Arts Listings

Alumni Celebrate Antioch College Independence

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday September 17, 2009 - 09:58:00 AM

Bay Area alumni of Antioch College and those concerned with Antioch’s future will celebrate this Saturday evening at the Brower Center in downtown Berkeley last week’s signing of documents separating the College from Antioch University, creating a newly independent college on the original campus in Yellow Springs, Ohio, which was closed in June 2008. 

There are about 17,000 Antioch alumni nationally, roughly 2000 in the Bay Area—more than a thousand of those in the East Bay. 

“The alumni have actually managed to take the campus back, in these bad financial times,” said one Berkeley Antiochian, Dr. Karen Folger Jacobs, in response to the news. Jacobs mentioned another Antioch alum, her old roommate, state senator (and former Berkeley mayor) Loni Hancock. 

“It’s like a messy divorce,” said alumna Barrie Grennell of the alumni celebration committee. “There’s lots of property—and the endowments. Everybody will have to be asked what they intend to do. Accreditation, everything has to be redone. It’s a daunting task—but we’re up for it. And the Alumni Association is the key.”  

Grennell explained that Antioch College, founded in 1853, had been closed down for financial reasons several times in its history. The present situation came about as a result of the creation in the 1970s of outlying campuses—“ike extension campuses, that UC Berkeley and many other schools have created”—to help fund the historic core campus. About the same time, Antioch College became Antioch University. 

“As many as 30 extensions were developed,” Grennell said, “though in the past few years, it’s down to five. It was less expensive, obviously, to have adult schools with adult learners not living on campus. But bit by bit, the mother campus wasn’t sustained in the way it needed to be. A lot of alumni were distrustful of the farflung university campuses, and donations dwindled. In June, 2007, the University announced it would close the Yellow Springs campus. At the reunion just after, about 250 alum’s were expected—and over 600 showed up, some who drove across country.” 

Some of the alumni camped out in tents. A Tent Revival Meeting was held, raising almost a half million dollars to try to save the campus.  

A year later, the campus was closed, but the alumni and the University Board of Trustees had come to an agreement to set up a task force to restore an independent Antioch College. On Friday, Sept. 4, the papers were signed. “Ten or 20 pounds of keys for all the buildings had to be delivered!” Grennell noted.  

The alumni hope to restore the unusual combination of work, academic and college community programs that made Antioch unique. “‘Classroom, Co-Op and Community,’” Grennell said, “that’s what defined and will continue to define Antioch College. The community involvement means faculty and students participating in governing and tenure decisions. The co-op work programs were adopted by other schools, but usually as internships. We had to hold real jobs. Almost everyone mentions the co-op plan when alumni are asked what made them want to go to Antioch.” 

One Antiochian who’s stated the co-op plan led to his enrollment is longtime Bay Area independent filmmaker John Korty, class of 1959. Korty’s latest film, Miracle in a Box! about “the bequest of a grand piano, a student competition to win it, and the artisans of an unusual workshop who make it sing again,” will be shown at 5 p.m. at the celebration. 

“John Korty is emblematic of Antioch,” said Jacobs, longtime Berkeley writer and filmmaker. He’s representative of both Antioch and of Northern California filmmakers. A terrific filmmaker, very different in his style, personality and the films he does, from L.A. I knew him slightly at Antioch. He hasn’t lost his pleasantness, his approachability.”  

Korty, perhaps best-known for the television film, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974 Emmy for Outstanding Direction in a Dramatic Series and a Directors Guild Award), Who Are the Debolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids? (1977 Academy Award, Best Documentary—and another Emmy and a Humanitas Prize) and animated films that have been shown on Sesame Street and, as features, in movie theaters, has been hailed by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, among others, as a pioneering Bay Area independent filmmaker, with studios in Stinson Beach (from 1964), San Francisco and, now, Point Reyes Station. 

Korty, who went to high school in Missouri, had been offered scholarships to college, one to Oberlin, but decided he wanted to go to Antioch instead, having heard of the co-op program. “I wanted a good college education, but wanted to get out in the world, too.” Alternating academic and work periods, he opted for his own plan—“it was either your own plan or they’d get you a job”—and figured out an apprenticeship with the interracial National Conference of Christians and Jews, whose St. Louis office he’d worked for in high school.  

“Knowing I wanted to get into media,” Korty became an editor for the TV station at Washington University on a co-op program at 19, directing on-the-air public affairs programming wednesday nights “because everybody wanted to go home.” While a student, Korty started up a company with four other young men, “hitchhiking to Columbus and Dayton ad agencies with our 16 millimeter films. We got our motto from Voltaire: ‘Audacity, audacity, audacity!” 

Going from animated 10-second ads for a car dealership to a foundation-funded short animated film about New Math, Korty found he liked working with artists. “One said, Why not cut out paper instead of drawing everything like Dsney? All the Seasame Street stuff, and our animated feature, Twice Upon a Time ( 1984), were cut-outs.” 

Korty’s first documentary came after his college deferment ended. “I’d registered as a conscientious objector; for alternative service, I got assigned to the American Friends Services Committee. I’d gone to Quaker meetings at college. My decisions haven’t been based so much on theories and words as on people.” The Language of Faces was a black-and-white film he shot at a Quaker peace vigil at the Pentagon, cost: $3,000. “Eleven different festival prizes put me on the map.” 

Korty came to the Bay Area in 1963. “One of the three or four people I knew was Ernest Callenbach, editor at UC Press. Id take my sleeping bag and sleep on his floor.”  

His award-winning documentary, Who Are the Debolts? was filmed mostly in Piedmont. 

Miracle in a Box! follows the restoration of a Steinway piano—“My son Jonathan suggested we follow one piano”—by Callahan Piano Service in Oakland, an unusual company of “a wonderfully eccentric group of people, incredibly dedicated to what they do, who have a wonderful time doing it. They not only fix pianos, but give aparty for the rebirth of each instrument. That gave us the structure for our film: 90 percent work, 19 percent celebration. The company has no standard work hours. The people know what’s expected of them, and make their own schedules. That’s wonderful; people operating with a lot of choice, a lot of feeling.” 

The restoration of the piano as the prize for a student competition became part of the film budget. “We had to rearrange the chronology. Originally, the competition came first, but there’d be no tension.if we announced the winner up front. My deitor Jim Oliver came up with the solution: ‘We’ve got all the music; let’s use it’—weaving in and out ...” 

Korty has shown it privately at the Brower Center to “incredibly enthusiastic resonses. Audiences jump to their feet. I want to have it shown through business channels, those that get people talking about things. The response so far has often been, ‘I wish I could get a job there!’” 

Korty said the film illustrated in many ways why he went to Antioch—and what he got from his time there. 


Doors will open for the celebration at the Brower Center at 4:30; Miracle in a Box! shows at 5, followed by a discussion. At 6:30, there’ll be acollege update with discussion, then from 8, “eat, socialize, dance up a storm—in the neighborhood.” David Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way (between Shattuck and Oxford); $20 per person, “no friend of Antioch turned away!” RSVP to: Barrie Grennell, or (415) 652-1038.