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Profile: Charles Olton, the past is always present

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Charles Olton and Poppy at home in Hay Beach.
Charles Olton and Poppy at home in Hay Beach.

From Charles and Barbara Olton’s house on the northern tip of Shelter Island, the sweeping view takes in Gardiners Bay to Orient. But when Charles gazes out, he also sees across several centuries.

The 18th century, to be exact, when the British fleet en route to attack New York in 1776, lay becalmed off Hay Beach Point, keeping their horses alive with hay harvested just below his living room windows.

Trained as an historian at Wesleyan University and the University of California at Berkeley, Charles went on to be an administrator and leader of educational and arts institutions. He was dean of faculty at Barnard College from 1977 to 1987, dean of Parsons School of Design from 1989 to 1995, and president of the League of American Symphony Orchestras from 1995 until his retirement in 2004.

Charles and Barbara met when he was at Wesleyan and she was studying science at Mount Holyoke, in the days when both schools were single gender. They married and moved to Berkeley, California, where Charles did graduate work in American colonial history and Barbara worked in the lab of Nobel Laureate Melvin Calvin. “It was bliss,” Charles said. “We were young and it was radical, and she was the breadwinner.”

A freshly minted Ph.D. in history, Charles joined the faculty at Union College in Schenectady, New York, where he taught history for five years. During his time at Union, he began to understand his true interest in academia was not in teaching but in administration. “I didn’t even care about tenure,” he remembered.

“I wanted to be a college administrator.”

A one-year fellowship at Swarthmore and six years at SUNY Buffalo solidified his experience with all aspects of higher education administration. “I learned a lot,” he said, “and among the things I learned was that I don’t like large universities.”

Charles and Barbara’s children, Matthew and Gretta, were born during the Union College years. Both graduated from Wesleyan, Matthew in 1988 and Gretta in 1991. Matthew is now a senior vice president at a company that develops and manufactures mega data-storage equipment and lives with his wife and children, Madeline and Jack, in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Gretta is a ceramic and graphic designer. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband and daughters, Sophie and Katie.

The years Charles spent at Barnard as dean of the faculty were “great years,” he said, “a wonderful academic community and a very interesting time.” His stint at Barnard coincided with the transition of Columbia from all male to coed, and the subsequent need to revise the Barnard general education curriculum.

For Barbara, the move from Union College to New York meant giving up work she loved and she felt the loss. Charles said.

One day Barbara went for a drive to Shelter Island. “I was pretty unhappy at the time and it seemed like a destination,” she said. “I felt like I needed shelter.”

In 1980, the builder Ralph Kast made a Hay Beach Point home for the couple. The education of their children had drained the family coffers and put a crimp in the plan for a comfortable, well-lit place with views. Charles claims that Ralph informed Barbara, “You can have a kitchen or you can have a bathroom, but you can’t have both at your price.”

A family of sailors, once their new home was complete, their pleasure craft became an extra guest room and even a floating line of credit. “We’d park the boat in the harbor at the Yacht Club and the kids would sleep on it,” Charles said. “We were able to rent the house out in the summers and stay on the boat.”

In 1989, Charles became dean of Parsons School of Design. He was drawn by the school’s reputation and for its creative, outspoken and quirky student body. Ever the historian, he related an incident from Parsons’ past, when students, fed up with a design curriculum that catered to Park Avenue penthouse redecorations, as opposed to design for ordinary people, hired a truck full of coal and dumped it on the president’s lawn.

Charles became the dean just as it was entering a financial crisis caused by plummeting enrollment, a situation Charles perceived with his usual historical perspective. “I had arrived at Parsons just about exactly 20 years after Americans stopped having lots of babies,” he said. “The demographics took a dive.”

Facing a crisis for the future of the school, “I despaired as to what to do about it. If I don’t get this thing fixed, I am out of a job.” He decided to pull a team together and “we jawboned and got an answer. And that was to go overseas.” Charles worked to build Parsons’ program in the Dominican Republic and establish new programs in Malaysia, Korea and Japan.

In 1995, he became president of the League of American Symphony Orchestras. He worked to establish the Orchestra Leadership Academy to train orchestra managers who had come up through music but lacked business management skills. He also established professional development programs to help improve the fundraising effectiveness of orchestras, and increased opportunities for the development of American conductors.

Barbara and Charles became full-time Islanders in 2004. Retired by then, Charles became more involved as a volunteer, serving as president of the Shelter Island Educational Foundation, working to provide an array of rich educational experiences for Island children, including the 2Rs4Fun program at the Shelter Island Library and an annual schooner trip.

After an excursion to the Metropolitan Opera, Charles said one child commented, “I noticed that they sang really loud,” and another said, “They had a horse onstage. A real horse.”

American history remains a passion for Charles. In 1997, Syracuse University Press published his “Artisans for Independence,” a gripping narrative of a case study set in Philadelphia during the American Revolution.

He has taught seminars on American art at the University of Rome, the University of Venice, Columbia University, and The New School. In 2004 he began to refine ideas into a multi-media course about early American painting, music and the revolution in the arts that accompanied the American Revolution for an adult education program on Shelter Island, setting the stage for his most recent book, “Heroic Vision.”

Charles’ long view goes forward as well as back, embracing changes in the way history can be told by fully integrating audio and visual arts in his new work. “‘Heroic Vision’ is necessarily an ebook, because it introduces readers to a great deal of visual art and music,” he said, adding that Green Publishing will publish the ebook this coming June.