How Potter Ontrombe Got Hisself Through College


Many biographies of the great Potter Ontrombe have been presented to readers interested in the lives of the eminent scientists, but, until now, no book offers family reminiscences.

Potter was the lovechild of Billi and Baden Ontrombe, conceived after they should have known better. When Potter was born in 2160, Baden was up to his keister in troubles at work, all due to his brother Conway's careless management of the family's business. That left Billi to see to Potter's education almost by herself, and she was not an learned person.

This novel describes Potter's early life, up to his graduation from Swarthmore College in 2190. It describes the several planets where Potter found work, and it gives an accurate account of how Baden , helped by loyal staffers, saved the Aliquippa Carriage Company from certain collapse.

Sample Pages

This story starts long before Potter's birth. When Baden Ontrombe, no spring chicken at 36, brought his ladylove Billi to meet his father, it was clear, from the first words out of Billi's mouth, that she was not an educated person. Indeed, she came from the wrong side of the tracks, and Old Mr. Ontrombe wondered how his thoughtful, introverted second son could have had any contact with her or her kind.

It was entirely reasonable that Old Mr. Ontrombe had never had any prior contact with Billi. She was the substitute organist at the Saint Charles of the Restoration Episcopal Church, and Old Mr. Ontrombe had not darkened the door of that institution since the day of his wife's funeral, ten years before. He preferred to mourn at home. His spiritual activities were limited to writing a substantial check to the church's treasurer every Christmas.

Baden , however, continued to abide by his mother's rule of faithful attendance at the Sunday service. Since his brother Ellwood was also determined to mourn at home on Sunday mornings, Baden always took Ellwood's children, Martin and Monaca, with him to hear the holy word and the stale platitudes in the vicar's homily.

One Sunday in mid-July the regular organist, an artiste with training at the Juilliard School , was taking his annual holiday, and Billi was presiding over the four-manual, 1,620-pipe monster. Sitting right next to Baden in the pew was a woman with a well-worn hat and a friendly smile. She watched Baden tap his foot and nod his head, something strange for Sunday mornings since the artiste was known for somber offertories and no-nonsense anthems.

�Really knows how to tickle ivories, don't she?� the woman said to Baden , as the organ's swells filled the sanctuary.

�Indeed,� Baden replied.

�That's my daughter. I'll intradooce you after them priests go out with the recessional,� Billi's mother said.

Billi more frequently substituted at the Universal Assembly of the Lord God Almighty, where her revival style of organ playing was thought to be much too tame, but this gig with the Episcopalians required her to tone it down a bit. Her usual trills between the stanzas were not welcome at Saint Charles .

In early October, just eleven weeks after that first introduction at church and only two weeks after taking Billi to meet Old Mr. Ontrombe, Baden presented his lover to the rest of the family.

As soon as Billi had departed in their father's limousine, Conway and Hope, Baden's older siblings, expressed an immediate disgust, fearing that Baden would darken the family's name by associating with this ill-bred person.

Ellwood, the third son, found Billi a breath of fresh air. Just two years before the introduction of Billi into the family circle, Ellwood's wife had run off with a trumpet player, leaving Ellwood with two grade-schoolers to bring up by himself. Within five years, both Ellwood and his former wife would be dead, but that fact is not very important to Potter's story.

There was no question about needing to do something. Franklin was in the oven, and this news was certainly not a secret. Conway made sure of that.

�Can't you just pay her off, and let her do what she wants about that bastard?� Hope wondered.

Conway nodded. �There's no need to ruin your life, Baden , for something that money can fix. There is certainly a price, and we need to find out what it is.�

�The price, for me, is commitment,� Baden insisted. �I need to make the best of a bad start and set up housekeeping with Billi. She's a good deal smarter than I, so I am certain we will be happy together. You can't have a better wife or a better friend than a smart girl.�

Old Mr. Ontrombe, also in attendance since all family meetings were held in his house, listened to the arguments, rational and otherwise, and, at last, spoke.

�Baden, get that woman to the altar within a week, and, then, get her to the best elocution teacher in Beaver County . We will have more luck making her into one of us than in living in this small community with an offspring we will not recognize,� he said, with a certain air of finality.

