Saturday, October 2, 2010

on price charlson

I was thinking earlier this week about the short time I claimed to be a philosophy student--this was in between the years I was a secondary education student and a dance student--and was wondering whatever had happened to price charlson, one of my professors at suny new paltz. I looked him up, but he seems to have vanished. google notes a lot of his publications, the most recent of which is 1980, a few years before I studied with him.

after that his existence seems to simply peter out. he's not listed as either a professor or an emeritus on the current suny-new paltz philosophy department's website, and there are no other listings for him, whether he's teaching at another school--doubtful, since I think he's upwards of his late 80s by now--or his death. there is a letter to his alma mater's magazine posted in 2007, but on further examination it was originally published in 1964. it's as if he has become an unperson.

I don't think that should happen to anybody. and in the event anyone else googles his name to find him, I'd like there to be some reflection of him available. to that event I've been recalling as much as I can of charlson.

  • he was a short, squat man with a perpetual slump who looked like he should have shuffled but took deliberate steps like he was always walking across ice floes;

  • he seemed to be always drunk, and he might have been because every time I got near him he smelled like alcohol; but for all I know he was diabetic and his blood sugar was perpetually low. I did see him most evenings for at least a little while at bacchus in new paltz, where he comandered a table near the front windows and sat by himself for hours, even during the most raucous nights when it seemed like everyone in town was there, sipping a glass of red wine. people would mill around his seat, as if silently demanding by their presence that he give up his table. I'm not aware that he ever did. he left each evening at around 9 or 10:00 and wouldn't budge before then;

  • the rumor had it that he took in young men new to the college and rented a room to them in his large house for less than most places, in exchange for sexual favors. I never heard that from anyone who claimed to have been one of those young men;

  • I studied with him in 4 classes and the one I remember best was about existentialism. it was a small seminar of 4 of us and we read the first two-thirds of heidegger's being and time. on the first day of class he walked in and switched off the lights, saying, "by all rights we should study this book at 5:00 on a cold morning when there's no heat and in dim light." he made a point of switching off the lights each time we held class no matter how cloudy it was (and I think that class was in fall so there were lots of rainy, cloudy days).

  • the last time I saw him was in the early 90s on the street in new paltz. he was dressed the way he had always been--dark suit and tie, brown oxfords, dark overcoat--and carrying his briefcase that swung almost jauntily in contrast to the way he walked. I didn't see where he might have gone to but since it was late afternoon I suspect it was to bacchus to start his night.

(the photo of course is not of price charlson--I can't find any--but is of jean-paul sartre who, except for the wayward eye and a twist of dark hair across his brow, charlson resembled.)


  1. Price,

    If you run across this, give me a call in Atlanta.

    David McCullough

  2. david, I've just happened across your message above today. since publishing the above I've found out from friends still in the area that price died several years ago. my understanding is that it was from cancer but I don't have any date or specifics. searching for an obituary still gives nothing.

  3. Price Charlson died in Rome on April 25th, 1995 -- he was exactly where he wanted to be. Price died from cirrhosis of the liver. As far as I know the rumors mentioned earlier are not true though he did take in a homeless young man, Jim, and simply referred to him as his ward. I knew Price for several years during and after the time I was in graduate school at New Paltz (early 90's). He was my friend and I miss our conversations but not the hangovers.

  4. Price Charlson died in Rome on April 25th, 1995 -- he was exactly where he wanted to be. Price died from cirrhosis of the liver. As far as I know the rumors mentioned earlier are not true though he did take in a homeless young man, Jim, and simply referred to him as his ward. I knew Price for several years during and after the time I was in graduate school at New Paltz (early 90's). He was my friend and I miss our conversations but not the hangovers.

