Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
Happenstance or Providence: How I found all my jobs
Page 2

Fritz Marti, ca. 1915.
Fritz Marti, ca. 1915.
Image extracted from a group photograph of Marti's Swiss military unit.

Arnold, having been trained for commerce, had the required "beautiful hand" and was also fond of composing in that pretty handwriting equally pretty descriptions of sentimental scenes which were then printed in a German fortnightly paper in Portland. There was another similarly sentimental contributor to that paper, a certain Georg Schmidt, formerly a highschool teacher in Germany and now Professor of German at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Early in 1923 the two writers who knew each other happened to take the same coach on the train from Portland to Eugene. Talking about this and that they also hit on the topic of immigration. That made Arnold think of me and he asked Georg whether the University had a vacancy. Out of a blue sky I received a very emotional letter from Professor Schmidt who informed me that the war had almost killed his department and there were no funds for a man in German literature. Arnold had told him he guessed that was my subject. I instantly wrote Schmidt mine was philosophy. By return of mail, that is, in six weeks, I received the good news that a teaching fellow was wanted in philosophy, and I should write to George Rebec, the Chairman of Philosophy and Dean of the Graduate School. Rebec's father, a Czech laborer, had emigrated from Bohemia and worked in a Detroit factory. Rebec himself worked his way through the University of Michigan and finally settled in Oregon.

In 1923 Rebec was on a year's sabbatical leave in Europe. He spoke Czech and stayed in Prague where he received my letter of application. He replied from Florence saying that, on his way to Paris, he was going to be in Zurich July 17 and would see me if I could be at the Hotel Central near the railroad station at 8 P.M. I wish a photographer had been there with a flashlight. It would have been quite a picture, Rebec with his drooping moustache, soft collar and southern style black ribbon tied in a bow which hung in two loops, and I with a proper stiff collar and a tiny cropped moustache. We liked each other and talked till eleven. Rebec told me I could have the fellowship if it had not been filled in his absence. Meanwhile I should apply for an immigration visa. I obtained one.

In September I followed the standing invitation from my teacher, Professor Fritz Medicus, to spend a week with his family at their vacation place in the high Alps. Monday morning, September 10, Mrs. Medicus knocked at my door: "Dr. Marti get up at once and go to America!" A cable had been forwarded: "Come immediately. Rebec." I took the next train home and started looking for a berth on a transatlantic ship, at the height of the season of homeward bound American tourists. I found one on the Olympic of the White Star Line. (After our marriage we sailed on the same ship, having visited my mother in 1938. The Olympic was torpedoed during World War II.) I packed six wooden boxes of books, sailed from Southampton September 19, and landed in New York in the morning of September 26. A young friend of Aunt Mary, Frieda Miller (later in a high government post at Washington) had stayed at our house in Berne and now sent a graduate student to show me New York. He took me to his New School of Social Rsearch and thence to the offices of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers where he introduced me to Horace Kallen, his teacher. Again I wish I had a picture of that labor leader and the green Ph.D. from Switzerland. Kallen advised me never to kick the holy cows. I never heeded his advice.

The vastness of this country impressed me tremendously during the four day train ride in the old car tourist Pullman. I arrived in Portland October 4, and the next afternoon Arnold Keller put me on the electric train to Eugene. It was really a 120 mile streetcar line. Its time table scheduled my arrival at 9 P.M. but a thunderstorm caused a power failure of two hours. The short train pulled in at Eugene at 11 P.M. in a typical Oregon downpour. Across the square from the station I made out a hotel sign and dashed over. The room I was given looked dismal with faded wall paper, dim light, iron bed and enamel water pitcher in an enamel wash bowl supported by a wire stand. I had really arrived in the Wild West! I woke up in glorious sunshine and cheerfully walked the mile to the campus. As it was Saturday, October 6, nobody was at the Administration Building except the secretary of the Dean of Arts and Sciences. She informed me that the fall term had begun Monday, October 1, and that the assistant of the Philosophy Department had taken my classes for the first week. Classes? Rebec had told me in Zurich that, for the fall quarter, I would simply act as his assistant and then begin my own classes in January. Now I had forty-eight hours to take over!