Of course, having the head of the family spring such an unwelcome decision upon them was not what Hope and Conway 's wife, Wylla, expected. Carefully reviewing Old Mr. Ontrombe's words, the two women agreed there was no dictate that they must welcome this tramp into their homes or introduce her to their friends.

Within eight months Franklin was born and Billi was immersed in her speech lessons. She knew she needed to speak correctly in front of Old Mr. Ontrombe and the family, and she tried her very best to curb her tendency to throw in �ain't� and �he don't� and �you'ns� when talking to Franklin.

Within another year Geneva was born, and Billi found herself in charge of a very active household.

�That's a marvelous family for us, my love,� Baden told her. �We have just a perfect situation here. And, since the business is really doing well and Father has raised my salary, I'll look for a bigger house and you look for a housekeeper so you can spend more time with the children.�

After another two years Franklin was found to be very bright. Tests confirmed what Billi and Baden had suspected, and they opened college savings accounts for both their children. Baden shivered a little when he remembered how close he had come to asking Billi to end that first pregnancy and forget all about him.

But the family still did not warm to Billi. She had improved her grammar, but she still did not know how to dress or entertain or decorate her house. The fact that Franklin had been accepted into the best of the county's private schools was never considered to be any of Billi's doing by anybody but her devoted husband.

Baden slowly withdrew from the family's social gatherings. He continued to do his best at work, but he visited his father only when he knew they would be alone. Baden's training as an accountant was useful to Old Mr. Ontrombe, but Baden was certain he would never be the front-office kind of man his brother Conway had become. Numbers were interesting, and he would stick with counting beans. Billi and the children would come first.

When Franklin was seven, Billi informed her husband another child was on the way.

�Oh, no,� Baden said, sighing. �We wanted two. We don't have a spare room, and Geneva is just starting at her new school, where we have to volunteer for ten hours each week.�

�Maybe we could build an addition,� Billi suggested, keeping her tone bright and forcing a very warm smile onto her face. �That don't cost as much as moving. I'll call them Wilson people who contract out.�

Baden sighed, again.

On May 17, 21 60 , Potter Freedom Ontrombe joined the family, just two weeks after Old Mr. Ontrombe left it.

Baden was relieved Billi had come through the ordeal with few problems, but his mood was gloomy after the loss of his father. Certainly Potter deserved a better welcome, but Baden could not summon one up. Conway had become even more heavy-fisted in the several months since Old Mr. Ontrombe had left his place at the office for good, and Baden was alarmed that his father's cautious business practices were being abandoned.

Old Mr. Ontrombe had held 60 percent of the outstanding shares of common stock of the Aliquippa Carriage Company. His testamentary distribution of this stock was exactly what had been anticipated; Conway, Hope, and Baden each inherited 15 percent and the late Ellwood's children, Martin and Monaca, each inherited 7.5 percent.

The other 40 percent of the stock was held by outside interests. As long as Conway could control the family, he could control the firm. Even if the undisciplined Monaca rebelled, Conway could keep the job of Chief Executive Officer.

It was Conway 's bad management that kept Baden from finding joy in the appearance of his third child. Conway was bidding low and slapping overcharges on unsuspecting clients. He had directed that lucrative change orders be quickly written up after the vaguest of questions from clients. He had raised the service charge for items bought for clients from 10 percent to 25 percent.

Potter knew nothing about this, of course. He knew he had the constant companionship of Billi and infrequent visits from somebody older and stouter. Potter also saw much more of Mrs. Midland, Billi's longtime housekeeper and confidant, than he saw of his father or his siblings.

The most important of Potter's interactions with his father came during Billi's engagements as an organist. This was true for all of his childhood.

Baden insisted the entire family attend each of Billi's performances. These took place at funeral chapels, hotels, private homes, auditoriums, and churches. Organs were very popular, but so few people could actually play them. Billi, as a busy mother, would not accept any permanent work, but she was the most reliable substitute organist in the county. Sunday frequently included a visit to a non-Episcopalian church, and Saturday afternoon sometimes was devoted to a wedding.

