At the memorial service for George Cavalletto, a message was read from his friend Sean Wilder describing their college days together and the long friendship that followed.
George’s and my friendship began in 1957 when we were students at Santa Barbara Hugh School and met weekends to play jazz together. Our paths parted soon when he went to college and I moved to the Bay Area. It was pure chance that we met again in September 1960 while registering for courses at Columbia adult School for General Studies and, a month or so later, rented an apartment near campus that we shared for four years.
During that time our happenstance relationship became one of intense intellectual exchanges, often from antagonistic positions but always loyally tolerant of one another’s ideas. Those years spent studying and discussing literature, philosophy, and politics, George in the English Deparment, I in Comparative Literature, were a time of intellectual blossoming for both of us, and it is impossible for me now to sort out what we learned from reading, often the same works, from our professors, and from our discussions, often arguments. Friction between us was a stimulant, and contributed to making George my principal intellectual “sparring partner.” Part of my everlasting debt to George is that he convinced me to take Professor Rudolph Binion’s two-semester course in European Intellectual History the year after he did. I think we were completely in agreement that Binion’s course was far and away the most exciting and horizon-expanding in all our undergraduate studies. It also turned two Californians into New Yorkers with eyes for European culture.
Though I was not conscious of it at the time, George displayed enormous tact in not making his wealth a dividing factor between us. Later, his generous hospitality made many visits my wife and I took to New York much easier and more pleasant than they would have been otherwise.
When I was graduated from Columbia G.S. a year after George and left New York for a first year abroad, his and my paths parted again, but after 1969 whenever I returned to New York I always contacted him and we met to compare our experiences.
Much happened during the years following 1964. Both of us discovered and adopted leftist radicalism. George co-founded the Liberation News Service and militated for the Palestinian cause at home and abroad, I, for the civil rights movement and against the war in Viet Nam. Above all, he met Sheila and, with her as his wife and partner, did what he repeatedly told me was the best thing he ever did in life: founded and raised a family. Her premature death made a huge crater in his existence. He was a changed man.
I know very little about his career in teaching as a sociologist, but I think I can say that it and being a pater familias made him a more humble and generous person than he was when we shared the Claremont Avenue apartment. His interest – ultimately his passion – for art photography surprised me at first. It now seems to me a logical development of his curiosity about people, their lives, the conditions they live in, and his own passionate naure. An extension, too, of his interest in and love for the family he founded and nurtured, which was also his remedial response to the one he had known as a child and adolescent: he was determined to be a better parent.
His death deprives us of so much, but I am – we all are – grateful for what his love and friendship helped us to become.