ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Catherine Filene Shouse
A few miles outside of Washington, D.C., in the
rolling foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, is a tract of land
known as Wolf Trap Farm. On it is the nation's only federally owned park
for the performing arts, the concept and gift of Mrs. Catherine Filene Shouse.
On it also is Plantation House, Mrs. Shouse's summer home.
The spring of 1982 has been a season of trial for Mrs.
Shouse. She has watched the object of years of planning and indescribable
love and care, the Filene Center, bum to the ground (see front page). A few
days before her 86th birthday, she fell and broke her hip, necessitating
surgery and a painful recovery period. But trial has been a constant thread
throughout her life, and those who know her never for a moment doubted her
ability to persevere. Associate Justice Abe Fortas once described her as
"a whim of iron."
Born to a wealthy Boston family the Filenes young Kay
soon became acquainted with the notion of commitment. "I was taught
to observe, as I grew up, the things that needed to be done. We were living
on the Charles River and one day my mother went to the library window and
saw the whole City of Charlestown ablaze. She put on her hat and coat, and
we didn't see her for a week. She organized the relief, just as she later
organized the Boston Music School Settlement. She didn't think of herself
as a do-gooder. There were just things that needed to be done." By "do-gooders,"
Mrs. Shouse means "very self-conscious people with a mission. Mrs. Roosevelt
typified social service workers of the era, for example. I have never liked
Although her mother was a musical participant, playing
piano with enormous enthusiasm, Kay was never involved herself. "My
mother more or less dragged me into it, fairly reluctantly and with a small
degree of interest. Since I was not a musician, I started a library at the
age of nine or ten for the children of Boston Symphony players. I only got
into music actually when I came down to Washington on the administrative
side, because of the need during the Depression to organize something that
would supplement the income of National Symphony musicians who were then
earning $19 a week. First we held concerts at my house in Georgetown. Then
I asked Mr. Phillips if we might have concerts at the [Phillips] Gallery.
From there, I got into administrative work with the Symphony."
She shocked her traditional Republican family in the days
of Woodrow Wilson by brashly declaring herself a Democrat. Did she now consider
herself a rebel? "No, I really don't, but I consider myself independent.
My family gave me a great deal of independence. I was with my father a lot.
We talked, we fished, we hunted. I sat in at his conferences, absorbed a
great deal, and did my own thinking. I think that, as a family, we did our
Her upbringing soon made itself felt. She came to Washington
after graduating from Wheaton College, and began her work in the women's
division of the Department of Labor's Employment Service. She became the
first woman to represent Massachusetts on the National Democratic Committee;
to receive a master's degree from Harvard; to head the first Federal prison
for women, appointed by President Coolidge.
Her first marriage to Alvin Dodd ended in divorce. In 1928,
at a dinner party at the W. Averell Harrimans', she met Jouett Shouse, a
former Democratic member of Congress. They were married in 1932 and Mrs.
Shouse's direct participation in American politics was over. She quipped
that one politician per family was enough. Mr. Shouse died in 1968.
Every president since Calvin Coolidge has called upon Mrs.
Shouse for assistance and counsel, and she has been described as "the
friend of presidents." Which president did she think of as being most
genuinely devoted to the arts? "Probably Nixon. He had some background
because, when he was at college, he used to produce musicals and had a lot
of fun with it. And, of course, President Johnson was very helpful when we
started Wolf Trap and in the development of Kennedy Center."
Her interest in youth has been demonstrated throughout
her life. (She herself has 4 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.) One
of the first groups to perform at Wolf Trap was a nationally selected orchestra
of youngsters. "I have a great belief, as far as the young people are
concerned, that it's the responsibility of the older people to keep them
busy. The energies of young people must be always absorbed." Always
the activist, Mrs. Shouse inaugurated an annual series of concerts for young
people. Fairfax County students do not lack for exposure to music, owing
to her dedication and generosity. Each year, over 3,000 school children,
both normal and handicapped, attend concerts at Filene Center. She speaks
of our economic climate which compels both parents to be absent from home,
often leaving children, if not unattended, at least unmotivated. "It
is the 'do -nothingness' which has led to many of the serious difficulties
our young people are facing today. It is not the fault of those growing up,
but of those who have brought them into the world."
Mrs. Shouse reflected on the differences between the teaching
of music in Europe and here. She feels that the musical tradition in Europe
runs so deep that the art survives despite the fact that there is
virtually no music education in countries like Italy, for example. Because
we are a much younger country and just beginning now to "burst with
interest," she thinks that teaching children to make music is very important
indeed. In fact, she has assisted in disseminating the Kodaly method and
feels that much vital work has been accomplished by the Kodaly schools here.
"My mother also felt, and I have come to believe, that music shoud be
a necessary part of children's lives. It's sad that, the moment money
gets tight, out goes music and out goes art. They are as important in a curriculum
as history or the ABC's."
If she had a way of addressing herself to young composers,
is there anything that she would tell them? "No, because I'd want to
learn from them."
Some time after Catherine Filene Shouse donated the land
for Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts to the people of the United
States and then built the great amphitheatre known as the Filene Center,
she wrote a little descriptive pamphlet entitled "Why Wolf Trap?"
In it, she stated: "In my days of farming I learned that only well-cared-for
land and seed produce good results, and I learned the importance of planning
ahead; these principles can be translated into our daily lives in so many
ways, and I believe we have applied them in our planning for Wolf Trap Farm
Park for the Performing Arts. Wolf Trap now has become 'mine,' not only to
me, but 'mine' to the thousands who have happily come here for re-creation
of the spirit through what nature and man are creating together. It is my
prime concern that we plan so wisely for the future that the concept and
its execution will be carefully watched over for many years to come ... I
feel that in giving Wolf Trap and its buildings I gave a challenge to my
Government and to men and women everywhere, to create for themselves and
for others so that Wolf Trap and what it represents may enrich the lives
of generations to come."