about it.
J.R.: So you played lacrosse…
Tom: I played all sports. I came from a small town high school, where we had just football, basketball, and baseball. We didn’t have anything else like soccer or lacrosse. Just those three. I was pretty hefty, so I went out for football. They put me on a fairly high team, and every day I lined up as a lineman, opposite a particularly hefty and muscular day student, many of whom had an attitude about the “spoiled guy” boarders. We didn’t have face masks then but just helmets to protect our heads. This guy would come off the line on every play and smack the heel of his hand into my face. I would get a bloody nose and bloody lips every time, systematically. It didn’t take very long for me to lose my taste for football with that. [Laughter.] I injured my back slightly, so they sent me to the infirmary where they kept me for a few days to make sure that my back was all right. They counseled me not to go back to football, which would be bad for my back because of the bent-over position, or whatever. So my options were cross-country—which didn’t appeal to me at all; I wasn’t a runner—and soccer. I went out for soccer, but I had had no direct experience with that sport. All I could hear from other people was “It’s a fairly rough game.” You don’t tackle. So I didn’t tackle.
J.R.: That was my game too, but we never tackled. We just danced.
Tom: So they told me to get my equipment and go down to what must have been the tenth team at least. I went to the coach who asked me whether I had ever played before. I hadn’t, so he said “Sit down next to me.” He explained that there were defensemen in the back, then the mid-line, and then the front-line. The front-line moves up, and most of the mid-line moves up pretty far with them, and the defense stays back. The defense will advance a ball to a teammate and help him get it up the field. I was ill-prepared for all that information as I saw people falling down and getting up, so the coach said “Why don’t you become a defenseman? You’re big and tall, so that’s where you will really want to be.” I didn’t know anything about the game, but when I got on the field the ball came to me. I figured that I was supposed to get the ball over to one of my teammates and help him get it up the field. That was my football reaction. I kicked the ball over to him, and as he started going up the field, I ran in front of him to block the first guy who came near. [Laughter.] It was sort of a cross body block on a guy who had no idea what was coming at him out of the blue. His name was Steve Rockefeller [Deerfield, ’54]. I knocked the wind out of him, and everybody was standing around shouting “What are you doing? What did you do that for?”
J.R.: Did you get any penalties for that?
Tom: Well, it wasn’t a game or anything like that. It was just practice, so the penalty was that I had to learn not to do that anymore. It was a rude awakening for me and for Steve too. [Laughter.] I always felt I should really have tried to find out more about him. Eventually I learned to play decently and even played at Dartmouth on the freshman team.
J.R.: Around 1959 Steve married an au pair girl [Anne-Marie Rasmussen, from Søgne, Norway], who was working in the Rockefeller family home. It caused a big to-do in the US: rich boy marries poor girl, but the marriage did not work out. He later became an Episcopal minister, a philanthropist, and has led a productive life. You and I are lucky: we both married beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed girls from Denmark. Indeed, our class of 1952 shares several unique things, one of which is that we have two boys who married beautiful Danish girls. Another is that Mr. Boyden allowed one of our members to have a dog at Deerfield.* Another is that two of the members of our class had dates at Deerfield. Mr. Boyden let Russ Salmon invite his girlfriend for a weekend. She came on a Friday evening to attend the Saturday football game and film with Russ, things that were just not done at Deerfield, yet there she was. The other date was secret and totally unsanctioned. During our senior year Ranny Adell lived opposite me in Dean Hall, while you were in the New Dorm. One Sunday, the Main Office at Deerfield phoned Ranny to tell him that his sister had just arrived for a visit and that he should go to the main office and pick her up. That was strange, because Ranny had no such sister. It turned out to be a girl engaged to one of his buddies. She was just driving by Deerfield and thought that she would like to surprise Ranny and go out with him. She pretended to be his sister, and they went off in her car to spend Sunday together. They went to a bar and tried to go dancing but then found out that Massachusetts had a law that forbade dancing in public on Sundays. It was still an enjoyable date, and the whole matter was kept a secret until years later. [Laughter.]* Ranny’s father was an admiral and commander of the naval base at Key West, Florida, where Truman and his wife would go down for vacations. Bart Boyden [head of the English department at Deerfield and father of our classmate Dick Boyden] got very upset at seeing a picture of the smiling president in a gaudy Hawaiian shirt and pot-belly on the cover of Life Magazine. The Bart said to us at breakfast “You know, boys, there used to be a time when the President of United States was a dignified, respected gentleman.”