Baden believed his children needed to see and hear what was preached at other denominations. Saint Charles Episcopal was their home, of course, but an open mind, Baden believed, would serve them better than one filled with the dogma of any one church.

Mrs. Midland usually accompanied the family in order to help keep the youngsters from interrupting the service. All members of the family dressed in their best clothes, and Baden insisted they smile while Billi played. After all, her mother always had.

After each service, the family usually met with the celebrants in the church basement, to eat a few cookies and to exchange pleasantries. These times were precious to Potter because his father was relaxed and free for a few hours from the problems at work. Mrs. Midland always saw somebody she wanted to catch up with and the older children always wanted to make nuisances of themselves by scampering around the room. That left Baden , always shy, in a corner with little Potter. It was during these times that Potter talked to his father.

Baden had hardly any conversation, but he could make up word puzzles that involved debits, credits, assets, liabilities, owner equity, and other interesting concepts. Potter worked on these word puzzles, and, by the time he was five, he could solve fairly complex accounting problems.

During these early years, Potter had other interactions with problem solvers. Each repairperson who came to the house had to have Potter always underfoot as the youngster asked one question after another about repair procedures. At dinner Potter would recite everything he had learned to Billi, and, quickly Potter became the family's expert on whom to call for each problem. By the time Potter was eight, he was making small household repairs himself. By the time he was twelve, calling an outside repairperson was a rare occurrence.

Billi realized, in 2164, that Potter was easily the equal of Franklin in intelligence.

�Oh, I can't believe that,� Baden told her, slowly shaking his head. �It would be extremely rare to have two brilliant offspring in one family.�

�It's just that he speaks so bad,� Billi insisted. �That's my fault, I reckon. When he was born you was so busy at work that I just had the baby to talk to. And, I'm not real good at proper English when you aren't there.�

�Yes, he needs to learn better grammar,� Baden agreed. �I'll see if that speech fellow can take him. But don't count on Potter's equaling Franklin on the standardized tests.�

Billi, always in charge of paying the family's bills, started to divide the college fund monies by three, sending an equal share to Potter's account.

In 2166 Billi took Potter to be evaluated for entrance to primary school. She had wanted to wait until he was eight, but he was clamoring to read more books and the primary school Franklin had attended had access to all the materials in Princeton University 's collection.

The results of the evaluation stunned even the optimistic Billi. Potter was several points above Franklin in nearly every category. Neither boy was as brilliant in logical thinking as their cousin Ricky, Hope's only child, but their overall scores were much higher than Ricky's due to their superior comprehension of written and spoken materials.

Billi pulled out the similar papers for Franklin and laid the evaluation results for the two boys in front of her husband.

�Whatever have we done to be presented with this terrible burden?� Baden asked, not really expecting an answer.

�I think, sweetie, it's that I'm real good at quick thinking and you are real good with reasoning things out. The boys have inherited both them traits. Geneva takes after me, and now she's a quick sight reader at the piano. But the boys are real special,� Billi suggested.

�I worry we won't have money for their education, especially when Conway is infuriating good clients, burning bridges that Father took decades to build,� Baden told her.

�Let's just keep adding to them college accounts,� Billi concluded.

At school, however, Potter proved to be no Franklin . Whereas his older brother was studious and conscientiously worked on all the teacher's assignments, Potter read anything he pleased, with almost a dilettantish attitude toward his selections.

His fourth grade teacher was perplexed, and she talked to Billi about it.

�Mrs. Brighton was given a $5,000 bonus last year after Potter turned in the best score in the county on the Pennsylvania State Proficiency Exam for the third grade,� Miss Greene told Billi. �I hate to interrupt his private study, especially when it is so effective, but I wish he would pay attention in class.�

�He's the same way at home,� Billi agreed. �He gits a bug in his ear, and he just can't rest until he has read everything in that there Princeton library. He won't practice his piano, he takes books along to the Little League, and he sends messages to real big experts to ask about something. They never know it's just a kid writing.�

Baden reviewed the report cards for all his children and was alarmed at the differences. Franklin and Geneva were always at the top of their classes, but Potter rarely scored above the ninetieth percentile.

