Junior

The Anderson, c. 1932 (from left): Victor, Elam Sr., Elam Jr., Colena, Frances.

Elam Jonathan Anderson, Jr., was born July 8, 1926, in Shanghai, China. His parents, Elam Sr. and Colena, were American Baptist missionaries, sent to Shanghai to run a Chinese-American school. It was a turbulent time in China, with threats of violence both internal and external: the Empire of Japan would, in a few years, be invading and occupying the country, even as Maoists plotted a revolution that would transform China into the world's largest Communist country. Reading the signs of the times, Elam Sr. knew Americans would not be welcome in China much longer, and began working to hand over leadership of his school to indigenous people. This was met with resistance by the American Baptist mission board, so he left his post to found his own school, an academy that would be self-sufficient. In 1932, he was recruited by telegram to become president of Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. The Andersons loaded all their belongings on a steam ship and set sail for the United States. It was my father's first move.

Dad didn't remember much Mandarin, though his parents were fluent in it, and would converse in it whenever they wanted to keep a topic secret from him. From birth he was known as "Junior," a title he retained well into his 30s. He was a mischievous child, doted on by both parents, and precocious, as well: he became an Eagle Scout at 14, graduated from high school at 16, and received his bachelor's degree in physics at 19. Of my grandfather, I know only a few stories, for he passed away in 1944. After six years at Linfield, he moved the family to southern California, where he was named president of Redlands University, the college my father was to attend. Elam Sr. died suddenly of an aneurysm. Elam Jr. was home that day, and attempted to revive his father using techniques he had learned as a Scout, but was unsuccessful.

Colena remained in Redlands for two years, time enough for her youngest to graduate from the university. Already a freelance writer, she began writing books, and working on her PhD. She was recruited by Linfield to be an English professor and, eventually, Dean of Women. She moved to McMinnville in 1946 to take up residence in a home purchased in her behalf by the current president of the college, and lived there for the remaining 42 years of her life. This was the house my parents moved into at retirement, and yesterday morning, my father died there, in the same room in which his mother had died 26 years earlier.

After Redlands, my father enrolled in the University of Washington's graduate psychology program. He was unhappy there, though, and in the midst of an existential crisis, found encouragement in the person of a professor who encouraged him to take a different path. Rather than finish the psychology degree, he enrolled at the American Baptist Seminary in Berkeley, California, from which he received his Bachelor of Divinity (a graduate degree subsequently upgraded to Master) in 1952. At 26, he was ordained and began serving churches in the Bay Area. Doing that work, he met my mother, Jean Richard, an organ performance major at San Jose State College who played occasionally at a large Baptist church where he was an associate pastor. They began dating, were engaged in 1958, and married in 1960. Nine months later, I was born.

I'm not sure at what point my grandmother, uncle, and aunt stopped calling my father "Junior," and consented to call him by his first name, Elam, though I think it was probably around the time of my birth. After seventeen years living in his father's shadow, it may have just finally seemed right to allow him to stop being the baby of the family, and be a man in his own right. I never heard him called "Junior" except in stories told about his childhood. Hearing his unusual name--I've never met anyone else with it--I always knew he was being addressed or spoken about. Looking at the few photographs I have of him as a child, though, Junior seems quite appropriate. There is an impish quality to his features. He received special attention from his father to, in part, make up for the huge workload and exhausting travel schedule of his father's work as a college president.

Dad didn't speak much about his father, but there were two stories he told and retold, the first to give us a sense of how his father could be simultaneously strict and hilarious, the second to illustrate how important it is to keep promises made to children.

Like most siblings, Elam Jr. and Victor bickered incessantly, often fighting over favorite toys. On one car trip, they'd been fighting over a camera. Their father had kept his cool, silently driving, as their argument went on and on. Suddenly, without warning, his hand appeared between them, plucked up the camera, and tossed it out the window. He didn't have to say a word: they got it, and the argument, apart from being moot, was over.

Growing up in McMinnville, Elam Jr. became a rock hound, an interest he maintained throughout his life. Somehow he learned of a farm in central Oregon where people could go to gather thundereggs, and excitedly told his father about it. As busy as he was, Elam Sr. promised to take his son on an expedition to the rock farm. It must have slipped his mind, though, because some amount of time passed. One day my grandfather looked at his car and decided it needed a new paint job. He took it to a body shop, had the work done, and the car looked new. On arriving back at the house, proudly showing off the polished new paint job, he was reminded by his youngest of the rock hunting expedition. He looked at the lovely shine on the car, sighed, and said, "How about tomorrow?" It's a four hour drive from McMinnville to Madras now; I can't imagine how long it took in 1936. I'm sure much of the road was gravel, and especially once they were on the back 40 of the rock farm, the paint job took some real punishment; but keeping a promise to a child came first. By the time they arrived back in McMinnville, late that night, the car might as well not have been painted at all.

In 1999, I took my father on an expedition to that same rock farm. We collected a bucket of thundereggs, and my father had them cut and polished. One of them sits on my mantle to this day. For years, my father talked glowingly about that trip the two of us took, revisiting a precious memory from his childhood and creating a new one, just for the two of us.

Comments