Cross Words: A Chronology
Alan Freeman ’66 M’67 has a long history with Occidental and the Presbyterian Church.
His grandfather, the Rev. Robert Freeman, was recruited by the College’s sixth president, John Willis Baer, to become minister of Pasadena Presbyterian Church (from which he would also minister to Oxy students). His grandmother, Margery Fulton Freeman, taught Christian education at the church for years and was an associate professor of religion at Oxy in the 1940s.
Neither lived to see the construction in 1964 of Herrick Memorial Chapel, a gift to the College from John P. Herrick in memory of his late wife, Margaret. Cruciform in shape, the building featured two large crosses on its north and south sides. As a student, “I thought it was a stunning artistic structure, but inappropriate for Occidental, with its low-church Presbyterian tradition,” Freeman recalls, adding that the crosses on the building seemed “redundant.”
As a professor of theater at Oxy, Freeman heard anecdotes that prospective students visiting the College were sometimes put off by the crosses at the main entrance to campus. But it wasn’t until a faculty meeting on Dec. 3, 1980, following a discussion on South Africa in which President Richard Gilman made a statement that the campus should be welcoming and show tolerance for all people, that Freeman was moved to speak. “I said that I agreed with him, and that perhaps it was time we remove the crosses.”
Following his suggestion, a faculty committee (including Freeman) was formed to discuss the matter. From Gilman’s perspective, the cross controversy “was a tempest in a teapot … but it just took flight.” By the time the matter was resolved, nearly a decade had passed, John Slaughter was president, and significant numbers of alumni were disenchanted with their alma mater. How did it come to this?
April 22, 1987: Two days after Occidental’s centennial celebration, Gilman discusses the proposal by a number of faculty members to remove the crosses from the Chapel by July 1. He explains that various College constituencies must be consulted and reviews Oxy’s Presbyterian origins (the College has been nonsectarian since 1910—a move initiated by President Baer). Gilman then leaves the auditorium by choice.
April 29, 1987: A special meeting is called to order at which the faculty passes a motion by a vote of 55 to 5 (with three abstentions) that would remove the crosses no later than Sept. 1, 1987, and replace the word “Chapel” with “Interfaith Center” in the name.
June 4, 1987: The Los Angeles Times publishes an article detailing the controversy, prompting the Board of Trustees to jump into the discussion at its summer meeting the following week. The matter would wind up dragging out in committee until 1990.
April 20, 1988: Trustee Frank Dale restates the faculty position that the crosses should be removed entirely and declares that the committee has decided to accept a “middle position.” The building is renamed Herrick Memorial Chapel and Interfaith Center, with plans to replace the crosses with symbols of the five major religions located within a 20-mile radius of Oxy.
June 23, 1989: In a four-page letter, President Slaughter gives an exhaustive review of the cross debate and plans for the interfaith symbol designed to replace the crosses. He stresses the need for better communication on sensitive issues.
Feb. 7, 1990: Acknowledging considerable opposition to the interfaith symbol, a trustee executive committee recommends instead to remove the crosses as soon as possible, and place a marker near the east chapel entrance.
Nov. 11, 1990: At the rededication ceremony, a plaque is dedicated commemorating the College’s Presbyterian heritage, followed by prayers and readings from various religious traditions. By then the crosses had been relocated to Pasadena Presbyterian Church. As Alan Freeman says, “Talk about irony.”
Research by Justin Berner ’13.
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