�He's just too interested in other things,� Billi told her husband. �He's not like Franklin . He's always better in deportment, though.�

�Of course, sweetheart, he's better behaved. He's always got his head in some book. He only speaks when spoken to. He's not a normal boy,� Baden replied.

�Not neither of them is normal,� Billi said. �We can't take them big brains without the curiosities that go along.�

�I just don't want to waste all this brilliance on some damn fool self-education scheme Potter has devised,� Baden said. �Maybe a tutor would be helpful.�

The next day Billi called Miss Greene for advice.

�The most popular tutors are with a group that works via videophone,� the teacher said. �I cannot imagine how that will help Potter, since he could ignore that tutor even more easily than he ignores me. Maybe the college has somebody who could come to the house.�

Billi drove to the Beaver campus of Penn State , just a few miles away, and talked to the dean in charge of student employment.

�Oh, yes, ma'am, our students love to tutor school children. Are you offering a live-in situation, perhaps with meals with the family? That would be very much in demand,� the dean told Billi.

�Why, I'll have to figure out how I could manage that,� Billi said. �Give me a day or two to talk it over with my husband.�

Actually, Billi needed to talk over such a large change in the household with Mrs. Midland. Baden was so busy at work, with all those governmental forms to fill out now that one stockholder was making noises about the alarming age and size of receivables, and Mrs. Midland would be the one to pick up the work involved with an additional person in the house.

When the Wilsons finished the addition, only eleven months later than they had estimated, Billi moved the older children into the two new miniscule bedrooms, allowing Franklin and Geneva to share the addition's large sitting room and large bathroom. She then turned the vacated bedrooms into a room for Potter and a guest room. It was this guest room that Billi envisioned as the headquarters for the new tutor. Guests rarely occupied this room since Billi's relatives, like Baden's, lived in Beaver County .

� Franklin will be taking off for college in less than a year. It's like swapping out one teenager for another, I suppose,� Mrs. Midland reasoned.

�Yes, these kids who are interested are all real young,� Billi told her. �Older students usually have jobs with the college, where they can earn their tuition and do the busywork for them professors.�

Billi, to be fair, also discussed this option with Baden . Since he himself had brought up the idea of the tutor, he had no complaints.

For the next eight years, a college student lived with the family and worked for two hours a day with Potter. Almost always Potter knew more about any subject than the tutor, but the job was primarily to keep Potter up to date with assignments and deliverables. After the two hours were over, Potter returned to his free-ranging studies and, occasionally, practiced the piano.

Almost immediately Baden saw the payoff in the report card. Potter was still not paying attention in class, but his grades had improved. That was all Baden was looking for.

These tutors, five in total, became the best friends Potter ever had, apart from his family. He corresponded with them until his death in 2205.

When Potter was eleven, Franklin went off to college, an institution selected by Baden .

�His grades are real good,� Billi insisted. �And, his scores on them big tests are real good, too. Maybe he should go to Princeton, just up the road to Bradford .�

Baden nodded his head. �Yes, Princeton is a fine school. But Franklin is too shy to do well in a giant place like that. He needs a very fine, very small school.�

�Like maybe Pitt?� Billi asked.

�Still too large. I'm thinking about Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore.�

�Down in Philly? Won't he get homesick?�

�Let's take the entire family to visit those campuses. They really aren't in Philadelphia , but sufficiently outside to be away from the crowds.�

�Maybe they will have to move inland, just like Princeton ,� Billi worried.

�The Delaware River is still rising, according to the weather people,� Baden told her. �But the Schuylkill is now stable. Swarthmore College is quite close to the Delaware , though.�

�But Bryn Mawr is for girls, isn't it?�

�Not now, sweetheart. Since males currently make up 70 percent of the population, women's colleges are essentially a thing of the past,� Baden said. �There are plenty of women at Bryn Mawr, though, and that's another good reason for sending Franklin .�

Baden had touched on a sore point for Billi. Franklin was very shy around girls, and it worried her that her older son had never taken a girlfriend to a dance or even to a restaurant. He talked about girls, but he could not act. Billi had invited the youth group from Saint Charles to the house for buffet dinners several times, but still Franklin could not bring himself to talk to any girl in the fellowship.