Tom next described how he got accepted to attend to Dartmouth from Deerfield. At that time colleges and universities had just started mailing acceptance and rejection letters to potential students on the same day, so on the day when those letters were to arrive, almost all of the seniors waited in the tiny mail room looking at the glass in front of each of their mail boxes. Tom describes that day:
Tom: I stood in the mail room all afternoon as the other students, one by one, received their letters of acceptance or rejection. I didn’t get any, although I had applied to three different schools. I thought it was weird, and I was still up in the air. Unbeknownst to me, the previous day Mr. Boyden had received the lists of Deerfield students accepted at each of those schools, and he knew that I was not on the list from Dartmouth. He phoned my mother and asked her where I wanted to go. She said I probably wanted to go to Dartmouth. The next morning he quietly ordered Johnnie [John T. Crane], who put the daily mail into our mailboxes not to put any college letter into my box. He then called me into his “office,” just a wide space in the main hall of the school building where he could call anyone over, which he did. He said, “Tom, where do you want to go to school?” I said, “Well, I think I want to go to Dartmouth.” I had also applied to Princeton and Hamilton, a small school in upstate New York. So he called Dartmouth and told them “Take him. I will vouch for him.” Dartmouth had already accepted fourteen boys from our class—they had to cut the list off someplace—but they had such a respect for Mr. Boyden that they took me anyway. So I went there, and of the fifteen boys Dartmouth had accepted, I was one of the only eight who graduated.
J.R.: Only eight?
Tom: Yeah, there was a lot of fallout during the first two years, particularly in the freshman year, so Mr. Boyden’s faith in me was justified. When I got there, I struggled but was able to maintain myself just fine. In those days, you had eight semesters over four years in which to graduate. Each semester had five courses, and I was right on target, passing but not excelling. Everything was going hunky-dory, but in the first semester of my senior year I hit a big bump. I was majoring in art and architecture, and the architecture course recommended I should take an engineering course on the strength of materials. It would involve a lot of physics and stuff that I was not into at all, but I followed the recommendation and took the course. All students at Dartmouth also had to take certain required courses. In our senior year we had a two-semester required Great Issues course. If you are going to go out in this world, you better damn well know how to form your opinions, so to help us learn that, Dartmouth invited persons who had succeeded in their field to give us talks. Every Monday evening we had some important person give a two-hour lecture followed by a question and answer session. Once we had the Secretary of State, but we also had writers, artists, politicians, poets—Robert Frost was there — CEOs of huge companies and the like to talk to us. Our duty each week was to write a report about that evening, so we had to be there to hear the lectures. You could not use someone else’s notes. There were certain components in the course: First, we had to spend the semester reading three different major newspapers and then write a paper on their treatment of one particular major issue.
J.R.: Could you choose the issue?
Tom: Yes, but they were pretty obvious. War and things like that. In other words we developed the critical thinking to see that different newspapers would not present the same issue in the same way. There was a mid-term exam and a final exam. It was all basically pass/fail. You either passed, failed, or got “excellent.” So I did the reports and got a pass. I did the mid-term and passed. I did the report on newspapers and passed. All was set for the final exam, and it was well known—everybody knew it—that even if you failed the final exam, you would not fail the course (nor would you get “excellent”) if you passed the other three components going into the final.
[By now, Else Allen had joined the conversation.]
Tom: So I was in this crazy course on strength of materials. I got F, F, F, F, on all of my first quizzes. Homework was about a G, so I went to the professor and said “This is way over my head. I don’t have the physics background.” He said, “Well, you’re getting better each time.” I said “That isn’t going to help if I fail the course. I’ve got to drop it and take an extra course next semester.” He said, “Still, you are getting better. I can see that you are starting to get the material and understand more of what is going on. Most of the boys are not doing well on this course, so you are not the only one. If you get an 85 on the final exam, you will pass the course.” So put all my eggs into that basket. (I knew that for the Great Issues class I didn’t need to do anything except just show up at the final exam.) I spent all my time on the “Strength of Materials” course, took the final, and got an 87 on it.
Tom: And then he flunked me.
J.R.: Wait a minute. He told you . . .
Tom: He flunked me.
Else: Didn’t you take it up with him?
Tom: Yes. He said “I never said that.” It was in his office.
Else: What a dishonorable thing to do.
Tom: It wasn’t intentional or personal. He must have thought I had cheated somehow, but he wouldn’t say so, and he wouldn’t budge. So I was flunked. Meanwhile, the faculty responsible for the Great Issues course had quietly decided that too much of a failure on the final exam would be rewarded by a failure for the course, for the first time in years.
Else: You didn’t fail that.
Tom: I failed the exam and the course. So now I’m down two courses, and R.O.T.C. was ready to \say “You won’t get a commission.” I didn’t really want a commission, but would be an honorable thing to have.
J.R.: Why didn’t they want to keep you?
