THE TIME AND LIVES OF VERA
at the Memorial Service held at Reed College on March 23, 1996.
and I had much in common. Not only were we born at about the same time at the
turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, but we both grew up in a most unusual
place: the town of Kutna Hora in Bohemia, then a province of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire -- a town which became famous in the 13th century with
the discovery of the richest silver mines in all of Europe. (Kutna Hora means
Mining Mountain in Czech.
seat of the Kings of Bohemia, the location of their mint, and richly endowed by
prosperous mine owners, it soon sprouted a variety of churches, palaces and
burghers' homes, many of which survive to this day. Just recently it was
declared by UNESCO to be one of the world's most beautiful historical cities. We
both grew up among historical buildings in the gothic, renaissance and baroque
styles. I might add that the fortunes of the city declined radically after
silver was discovered in Mexico and Peru.
earliest recollection of Vera is when she was about fourteen or fifteen years
old and a student at the same academic high school that I attended. Even then
she was a lively and spirited girl, whom I saw walking fast with her girl
friends on the "corso". The corso was a daily feature of the town,
with boys and girls congregating on one side of the town square, right in front
of my parents' store. The boys stood along the sidewalk, expertly appraising the
girls, walking in twos and threes, and pretending to ignore the boys. As the
clock of medieval St. Jacob's church struck six, the sidewalk suddenly emptied.
and her friends showed no interest in the boys. That changed before too long.
Already at that time however, Vera's reputation was of one who was
unconventional, somewhat rebellious and, some would say, a sort of blithe
spirit. Only a few years later she was seen as a feminist, long before the term
was even coined.
ought to add that this was a period in our town some would today regard as
essentially pre-industrial. There were no cars, very few telephones, not too
many electrical lights, and of course no radios, no movies, no typewriters and
that time, women were not permitted as students in high schools. The only
exceptions were special schools for women only, mostly devoted to domestic arts.
As a reluctant concession to modernity, sometime around 1910, the Austrian
government permitted a limited number of girls to attend high schools as
"special private students", usually no more than a few per class. They
were permitted to sit in class, but not to ask questions, nor were they examined
together with the boys. Instead they had to take a special comprehensive
examination at semester's end. That, incidentally, changed overnight after the
collapse of Austria-Hungary and the birth of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918.
thing that always impressed me about Vera was that she always remained herself
from youth to extreme old age, from a medieval town to modern America through
culture shock and civilization shock always the same person (or, more
abstractly the same persona). Throughout her long life she was always
well-dressed, elegant, friendly, congenial, polite -- and full of life.
in high school, she showed an intense interest in and a gift for artistic
expression. This gift was expressed first in artistic photography – and even
in the making of clothes. And, she was interested not only in the arts, but also
in artists. Her first serious relationship was with Josef Sedivy, a nationally
known painter twenty years her elder.
the age of 18, she went to Prague to become an apprentice to one of the great
photographers of that age, Frantisek Drtikol. She successfully completed the
work and produced some of the most remarkable portraits I have ever seen.
to bring an end to her romance to Sedivy, the family supported her plan to
continue her training in photography by attending what was then viewed as the
best school of its kind, the School of Photography in Munich, Germany. Her stay
in Munich coincided with the worst period of German inflation, when the German
Mark could lose one half of its value in a couple of hours. This put a real
strain on the Prasil family finances. It also, incidentally, contributed
mightily to the rise of Nazism.
family soon underwent another shock when rumors began drifting from Munich to
the effect that Vera had fallen in love with an American. To find out what was
going on, the family decided to send a special investigator to Munich, in the
person of sister Nadezda, my wife for the last 71 years. Her report only
confirmed the worst! The American in question was Arthur F. Scott, who at that
time was doing postdoctoral research in chemistry at the University of Munich.
make a long story short, next year Vera left for the United States, married
Arthur and settled first in Portland and then in Houston, Texas, after his
appointment to Rice Institute (now Rice University). In Houston, Vera operated a
photography studio, which soon became well known for her portraits of local
celebrities and visiting famous people like Bertrand Russell.
1937, the Scott’s, who had in the meantime acquired a family (ultimately three
girls) moved back to Portland where Arthur accepted a professorship in chemistry
at Reed College. Here, Vera switched primarily to sculpture which she pursued
successfully ‘till the late eighties. Her whole life style and work in so many
facets of art made me always think of her as a female counterpart of the
proverbial "renaissance man" -- a genuine "renaissance
but not least, I wish to pay tribute to her contribution to the Portland
community and, more especially, to Reed College. She was always very public
spirited and active in many causes. Her particular interest for many years was
the Oregon League of Women Voters and especially the protection of consumer
rights, environmental concerns and racial equality. Another of her interests was
the defense of women’s political rights at a time when feminism was not as
powerful as it is today.
may be more unexpected is the fact that she was known as a most popular hostess.
This proved to be of great value to Reed College, although I rather doubt
whether it was always fully appreciated. All through the fifties, sixties or
even seventies, Portland was a very different city from what it is today: it was
much more patrician, clearly dominated by a stratum of wealthy, successful,
public spirited, but quite conservative business and professional men. Almost
every public leader belonged to or was close to this group. The trustees of Reed
College, like the boards of practically all corporate and non-profits
institutions, were recruited from the same social stratum.
between the town and gown are frequently strained, and those between Reed and
Portland were perhaps more difficult than most. Some of the reason may have been
the widespread, but mistaken, belief that Reed was named after John Reed, author
of "Ten Days That Shook the World". It was really a proof of the
open-mindedness of Portland's business leadership that they for many years
contributed the bulk of Reed's financial support, unlike today, when its
financial base is much more widely based. The Scott's, both Arthur and Vera, had
many good friends downtown even though few people at that time fully appreciated
the extent to which these ties contributed to smoothing Reed's passage to some
turbulent period of its history.
however, does not fully describe Vera's services to the college. The Scott’s
house on 32nd Avenue in Eastmoreland was always open to new and young
faculty. For much of the time, Vera was the kingpin of the Faculty Women’s'
Club, and besides, she will be remembered for her inspired cooking, as well as
for her spirit, by the guests of her numerous parties.
definition, she was a well-rounded person. One who was always willing to help,
as she helped our family when we arrived in 1939, penniless and uprooted after
Hitler's invasion and destruction of Czechoslovakia.
myself will always remember her not only as cheerful and friendly, with a
many-sided and many-gifted personality, but at all times slim, elegant and
interested -- but above all herself, from age 14 to age 97. A unique and
remarkable human being whose memory all of us will treasure.