Larry Palmer (OC 60)

“[Prof.] Melcher was my major confidante…”

Palmer in 1958, with Robert Schuler (OC 58) mugging in the background.

An only child, Larry Palmer was raised in a strict but loving religious household in the small town of Crestline, Ohio. His father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother a high school teacher. He majored in organ performance at Oberlin.

Oral history conducted by phone, Sept. 23, 2004, by Joey Plaster. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted.

I had decided to sublimate my desires, and had a girlfriend for a bit [at Oberlin], but was much more interested in a fascinating graduate student who could talk about literature and art, and who lived in his own room off campus. When he tried to seduce me, I resisted, but shortly thereafter I fell head over heels in love with another organ major…

[Robert Schuler (pseudonym; OC 58) was] a lovely, lovely person…He could be very difficult, very moody, very needing of companionship and friendship. Personally, he was a loner, though he had a funny sort of gregariousness; he knew everybody. He knew all of the faculty. He was also a genius…And as fate would have it, I became his companion.

One of the great things with my relationship with Robert [is that] he knew all the faculty very well…We went to see the very revered, and very feared head of the theory department, Robert Melcher, in his office, and just very frankly said we’ve fallen in love. And so Melcher just beamed like the father of the bride and groom… Melcher was my major confidant at Oberlin. He was just absolutely a marvelous friend, one of the closest friends I’ve ever had. This was not a sexual relationship; I’m sure he would have loved it, but he was very discreet. He was kind of a little wizened, bald-headed man who had very strange mannerisms, and I said early on, we were all very frightened of him…

When we were in freshman orientation at the Conservatory, Melcher…stood up and gave us our kind of introduction to the Con talk, and concluded with [using a grandiose voice] “Look around you. The person next to you will not be there next semester.” And he indeed was perfectly right. About half the incoming class flunked out at the end of the semester…He was a virtuoso theory teacher, and what he had us do has served us very well. [But] it’s pretty frightening when you’re coming into something, and he’s sitting there with a stopwatch making you recite the circle of fifths, and if you can’t do it fast enough you’re going to flunk the course. He was a terror in many ways…

When Robert introduced me as his lover, his companion, Melcher just loved to see especially males bonded, because he had grown up on a farm in Iowa, and I believe this is what he had told me, was that he didn’t realize he was gay until after he married. And he was Roman Catholic, which just put an incredible veil of guilt on him, because he didn’t want to be unfaithful to his wife. He had three daughters, but these urges he had for male sex were just so overwhelming that he would every now and then rush off to Cleveland and have an affair. And then he’d come back and just be riddled with guilt and afraid that he’d be found out and all this kind of thing. So for him to have a couple of student friends to whom he could talk freely…I think meant a great deal to him also.

And he would show us things that he had collected from books, and little surreptitious pictures that he had found, and he kept hidden in his books in his little office, cause he couldn’t take them home…

[Professor] Freddy Artz, who had such a sharp tongue, saw the Melcher family out walking one day on Tappan Square…The family was sort of marching along and the three daughters were there and Melcher was bringing up the rear, when I heard the story, and Freddy turned to his companion, whoever it was, and said, “There goes proof of the immaculate conception.”

Freddy was such an old fuddy-duddy. He was wonderful, but he just was absolutely infuriating too. And one of the first things that happened after I moved into his house [my senior year], Robert showed up [from graduate school in Ohio State] for the following weekend, I think it was, and we slept in the downstairs bedroom together. And we were absolutely zonked out of our minds [the next morning]. My room had doors on it, but it was basically just part of the downstairs of that house, and all of the sudden, there was a knock on the bedroom door, because the kitchen was just off beyond it. And Freddy, with his dirty old apron on, came bustling in and said, “Here’s breakfast youngins.” And he brought us breakfast in bed [laughs].

And he said, “now, children, we need to talk.” He said, “Robert, you’re not going to be able to sleep here because the neighbors will talk.” And I looked at him and said, “Well, Mr. Artz, if Robert can’t come to visit me, then I’m going to have to find another place to live.” And he got very upset at that. “Well, what would I do? I’d be here all by myself,” and so on. I said, “Well, I don’t want to put you in a position, but…Robert is my lover, and I really am not going to live someplace where I can’t see him.” And then he said, [imitating Artz’s quick, clipped pronouncements], “Well, I’m sure we can work something out. Now, Robert, how ‘bout if you come once a month?” [laughs]. We sort of made do with that. Robert came more often than that and Freddy sort of muttered and mumbled…that was typical Artz”…

It was totally illegal, so it really did make a difference when you’re realizing that you’re part of a criminal culture. Which is what it was. I think as a student I didn’t think too much about that—that’s part of growing up—but for people who were young professionals, that was difficult…I think certainly for the faculty people, and the mature people at Oberlin, it must have been a great burden trying to live in the shadows of the time.

The other organ majors were part of our support network. A lot of them were gay—not all of them, of course…[But] especially in that organ contingent… we did have a social circle—people that we could talk relatively freely with. Especially by the time we got to be sophomores, juniors, and so on—you absolutely knew.