Tom: They thought I would not graduate. I would have thrown away a fifth of my education, because each semester one of my five courses was with the R.O.T.C. when it could have been sociology or psychology or something else. It was going to be a catastrophe. That’s when I decided to move out of the dormitory into a place off-campus. I also got out of all other activities such as athletics and everything else except for my classes. I kept my nose to the grindstone, and, lo and behold, it was a totally new and exciting experience. Up to then, I had never gotten that deeply into any of my subjects: I was always a superficial student who just did the minimum necessary to satisfy the requirements of each course. Now I got really deep into my coursework. Up to then, I had never had an A since I first went to Deerfield, and then all the way through Dartmouth College.* Then, in my final semester taking seven courses rather than the usual five, I had six A’s and one B+!
Else: So how did you make up the two failures?
Tom: By taking two extra courses. It was overwhelming, but I made it through, and the blessing of the whole thing was that I learned that there is interesting stuff in this studying business. It was not just getting along; it was getting into something deeply. It was a great benefit overall.
J.R.: And you probably would not have become a famous linguistics professor without that epiphany. You graduated in 1956?
Tom: Back then, you didn’t have an option. At Dartmouth in those days, you finished your work in eight semesters or you didn’t finish. You could go to some other school and get as much credit as you could for your work at Dartmouth, but you did not get a Dartmouth degree.
J.R.: You graduated then in 1956, but what did you do between then and when we next saw you around Christmas in the airport at Paris in 1963?† You were in the R.O.T.C. and you served in the Washington area?
Tom: Yes, I served for two years, until 1958. And then I lost what seemed the “love of my life.” We have all had such deep disappointments.
J.R.: Well, some of us marry our great love.
Tom: Well, my great love changed her mind and went for somebody else.
J.R.: That’s worse. I thought you lost her because she died.
Tom: No. She dumped me. But there I was, having been in the R.O.T.C. and earning a decent living. It was nothing fantastic, but as an officer, I had saved a little extra money and thought, “Well, I’m not attached, and I’m not getting married this year, so I think I’ll go around the world.” I put on a backpack and got on a student ship to try to work my way around the world with the money that I had saved plus whatever I could earn. It might take me about a year. The first thing that happened was my backpack was much too heavy.
Else: Isn’t it always?
Tom: Sixty pounds with all the books and things you don’t need in a backpack. In Europe I couldn’t understand anybody and nobody could understand me. It was not going to be fun, so I adjusted my plans and spent a year in Germany teaching English conversation to students at the University of Bonn. Some tests I had taken in eighth grade “proved” that I had no aptitude for learning languages. Subsequently, I nearly flunked all language courses, even with expectations that were already quite low. I made life miserable for every language teacher I ever had. In high school, every time my teacher turned her back to the class, I did something that made everybody laugh. The teacher probably knew quite well who was doing it, but every time she turned around, I looked like an angel. I just disturbed every environment I went into. So there I was with no aptitude for languages in Germany, but I was reasonably pragmatic. You know, you need to eat or buy tickets for buses and things, so you learn the language. I started to learn German, went to a Goethe Institute in the Alps, and it was just fantastic, hanging out with a bunch of other foreigners, hiking every weekend, having a wonderful time. Then, lo and behold, I found I had an almost perfect ear for learning languages — I could imitate sounds — and I found it fascinating to see how they worked. The next thing I knew, I thought about doing linguistics, and I ended up getting a PhD at the Sorbonne in Paris. I had gone to France without a clear idea of what I was going to do, other than learn to speak French, but by then I had applied for and gotten a job in a lycée as a teaching assistant. I would do some work in conversation with classes, and that was enough to live on, teaching kids English.
Else: Which lycée did you go to?
Tom: Carnot, in the 17th arrondissement. Then a private school hired me to teach a class.
J.R.: That was the Alsatian one?
Tom: Yes, L’École alsacienne, but by then I had met up with a guy who said “Oh, you shouldn’t come here just to learn French and then go home. You should get a licence from the Sorbonne. That’s what I’m doing.” (He was an American.) He also said “Yeah, I’m taking this great course on linguistics. It’s on Saturday mornings, and it’s got this great professor. Come with me.” Well, I didn’t understand French that much, but I went into the class, and I realized that this person was talking about things that were really interesting. So I ended up following his advice and got a licence at the Sorbonne. It took three years. You can do it in two years, but even the French often do not. I didn’t have my French skills yet. So I was doing the certificates required for a licence. You have a licence d’histoire, a licence d’anglais, etc. If you did French, you did French philology, French literature, and in each of these there are a number of classes going on. You go to as many courses as you can, and at the end of the year there is an exam that covers them all. It’s a grand old system. That was the way it was. You studied your assigned books and any notes from the lectures for the exam; you knew the reading lists for each of these courses, so you could get along without ever showing up at a course. To get a licence libre, you had to get any mishmash four certificates. They didn’t care whether you came to the courses, but you were responsible for what they offered each year: Mallarmé, Verlaine, and a few others, and you had to have a critical idea of how to deal with your work. My certificates were linguistics, French philology (a history of the French language), phonetics, and English literature.