One of the two classes, Nineteenth Century Philosophy, did not faze me. The other was different. Saturday noon the departmental assistant, Harold Lee (soon my friend and now Professor Emeritus at Tulane University), appeared at my rooming house with the textbook on Formal Logic. In my opinion, which I still harbor, it is a dull subject of little human value. I perused the book during the weekend. Monday morning I was at Rebec's office and at eleven he took me to the adjacent classroom where I faced two or three dozen freshmen. Rebec introduced me: "Dr. Marti just arrived from Switzerland. Now some of you have a little French. Imagine you are put on a magic carpet and wisked to France, set down in a classroom and told to teach those students, in French. How would you feel?" He pointed at me, said "That's how he feels!" and walked out. I looked at my class and said I surmised they had glanced through the textbook and found that the subject, formal logic, was nothing but a kind of abstract balance sheet of what they had practiced concretely during their highschool years. Of course they could not yet be familiar with the jargon. For instance here was the term syllogism. Let us take an example. Do you grant that all dogs are mammals? (A fairly unanimous nodding of heads.) Well then, suppose you know absolutely nothing at all except that all dogs are mammals. What can you safely say about mammals? A hand went up in the front row and the boy said, "All the mammals are dogs." (A few gasps from the class.) For my part I discovered that maybe it was really necessary to teach formal logic (The boy later told me he wanted to become a lawyer. He had quite a way to go to become a logical one!)

I had a great two years at Oregon, where foreigners were rare and welcome and everybody was safe and friendly. One illustration. I walked two miles to call on friends beyond the city limit. They were just packing their car for a week in the Cascade Range. They offered me a ride back to town. As they invited me to get into the car I asked were they not forgetting to lock the house. They replied there were no thieves in Oregon. "Besides, suppose somebody who does not know we are away comes to call and is caught in a downpour, how can he get shelter?" In Switzerland one always locked one's house. And so one does in contemporary America! But that was 1924.

Early in 1925 I happened to stroll across campus with Dean Dyment of Arts and Sciences. He knew the limited budget of the University. The first year my salary was $1000, the second $1200, increased by $300 for summer school. The ordinary compensation for an instructor was $1800. Dyment told me he would like to keep me in Eugene but could offer no raise. He'd let me think it over. Next weeek I told him of my original plan to spend only half a dozen years in the U.S.A., then perhaps find a teaching assignment in South America, go on to South Africa, maybe even India, and return to Switzerland in my forties, at an age when over there a man could first earn a living wage in academic teaching. I liked Oregon but also wanted to see other parts of the country. Dyment agreed with me, and he and Rebec immediately started to write letters to people in the East. During the 1924 summer school in Portland I made the acquaintance of the famous Dean Christian Gauss of Princeton University who spent the summer in Oregon as a visiting professor. Word came that Princeton was looking for an instructor in philosophy. By March or April I had a letter from the Princeton Chairman of Philosophy, the Scotsman A.A. Bowman (who later returned to Glasgow), saying he was glad he could expect to see me on his staff in September.

This time the coincidence was unfavorable. My nomination for the Princeton instructorship, duly signed by Bowmen and Gauss, landed on the desk of President Hibben along with an application from a young Englishman who had just received his master's degree at Oxford. Hibben, the anglophile, ruled that obviously the M.A. from Oxford far outweighed the Ph.D. from Berne. So I lost my first chance of getting into the big league. In the fall of 1925 I visited the Princeton campus and Professor Bowman told me the Oxford man had turned down the Princeton invitation. I asked why they had not offered me the instructorship again. Bowman replied, "we thought you were miffed." "Miffed," said I, "I was and still am in need of a job, having resigned from Oregon!"