The American School of Classical Studies at Athens
ASCSA

Ron Stroud in Thessaly, photo courtesy of Patricia Lawrence

11/12/2012

Q and A with Ron Stroud


Ron Stroud came to Greece as a student of Kendrick Pritchett from University of California at Berkeley. Some of you may know him as one of the forces behind the monumental SEG (Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum), and one of the excavators of the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Corinth. To others, he is an ASCSA legend both as a scholar and as an American School member. I met Ron in the fall of 2008, and to me and the other Regular Members, he was a master of storytelling, always willing over dinner to share tales full of high drama, adventure, wit and humor. Hopefully I can in turn share some of his stories with you in this interview.

— Katie Rask, Regular Member 2008-09

What made you decide to do the Regular Year Program? Had you ever been to Greece before?

The short answer to this, as to almost everything else about my career as a classicist, is a teacher. This time it was Kendrick Pritchett in Berkeley who was very active in the affairs of the School. I had completed two years of graduate work at Berkeley and did not yet have a dissertation project though I was leaning toward something in Greek history, epigraphy, or archaeology. He counseled me that if this is what I wanted to do, it was imperative to go to Athens as a Regular Member, participate fully in all aspects of the program, and stay in Greece for as long as I could. Like most of my fellow-graduate students at the time (1959), I had never been to Greece or any other part of Europe. At his urging, I took the School fellowship exams in February of 1959, was lucky enough to win the Seymour Fellowship, and doubly lucky because I also won a fellowship from the Canada Council and, unusually, both institutions allowed me to hold both fellowships, which meant at the outset that if I saved my lepta (pennies), I could probably afford to stay two years.

How did you first arrive in Athens?

I traveled from New York to Athens in August 1959 on the Greek liner, Queen Frederiki. Pierre MacKay and the other Fulbrighters came on the other Greek liner, the Olympia. Also on the Frederiki were fellow-students Bill Wyatt, and his wife Sandra, Jim Wiseman, Patrick Henry and possibly one or two others. Fellow passengers were the new Director of Athens College, Dr. Rice and his wife, and the Greek poet, Athanasios Maskelaris, from whom I had Modern Greek lessons on board. The trip took 14 days and we all got the false impression that the long journey was almost over as soon as we cleared Gibraltar, but then we stopped in Barcelona, Palermo (where WW II bombing was still very evident), Naples, and Messina and it seemed to take forever to get to Piraeus.

I was in a cabin in the very bottom of the ship with five old Greek men who had recently retired and were returning to their villages to live off the proceeds of their US Social Security. I was the only non-Greek at our table for eight, which was provided for lunch and dinner with a large flagon of very bitter retsina. The menu for lunch and dinner was printed in Greek and English and I still have one as a souvenir.

Greece was not in sight on the eve of our arrival but I was too excited to sleep and around 3.00 a.m. went down the hall outside our cabin to where a member of the crew was standing smoking next to a large open door. The sea was rushing by and on the horizon barely visible was the outline of a mountain. "Ellada [Greece]" he said laconically. It was Cape Malea.

We were met at the dock in Piraeus by Colin Edmonson, the Secretary of the School. The Secretary normally met arriving members of the School in those days. Future Director James McCredie was there with Edmonson because they had been out on a topographic excursion with Arthur Steinberg. The reason I mention these three is that as we drove into Athens and the Acropolis loomed into sight, we all in the back seats were stretching our necks and uttering excited exclamations, while Edmonson, McCredie, and Steinberg merely drove by without looking. Hardened veterans!

Ron Stroud telling stories about excavating at Corinth, in front of the Wall of Fame in Hill House's library.

What impression did you get from Athens and particularly Kolonaki when you arrived? What was it like?

Anyone walking through Kolonaki today would never guess what it was like in 1959. The square itself could be a bit dusty at times, for it was dirt in the center, unpaved and surrounded by trees, sometimes in hot summer afternoons sounding with the same cooing doves that one still hears in the ASCSA gardens. After strong winter rains, it could also be a bit muddy. Remember also that in 1959 the mad craze to tear down the lovely old Neo-Classical houses that graced most parts of Athens had not yet set in. The square was still mostly surrounded by these. So there were no glass-fronted shoe stores, or upscale bars, or Goody's. The kiosks also looked a bit more Ottoman than their modern overstuffed counterparts. Kolonaki's most conspicuous feature in my memory was the Byzantion, a large kaffeneion (cafe-bar for men), open-fronted in the summer with lots of wooden cane chairs spread all over the sidewalk on the west side of the square. Many very picturesque old, bearded gentlemen could be seen there all day (except for siesta) and all evening slamming down playing cards on the tables, shouting politics at each other, and smoking out of water-cooled hookas, for which they brought their own mouthpieces, much like professional snooker players who bring their own cues to a billiard parlor. This was unequivocally a male preserve, in fact very few women even dared to walk along the sidewalk on the west side of the plateia. This added to the mystery and wonder of an apparition I viewed there once coming home late across the square. It was after 2.00 a.m. on a hot summer night. The lights in the Byzantion were still on and there were still a few denizens inside. Outside, however, occupying the traditional five chairs (one for her bottom and two for the arms and one each for her long, slim, tanned legs), wearing a long, sleeveless white dress, was Melina Mercouri, having a nightcap and a smoke, alone. I couldn't believe it. I just stood there and gawked like a groupie. This was long before her days in "Never on Sundays" or local and international politics, the Elgin Marbles, etc. She used to live just around the corner from the School.