  5. I have a beautiful story about Prof. Charleson. I majored in Philosophy, 86. I was one of 4 strong female students under Eleanor Kuykendall. The semester before I had Prof. Charleson, I had a challenging class in Ancient Greek philosophy with David Blankenship. I passed, but with a C. I was devastated, but continued. Prof Kuykendall had told me horror stories about both horrible sexist men. In all honesty, even though I did not do well with Blankenship, I did not blame the C on him personally. With Dr Charleson, it was nothing short of a lie at worst, and wild exaggeration at best.
    I have forgotten much now , but at that time I was extremely well read, and I asked thoughtful questions. I got his dry British-style wit. He loved my papers. I worked so hard for his little asides. I loved the formal Miss. I would not be goaded by Eleanor to be offended.
    Shortly after the drop deadline, the Prof. in the following class began harassing me. Sex for grades,quid pro quo. It got ugly. I filed a complaint with Poly Sci Chair, learened this Prof "picked a victim" every semester, and had thick file of similar complaints. But he had tenure. This was long before title 9, and other protections. The Prof, once charged, spread vicious & salacious lies about me.
    Dr. Charleson caught on fast something was wrong. I bounced into his class. I paled as the time safety in his class evaporated. He approached me " Miss Winton Is Prof D. Bothering you? I barely contained myself, but told him everything. He nodded." No class with him today--come along now. ". He walked me through the entire ordeal. Wrote on my behalf to the dean of Humanities. Published an article about an unseemly and unconscionable situation that was being going on in the Political Science Department in the Oracle.
    Eleanor Kuykendall, feminist...chair at the time, I had been an outstanding student with her. She told me that although I was undoubtedly telling the truth, I had accused a tenured professor of "color", and would remain neutral. No help. An A student. President of the Philosophy Club. I was stunned. It's been 30 years. Her betrayal and her hypocrisy still burn.
    Dr. Charleson....was at my side through the whole thing. When the College dragged its heels, in endless meetings, and by policy then had to remain in that abusive class until resolution. He saw it more than 20 year old girl could handle, he called my parents. Formulated a plan.
    My parents bolstered with his support threatened lawsuit. A settlement was reached quickly. I learned so much...he was a true gentleman. Yes...I know the rumors. Don't care. He was a friend to me, when I had none. I was honored to be one the few women he asked to that little bar, the name escapes me now, for the unofficial office hour. I was blessed to have the opportunity to introduce him to my fiancé in 89, before he retired. His integrity , his support even when it could hurt him, meant more than I can express here. He may not have believed in angels. But he was one to me.

  6. Replies
    1. Price Charlson was my colleague and best friend in the Philosophy Department at SUNY New Paltz for twenty-five years, and I was, at the request of his surviving relatives (his sister-in-law and two nieces), the administrator of his estate. Price died in Rome, Italy, on April 28, 1995. The cause of death, according to the "Report of the Death of an American Citizen Abroad", issued by the American Embassy in Rome reporting the certificate issued by the Fatebenefratelli Hospital in Rome, was "coma, acute respiratory insufficiency, cardio-circulatory arrest". During his time as professor at New Paltz, Price did indeed rent rooms in his house to several students and others, two of whom became his close friends, but I am quite certain that the rumors about "in exchange for sexual favors" are totally false. He provided a free room one winter to a homeless youth he found living in his car in the garage, and became a benefactor and de facto foster father of this person. Price was one of the most remarkable human beings I have known: acute, lively, witty, learned, and unbelievably generous. Italy was one of his great loves, and he introduced a number of people to its beauties. In 2011 my wife Cathy and I arranged to have a marble memorial plaque for him installed in the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome ( You can see the plaque on the wall of the cemetery, about one or two hundred feet to the right of the main entrance. I don’t know how to attach a picture of it. Here is the text:

      Price Ellsworth Charlson
      Philosopher - Brother - Friend
      California 29 December 1926
      Rome 28 April 1995
      Omnia praeclara tam difficilia quam rara sunt.

      The Latin inscription is the last sentence of the “Ethics” of Spinoza, one of Price’s favorite philosophers: “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” David Blankenship (

  7. Thanks to Dr. Blankenship and Ms. Fortunato for the above. I graduated trom New Paltz in 1980. I studied with Dr. Charlson and lived in his attic apartment for my final year in school -- just after he'd invited that homeless person to come in from the cold. Drinking Italian Frascati late one evening in the Doctor's downstairs parlor, having lost an apartment on Chestnut St., he mentioned that someone had just vacated a small flat on the third floor with a private entrance. He asked me if I'd be interested in the place, and I was. My girlfriend, who ultimately became my wife of 35 years, spent time with me on weekends. There was one shower in the place, on the first floor, Price's quarters. We used the facilities downstairs frequently. Price welcomed Denise -- never a gripe about an extra tennent using hot water (as he might have, in all fairness) and neither one of us ever felt even slightly uncomfortable, or that the master of the house was anything but a perfect gentleman. He was eccentric, perhaps, in a European sense, but no more than that. I had a tough time graduating for a variety of reasons, and my last year in school was challenging. I went on to get a graduate degree in journalism from NYU and a successful career, first, as an editor, and later, as a communications executive with a Fortune 1000 technology company on the West Coast. I look back at kind men like Dr. Charlson as having helped me through the trials of youth on my way to becoming an adult. I bless his memory -- and Dr. Blankenship for having honored him. I'll be sure to drop by the cemetery next time I'm in Rome. RIP, Dr.. Charlson.