A Renaissance Man

The term ‘Renaissance Man’ is rarely used today. It appears to have fallen away in this 21st century of self-appointed authorities and experts. Of course you’d never describe yourself as a Renaissance Man (or Woman). This would be the preserve of others, most likely after your death, perhaps in an obituary or eulogy.

A Renaissance Man is well-educated in both the Arts and Sciences. An effortless learner, he is often self-taught and presents as an original and sometimes controversial thinker. A gifted musician, artist and linguist, she is equally comfortable with complex mathematical theory, politics and finance. Renaissance people are highly social and able to communicate with ease across culture and class.

Richard Houghton Van Kleeck was such a man. Known to his friends and colleagues as ‘Squeek’, he was born in Boston in 1928 and graduated from Harvard and Harvard Business School. He subsequently spent ten years as a teacher of French and English at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Massachusetts. It was at ‘Nobles’ that he and my father, Peter O’Connell, met and forged a lifelong friendship.

Squeek has a passion for artistic purity, private sweat in reading and writing and a strong dislike for the short-cut. It is our glory to have such a radical tory, utterly self deleting. Nobles is his bed, board, wife and floozie, writes a fellow master in 1959. He has English 3A and 2A now. He swoops them into stratospheres. I re-gather them and remind them of earth between their toes. It makes no pattern, but they’re bigger because of the wildcat exposure. I disagree with some of Squeek’s neon generalizations; I’m for the text myself. Still we work harmoniously in the main. Perhaps our variety of outlook is a value. My chief fear is that he’ll destroy himself by over-exertion. 1

Van Kleeck was also a director of the Civic Symphony Association of Boston and took lead roles in productions at the Footlight Club, the oldest amateur theatrical group in the United States.

In 1959, the Ford Foundation funded a US$600,000 project designed to replace 11th grade English courses with a new television curriculum. Heralded as the most important medium of communication developed since the invention of movable type, the educational television project was to cover drama, philosophy, painting, sculpture, architecture, music and dance. Van Kleeck was horrified and spearheaded a vigorous campaign against it, threatening to resign from Nobles if it went ahead. The Foundation eventually decided that the project, although new and exciting, wasn’t quite the silver bullet they had hoped it would be. Funding was withdrawn and everyone went back to the text. Squeek was delighted: English has reverted to English and so we are stuck, fortunately, with Shakespeare, he writes. He subsequently launched his own Arts course for seniors at Nobles. Squeek’s Fine Arts course is tremendous. I doubt whether any school can match us. Even the seniors, who came to scoff, learned to genefluct. I never thought I’d overhear three boys arguing whether a certain church was High or Late Gothic! Van Kleeck is one of Nobles’ crown jewels. 

In the Nobles Bulletin of 2008, James Wood, Class of ’59, reflected on his twenty-five years as Director of the Art Institute of Chicago and his subsequent role as President of the Getty Trust. It was, he said, a direct result of Van Kleeck’s art appreciation and classical music classes that led him to study at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.

David Woods, who knew Squeek as a teacher and later as a friend wrote in 2018:

I considered Squeek my most important mentor. In his Fine Arts class, he had a way of capturing the essence of an artist in a word or two. Van Ruysdael was ‘clouds’. Brahms was ‘craggy’. Beethoven was all about ‘accents in the wrong places’. He could read any music, no matter how harmonically complicated and he played (and owned) a harpsichord.

He also tutored me in Physics during my freshman year in college. He had an uncanny way of explaining anything scientific and could multiply three-digit numbers together in his head. And yet, he was a teacher of English and French. He may have had the highest IQ in New England in his youth.

In the summer of 1958, Squeek worked as a housepainter before he and David travelled out to Western Oregon and spent ten weeks with the Weyerhauser Timber Company. David recalls driving across country in an old German Kraftwagen with a two-cycle engine while Squeek looked up words and encyclopaedic facts in his Larousse dictionary. We worked the ‘swing’ shift (5pm – 1.45am) at the mill, where we pulled lumber – up to 100 tons per night – off a conveyor belt wrote Squeek in a letter to Peter. We would return to our miniscule apartment and relax with a cocktail before having dinner and retiring about 4am – getting up the next afternoon to swim or play tennis before going off to the mill. What was most enjoyable was our fellow workmen, whom we got to know and, surprisingly enough, be accepted by – as rough a crew as one could imagine (caused by the rather hazardous and energetic nature of the occupation), but willing to do anything for you. We plunged into union activities – I’m still an old stick-in-the-mud reactionary, but what this company needed was a good strike. I even got up and spoke at a meeting of Local 7-261 International Wood Workers of America, AFL-CI0. David and I both felt that the experience was invaluable – it  certainly gave us an opportunity to see and meet (and enjoy) a different society and a chance to see our own world in a different perspective.

The following summer, Van Kleeck was commissioned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to update its slide collection. Reb Forte was his driver and assistant. The two of them sailed first class from New York to Southampton and visited us in Essex before travelling to Europe:  We went to the Tate, the Prado, the Louvre, the Hermitage and the Vatican, where Squeek photographed the world’s great masterpieces. We always got preferential treatment and often after-hours access to the museums. It was an impressive experience for a seventeen year old. wrote Reb in 2019.

After he left Nobles, Squeek moved to Asheville, North Carolina where he catalogued the Vanderbilts’ private art collection at Biltmore House. He subsequently returned to Boston to work as an estate and financial planner at the National Shamut Bank. He was also a research analyst with Bradford and Co and served as Vice President of United Chemical Company. In 1969 he moved back to North Carolina and became the co-ordinator for the Asheville Art Museum. For a decade he wrote a weekly arts column for the Sunday Citizen Times.

When he died, at the age of 56, Richard ‘Dick’ Van Kleeck was working in Washington, where he had recently served as staff assistant to former Congressman William Hendon.  When the Senate convened on July 20th, 1984, the Senator from Hawaii rose from his seat:

Mr. President, I rise in tribute today to a gentleman and devoted public servant: Mr. Richard H. Van Kleeck of the Senate Republican Conference staff, who died June 16th after a valiant struggle with cancer.

Dick was well-known to many here on Capitol Hill for his meticulous and detailed grasp of the complexities of the legislative process. He was cherished by the conference staff, as much for genial humour and courtly manners as for his erudition and professional expertise.

In his final days of staff service, Dick, though wracked with physical pain, was a paradigm of the quiet courage which sustains the bravest and best of our people. He will be sadly missed, but never forgotten by those of us who had the privilege to work beside him.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that a tribute to him, published in the June 18 edition of the Asheville Citizen, be printed in the Congressional Record following my remarks.

There being no objection, the article was ordered to be printed in the Record.

Squeek was an exceptional talent and, although not a public person himself, he had formative influence on people who were. He was an excellent role model, a man of integrity, generosity and kindness. Richard Houghton Van Kleeck was the perfect example of a Renaissance man.