There were very few cars in Kolonaki in 1959, which made even more conspicuous the arrival of the old Marasleion bus that rattled through the square several times a day. There were also a number of horse-drawn carts of junk-dealers, vegetable merchants, and always, every day, a man on foot selling brooms and shouting, "Skoupie," in a voice that could have been heard as far away as the Plaka. Many of the other itinerant merchants shouted out the names of their wares and led heavily laden donkeys. Also, every few days a man would come through with a dancing bear, an accordion, and a monkey carrying an open hat for donations.

I saw a lot of this in my very first days in Athens, for Loring Hall had not yet reopened after the summer break and I had to stay at the fabled Pension [hotel] Suisse on Neophytou Vamva, just off the Plateia. Here I met Wade-Gery and Paul Alexander and the formidable private secretary of Queen Frederica, a permanent resident, who owned the large Liddell-Scott [Ancient Greek Dictionary] and lectured me on the absurdity of the Erasmian pronunciation of ancient Greek. Like many others over the years I enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of the proprietor Loukianos ("Kyrios Lucien") Polykandriotis from Trebizond and his wife Olympia (the best cook in Athens at the time, in my view). I later became their friend and Lucien came to our wedding in Athens in 1963. But that is a whole other story! 

Once the school year started, did you live in Loring Hall?

Yes, after it reopened following the summer break, I lived in Loring Hall in the West Wing main floor about midway down the hall between the door and the bathrooms. My maid was "Old Maria," a bustling cleaner-upper. She had a terrible time with my neighbor, David Mitten from Harvard who was an assiduous sherder. In those days one was actually encouraged to pick up sherds and bring them back to place in the School's sherd collection, which was kept in the basement of the Main Building. David returned from all the Fall Trips, the Friday Trips, and any other personal outings with large numbers of unwashed and often muddy sherds that he used to dump on the top of his dressing table, much to Maria's despair.

I have to tell you the story of my first full day in Greece in September 1959. My teacher, Kendrick Pritchett was at the School at that time and he invited me to join him on an excursion to Marathon on which he was then preparing a monograph. Evelyn Smithson, a professor from Buffalo who came to Athens every summer to work on the publication of the Geometric pottery from the Agora Excavations, joined us. Pritchett had rented a car and I got my first glimpse of the Attic countryside as we drove out. At Marathon, we climbed Mount Agrieliki, picked up some Geometric sherds, and saw Byron's famous view, "The mountains look down on Marathon..." We went to Vrana where the present museum was built much later and where Soteriades had dug a lot of Classical graves, then we walked quite a bit across what was then a totally empty plain to the Soros--no weekend villas, no posh hotels, no fences, no orchards, nothing but fields of wheat stubble and vegetables and few olive trees and sheep. I remember Pritchett stopping, as his pipe went out yet again, and saying, "Mr. Stroud [we were still on formal pupil/teacher terms at that point] we are walking across sacred ground!" We walked some more after visiting the Soros and found at the shore the only "structure" in sight. It was actually a tiny hut or lean-to that an old geezer had built. Inside he had a little gas stove on which he was grilling a great fish (a synagrida) that he had caught in the Bay of Marathon that morning. It smelled delicious. It was only than that we happily noticed the letters scrawled in chalk on one side of this little hut, "EXOKIKON KENTRON" which meant that we had reached a commercial establishment and we could pay for our seafood lunch. He also had FIX beer in the old blue label bottles that was icy cold. I couldn't believe it. This glorious lunch next to the sea, sitting on the grass, with the ghosts of the Marathonomachoi [warriors of the Battle of Marathon] only a few meters away. I returned that evening to the Pension Suisse where I was staying and excitedly told Kyrios Lucien about my day. What a fantastic first day in Hellas!

This was followed two days later, however, by an interlude that was not quite so pleasant. Pritchett, bless his heart, had wanted to help his student in any way he could, so he invited me to come to the garden of the French School at 6.00 p.m. where he had been invited for a cocktail by the Director Georges Daux and Mrs. Daux. The latter was one of the most elegant ladies in Athens and Daux himself was a scholar of great repute but also a formidable presence. I didn't even own a suit, let alone a summer suit. So clad in a heavy cream colored sports jacket that desperately need dry cleaning and gray flannels that were coming apart at the cuffs, I tentatively rang the bell at the front gate of the French School on Didotou Street. The thyroros led me to a flowery sector of the garden where seated in all their splendor were the Daux and Pritchett with one empty chair beside them. Daux in a spotless white suit rose to greet me and I was introduced to Mrs. Daux who looked like something out of Vogue magazine. To make it even worse, my Professor, as I knew before, was a connoisseur of fine wines, champagnes, madeiras, and all the rest. So I was offered a huge array of potent drinks, many of which I had never even heard of before. I was scared stiff, but the Daux quickly realized it and they loved Pritchett, so that they made every effort to put me at ease. Not a chance.

Luckily I was savvy enough not to gulp down what was in my glass but to take only a few sips and to hold onto it half empty until it was time to leave. Later in life, I became good friends with Daux and during a long rainy afternoon together in Berkeley many years thereafter we joked about our first encounter, but it was far from amusing for me — at least at the time!