J.R.: And English literature?
Tom: Yeah. I took the easy road on that one and got my licence in 1962. At the end of June, I had just finished my third exam and had one more exam to do, French philology, but I failed that by a hair, so I had to study it a bit more over the summer and come back in September to take it again, probably getting it the second time around. That would get me my licence, and I could go home. However, at the beginning of summer I met Marie-Louise, just before I was about to leave Paris to go to the States. I had a job on a ship that would pay for my trip to the States. My plan was to come back to France in the fall, take that last exam, get the licence, and then head back to the States to do whatever I would be able to do. But, there was this little wrinkle: We had met. So when I came back in the fall, I wanted to court her. I already had a job in Paris where I was still teaching English, so I had sustenance, and I preferred to be in Paris, closer to Copenhagen than New York would be. So I stayed and started a doctorate in linguistics. My plan was to finish my licence in September, then see if I could stay in Paris by getting a doctorate. I called my linguistics professor and said that I wanted to start a doctorate. He invited me to his house in the suburbs where he was working on some stuff on a map. He said that he was very pleased with my work. I hadn’t thought he had noticed me but apparently he had. I knew that when you do a degree in linguistics, you have to work with some exotic language. I told him, “Right now the most exotic language I know is French, but I don’t imagine that that would work.” He agreed. I had to work on a language that needed attention, not one of the languages that already had had centuries of work on it. He looked at a map of Africa on which he was in the midst of coding languages according to four different categories: at one extreme were languages that had been studied abundantly and for which there was a lot of material. At the other extreme were languages known to exist but that no one had studied. In between were either (a) languages studied inadequately by missionaries who made everything fit into the Latin model or (b) languages for which no grammar was written but with vocabularies printed by missionaries who did not know how to transcribe things. So he looked at his color-coded chart and started to gravitate toward French West Africa, below the Sahara in the humid, hot part of the Ivory Coast. I said, “I think I’m going to be marrying a Dane next year, and I don’t think that she will be able to handle that kind of a climate.” He said, “No, no, definitely not.” (He had been married to a Dane once.) His fingers hesitated and swept across the Sahara, and he said that Morocco has a very nice climate. That’s how I got into Berber, but it was not the only reason. Berber needed some attention, and there was also a position for that language family opening up at U.C.L.A. That put me on track for a job. Even before I got my degree I got a letter from U.C.L.A. asking whether I would be interested in joining their faculty.
J.R.: We other language professors remember that the Modern Language Association conventions were slave markets in which it was difficult to get a job to teach a language. It was nice that you ended up not having to go through that.
Tom: Marie-Louise and I married each other in 1963. I then worked on my doctorate for three years, and in 1966 we went to the University of Tunis as a faculty assistant where I could teach, do research in two or three villages that still spoke the Berber language, and then finish my thesis. My dissertation was a syntactic description of an Algerian dialect.
J.R.: But surely that had been done before?
Tom: Not of this particular dialect.
J.R.: So you were in effect mapping a new language and giving its grammar.
Tom: Yes. It was a syntactic analysis and description of texts in a particular group of Berber languages, Chawia, using principles my professor had used in a general linguistic theory.
J.R.: When did you finish your dissertation?
Tom: In 1967, when we returned to Paris.
J.R.: I finished mine in 1969 and then became an assistant professor at Dartmouth College.
Tom: We went to U.C.L.A. where we spent twenty-eight years. In any given year I had three or four students in Berber. I also taught some linguistics courses of course.
Else: John didn’t have many students in medieval French either.
Marie-Louise: And in what year did you two meet?
Else: In 1959, two days after I first arrived in Cambridge, England, where I had gone to learn English. Since I did not really speak it, and John did not speak Danish, we conversed in French alone.
J.R.: We met on October 4, 1959. I proposed to Else just four months later.
Else: Marie-Louise, what did you do in France?
Marie-Louise: I was an au pair girl.
Else: And after your marriage?
Marie-Louise: I worked at the British Library until I had our first child a year later.
J.R.: From which town did you come in Denmark?
Marie-Louise: From Hillerslev [a village south of Odense, Denmark].
J.R.: And where did you learn English?
Marie-Louise: In school in Odense.
J.R.: In theory, Else learned English in school too, but since she grew up in Paris, her French was better than the English she learned in Paris. That’s why she came to Cambridge, to learn English with a proper British accent. Somehow the British accent was lost after we met. After I proposed, we started speaking English with each other.
Tom: So your family was in France too?
Else: My father was working for a Swedish company in Paris.
J.R.: He was director of a large company there. He went there not knowing a word of French, so he had to learn French very quickly.
Else: He had a great secretary.
[The conversation concluded with a Danish lunch, prepared by Marie-Louise with Else’s help. The Allens were grateful for the Penchoen hospitality.
Class of 1952