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Langdon Elsbree

Professor, loving husband and father

Langdon Elsbree, a longtime Claremont resident, died on June 21, 2014, two days before his 85th birthday.

Mr. Elsbree began his life on June 23, 1929, becoming a “birthright Friend” and resident of Wallingford, Pennsylvania. His first formal education was at The School in Rose Valley, founded by a group of parents, after the theories of Dewey, Ruskin and Morris, followed by secondary years at Swarthmore High and George School. His bachelor’s degree came from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana in 1952.

During his undergraduate years, Mr. Elsbree, known as “Lang” by friends, held a variety of jobs to help pay for his education. These included stints as a night watchman, as a member of the grounds crew for the college and as a psychiatric attendant at Philadelphia General Hospital.

Just after commencement, Mr. Elsbree married Aimee Wildman. They moved to Ithaca, New York where he earned a master’s degree from Cornell University and a daughter, Anita, was born. His teaching career opened at Miami University in Ohio. Earning a doctoral degree in literature at the Claremont Graduate School came next. He came to Claremont with his wife and daughter in 1957. He became and remained active in the Friends Meeting and local life. His commitment to Friends ways and practices, including an emphasis on equality, peaceful resolutions and dialog, permeated his whole life.

Langdon was so much an integral part of Claremont that he gave the title to the city’s annual “Village Venture” event held every October. He taught part-time at Scripps and Harvey Mudd colleges and then, in 1960, settled into a full-time position teaching literature and composition at Claremont Men’s College, now Claremont McKenna College.

Reading, teaching and learning were always his first loves. Mr. Elsbree taught full-time at CMC for 34 years and continued to teach part-time beyond his ostensible retirement. His courses were wide-ranging, including British fiction, the American Novel since World War II, science fiction, ritual and narrative, and philosophy/literature. His areas of interest and expertise included anthropology, the relationship between literature and culture and the British writers Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, among others.

In an online tribute on the Claremont McKenna College website, the college’s third president, Jack Stark, praised Mr. Elsbree, writing: “Professor Elsbree was a very respected member of the literature department, and kept in touch with many of his students, who greatly benefited from his classes on D.H. Lawrence and English and American literature.”

Notes of remembrance from former students reflect Langdon’s dedication to his teaching. He opened young lives to new experiences and ways of encountering the world. He believed a good course could change a person’s worldview and so he constantly challenged his students, asking if an underlying motif of the readings might be God, guiding them to discover the meaning of writing precisely and instructing them to find out why scholarship is significant. In his classes, he used copies of the Heath Handbook, which he co-edited, and employed an ample amount of humor. There is testimony that, long after their classes, students have used the handbook until it wore out.

“He was one of the good ones. He was a dear, dear friend,” said David Levering, a longtime history professor at Cal Poly Pomona who knew Mr. Elsbree for 59 years.

Students remember working with Mr. Elsbree on a tutorial basis or while writing a thesis. Some even recall visiting him at home and meeting the family, including a Welsh terrier named Eilo. He attributed his first book, The Rituals of Life: Patterns in Narratives, to his emerging interest in anthropology and narrative inspired by gifted students in his classes and seminars.

In the realm of literary criticism, Mr. Elsbree delved into the transforming force of dance and ritual as rites of initiation in major literary works. “When such moments take place in a story,” he told generations of students, “characters are changed forever by their experiences as they cross a threshold into a new moral universe,” the CMC tribute explained.

In a tribute to The School in Rose Valley, Langdon wrote, “The ballads and other songs of the English country dances were [where] my deep saturation with music and steps of dancing, including sword and stick dance, and ancient ritual celebrations,” arose. It led to his study of the dance used in the novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence, research on which he published many papers throughout his academic career.

Throughout the years, the Elsbree family was fortunate to enjoy trips to National Parks and visits throughout Europe and “down under.” In 1966-1967, the family lived in Cairo where Mr. Elsbree taught on a Fulbright scholarship. It was a life-changing experience to live in a different culture. (It was also a profound experience to be evacuated as the Six Day War erupted.)

Two books came from his early experiences and extended work in anthropology. The Rituals of Life: Patterns in Narratives is composed of essays that discuss basic rituals such as “Taking a Journey” and “Enduring Suffering,” milestones he described as “liminal experiences.” Ritual Passages and Narrative Structures works with the ways that rites of passage correspond with narrative structures.

Loved ones remember Langdon the way he described his own father: “He was a good man.”

He is survived by his wife, Aimee; by his daughter Anita and her husband Paul; by his grandson Eli Elsbree Emigh; by his brother Schuyler (Sky) Elsbree and family of Arnold, Maryland, and by his sister Mary Hoffman and family of Menlo Park, California.

A gathering to celebrate Langdon Elsbree’s life will take place on Saturday, August 23 at 1 p.m. in Manor Hall at the Claremont Manor, 650 Harrison Ave. in Claremont. Parking is available at The Claremont Friends Meetinghouse across the street at 727 Harrison Ave.

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