Alan Chartock: Caring, tough Toshi Seeger will be missed
Toshi Seeger has passed. Yes, she was, and is Pete's wife. Yes, she eschewed the limelight. Yes, she was the anchor that allowed Pete to be what he is. Yes, she was the gatekeeper and could be as tough as nails in protecting Pete. Yes, those of us who knew her are wondering what we are going to do without her.
Once when Pete and his troop of 11 people played the Mahaiwe I was privileged to introduce him and then put the group up for a night at our house on Hollenbeck Avenue. We all stayed up late into the night talking while the younger members went down to the Helsinki to play a gig. When I showed the Seegers to their third-floor rooms, I was quite worried. Our house is pretty big and I had read a piece in Hudson Valley Magazine in which Pete said that no one should live in more than two rooms. The Seegers did just that. So I was nervous and I think Toshi knew it. She turned around to Pete and said, "Peter, this is the house I always wanted so I could invite all my relatives to visit us." Case closed. What a sensitive, decent woman.
When I was a kid, I used to write Pete letters. Often Pete was out doing his thing around the country and the world and Toshi would write back. The Seegers say they don't remember it, but they used to have this calendar that had international writings on it, I seem to remember languages including Chinese and Russian, and they'd write notes to the people who wrote to them around the fringes of the calendar.
Toshi always had a tremendous sense of humor. One of the funniest stories which appears in the Obit in "Sing Out Magazine" is that when Pete went before the House Un-American Activities Committee and then was convicted for Contempt of Congress, he was out in just a few hours. Toshi said, "He should have stayed there."
When you came to the little two-room house on the hill where they lived, Toshi was always there and would always put some muffins or soup in front of you. Pete wrote a song, "A Little This or That," about grandma's stone soup and he would always get people singing the refrain.
Her sensitivity is amazing. There was a wonderful documentary about Pete's life and I know that Toshi was instrumental in its making. Roselle and I went to see it in New York and when they rolled the credits at the end there I was. My bet is that the filmmakers used parts of the material from my interviews with Pete. I turned around to Roselle and said, "I'll bet Toshi made them put that in." That's who she was.
Once when I was doing the interviews about Pete's life, I asked him what he was most proud of. Without hesitation he answered that he was most proud of his life with Toshi. Boy, she could really keep him in line. One time I was down at his house and we were doing a special on the Great Depression. "Pete," I said, "Today we want your thoughts on the depression." Toshi who was standing in the nearby open kitchen said, "What would the white boy from Harvard know about the depression?" It was hysterical because, as we all know, no one knows more about modern American history than Pete does.
Toshi's father was a janitor and was the guy who kept the University Settlement camps running because of his expertise. But during the World War II he apparently did very sensitive and dangerous work for the government. Put another way, she came from very determined and principled stock. Pete met her first when she was a teenager, fell in love with her and worshiped her throughout their marriage. For all of us, this is a woman who will never be known as well as Pete but should be. She is part of Pete.
Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.
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