George Cavalletto: A Full Life

George Alexander Cavalletto, Jr. was born in San Luis Obispo, California, in May 1938, at the tail end of the great depression. Two years later his mother Jane (neé LaMonte), gave birth to a sister, Pattie. His father, George, Sr., was a successful lawyer, a son of Italian immigrants who had taken up farming in California.

In February 1942, a Japanese submarine shelled the coast in Santa Barbara, forming George’s first memory of World War II. His father joined the army and helped defeat fascism in Italy, while the rest of the family moved between military bases in Maryland and Texas, and then to San Francisco when his father returned.

After the war they moved to Goleta, where George had a bucolic childhood, exploring the countryside with his sister, visiting with an extensive network of cousins, and helping with his father’s lemon orchard.

After graduating from Santa Barbara High School and studying a year at Menlo Junior College, a small prep school, he enrolled at UCLA. A fraternity brother with an active social life, he nonetheless felt that something was missing. In the summer of 1958, he left school, took a bus across the country to New York City, and found what he was looking for in Greenwich Village, frequenting jazz clubs and working as a model for fashion ads and romance magazines.

In 1960, he enrolled at Columbia University’s School of General Studies. Dyslexic and until then not a great student, he dedicated himself to schoolwork, and over time his writing and close reading of texts improved. Graduating with a Bachelors in English Literature, he was named the General Studies “Humanities Student of the Year.” Forging ahead, he finished his Masters and began a doctoral thesis on William Wordsworth’s poetry.

However, at the end of 1967, increasingly concerned by the escalating U.S. war in Vietnam, he saw a storefront sign recruiting volunteers to publish news about anti-war efforts as part of the new Student Communications Network. The fledgling service needed a full-time director, so George abandoned his doctoral studies and become its managing editor, sending writers to cover anti-war protests and telexing their stories around the country to the rapidly-bourgeoning alternative press.

The following April, when Columbia University was taken over by students protesting the war and racial injustice, SCN’s journalists were the only media reporting from inside the occupied buildings, bringing them to national prominence. SCN merged with a similar organization, Liberation News Service, moving into an office George had built on Claremont Avenue. George helped establish the democratic collective principles — “the people who do the work should make the decisions” — that allowed this small news service to survive with an outsized impact for over a decade, even after he moved on to other projects.

One of the activist journalists who moved from Washington D.C. as part of the LNS merger was Sheila Ryan, and within a few months the two had fallen in love. One year later, in August 1969, George and Sheila married in Cape Cod, in a ceremony attended by their conservative families and their radical compatriots, with a friend playing the Internationale on the organ as the bride walked down the aisle in a traditional white gown.

On honeymoon in Paris, George and Sheila met an activist who suggested they travel to Cairo to meet with the PLO. From Cairo, they proceeded to Jordan, spending a month visiting Palestinian refugee camps and armed militia groups who struggled against both Israeli forces and the Jordanian monarchy, writing about their experiences for the news service back home.

A few months later, George joined a delegation of radical leftists visiting Cuba to meet Vietnamese representatives. When the young Americans were asked to reveal their class background by stating their parents’ occupations, George said his father was raised as a farmer, at which he was excitedly greeted as a fellow member of the global peasantry, a misunderstanding he did not correct. On his return, he wrote to alternative newspapers, urging them to pay less attention to rock music so they could focus on covering the war.

In the summer of 1970, George and Sheila returned to the Middle East for a year in Jordan and Lebanon reporting on the Palestinian struggle. While in Amman, armed conflict broke out between the Jordanian monarchy and the Palestinian fedayeen. Despite the danger, George and Sheila remained, documenting the fighting and its aftermath. George described the experience of running through a massive gun battle as a flashback to playing football: you had to keep your head down, dodge and weave, and hope you make it through.

They returned to New York to publish their reporting a few months before the birth of their first child, Matthew. Over the next decade, he was joined by Daniel, Nathaniel, Joseph, and Anna Caitlin. George was a playful parent, making up stories and inventing magical characters that he insisted were real.

Throughout the Seventies, George and Sheila continued to focus on the Middle East, combining reporting with activism. In 1975, they co-founded the Palestine Solidarity Committee, organizing forums for PLO representatives to speak to the public, and leading demonstrations to highlight the Palestinian struggle.

In 1978, they founded Claremont Research and Publications, a news clipping service that subscribed to a hundred different newspapers and magazines from which they photocopied and indexed every article on the Middle East, producing 500-page binders to be mailed to customers every week. In an era before the Internet, this service was the best way for governments and academics to stay up to date on news about the region. They raised their family in their workplace, with one room set aside as a playroom for the children.

A decade later, George returned to academia, enrolling at Columbia’s Teachers College to study psychology and communications, taking classes in computer technology and the use of multimedia in education.

Completing his second Masters degree in 1993, he began two decades of teaching at CUNY’s Brooklyn College, with stints at Hunter and Fordham. His sociology classes for undergraduates and graduate students covered the relationship of the self to society, and the sociology of class and of family dynamics, both throughout history and in modernity. Students describe his classes as interesting and challenging as he pushed them to engage with new ideas in each week’s reading.

At the same time, he was working towards a doctorate in sociology at City University’s Graduate Center, which he completed in 2003. He was particularly interested in the intellectual history of social theory, and the boundary between psychology and sociology, An expanded version of his thesis was published in 2007 as Crossing the Psycho-Social Divide: Freud, Weber, Adorno & Elias, exploring connections between the ideas of major figures in psychology and sociology. While in graduate school he served as the co-editor of Psychoculture, and later hosted gatherings of the New York Psycho-Social Group, an academic reading group.

The family’s life was anchored by shared meals and annual traditions George helped establish, setting the table for dozens of people at holiday feasts and poring over travel guides to find remote destinations to which the family would return again and again, including Island Pond, the Raquette River canoe route, Quebec’s winter carnival, and the beaches of Cape Breton.

In November of 2012, George and Sheila were in Pennsylvania, knocking on doors for the Obama campaign, when Sheila reported not feeling well. Over the next few weeks, as her condition worsened, the cause was diagnosed as an aggressive brain tumor, and despite intensive treatment she died at home less than three months later.

In the wake of Sheila’s death, George retired from teaching and took up photography, a life-long hobby. With the same dedication he gave all his endeavors, he studied camera work and digital post-processing at the International Center of Photography. Initially focusing on street photography, his work blossomed when he returned to capturing images of his family members, as he had been doing for decades, informed by his new skills. His photos have been exhibited in numerous galleries around the world. His final project, a book of his best work from this period, is entitled What You Love.

In 2018, George was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and lymphoma. Although medication beat his cancer and controlled the symptoms of Parkinson’s, its inexorable advance slowly sapped his strength, eventually leaving him vulnerable to pneumonia. Surrounded by family members in his last months at home, he passed away peacefully in his own bed on March 23, 2022.

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