It worried Billi that, in spite of Franklin 's great potential as a scholar, he might remain unmarried or he might have to be part of one of these polygamous relationships that were springing up everywhere. He was just like his father, she thought. Some girl would have to take him in hand after figuring out what a prize he was.

So, in October of 2170, Baden borrowed the company's largest limousine from the motor pool and drove the family east to visit the two campuses.

Franklin was essentially unenthusiastic. Whatever his father decided would be fine, he said. Either college was good. The dorm rooms were equally tiny, the libraries were equally large, and the faculties were equally distinguished.

Potter, on the other hand, fell in love with Swarthmore College . He loved everything about it, including the old Sproul Observatory, the Scott Arboretum, and the Benjamin West house. He pawed through the books in the library, wishing he could take them home.

�Of course, young man, you could subscribe to our service,� the man at the reference desk said. �Only $500 per year gives any Pennsylvania resident access to all our titles.�

�How much of your library is available from a distance?� Baden asked, suddenly realizing Potter's access to the Princeton library had ended when the boy left primary school.

�Essentially all of it,� the man replied. �Some of the very old volumes were too fragile to be put into the copy machine, but the text from those titles is available from many other sources. Our procedure is to put each new acquisition into the service before we give scholars the right to look at the actual book.�

�We'll try it for a year,� Baden said, pulling out his debit key. This, along with his handprint, quickly removed $500 from his account and started what would be, for Potter, a lifetime subscription.

Giving an institution of higher learning an amount of this size guaranteed that Baden would be added to that institution's mailing list. For years, continuing well after Potter's death, Baden received alumni news and very direct solicitations. During his childhood, Potter collected all the magazines and carefully saved them, and Baden figured he would soon be sending substantial sums to Swarthmore and threw out the pleas for cash.

In September of 2171, Franklin left for Bryn Mawr. Billi had enough money in his college account to pay for four years. If Franklin wanted to go to graduate school, Baden would need to find additional funds somewhere else.

The household continued much as before, with Geneva and Potter involved in many activities. Geneva had events nearly every week with the high school orchestra, and she helped Billi with her substitute organ jobs by loading music into the automatic page turner. Potter participated in the Chess Club and the Future Cowboys of America.

Baden , on the other hand, was even more concerned with troubles at work. One client sued for breach of contract, an action that had never occurred during Old Mr. Ontrombe's tenure. This suit required Baden to prepare one report after another about how the client's monies had been collected and spent. Since the business procedures at the Aliquippa Carriage Company were always very lax when it came to the documentation of work, preparing these reports took time and often involved the additional expense of consultants, with their enormous per diem charges.

In October of 2171, Baden and Billi discussed Geneva 's choices of a college.

�Here's a list of the ten places she wants to apply,� Billi told her husband.

�My god, these are all in the Midwest, miles and miles from home,� Baden exclaimed. �How about Chatham in Pittsburgh ?�

� Chatham don't have a conservatory, honey,� Billi replied. �She wants to continue with her piano.�

�Music is all very well for somebody who has an independent income,� Baden replied. �Things are not going well at the company, and I want Geneva to have a serious career to fall back on.�

Of course, he was right. The fulltime organist positions that Billi had turned down would never have paid her a living wage. Only two or three well-paying organist positions existed in the Pittsburgh area, and they were filled by people who had doctorates from the Juilliard School or the Paris Conservatory.

Finally Baden, Billi, and Geneva reached an agreement that Geneva would have a double major of music and middle-school education. It might take Geneva five years to get through college, but Baden said he would not be satisfied until Geneva had a teaching certificate good in all states in North America .

Geneva and Billi worked to limit the number of college applications to three, and the family took a trip, in late October, to visit Oberlin College , Purdue University , and the University of Chicago .

Again, Potter was very excited. Purdue was his favorite of these colleges, but it certainly did not pull his affections away from Swarthmore. He asked questions wherever the family went, and the college admission authorities wondered, on more than one occasion, which child was planning to matriculate.

By May of 2172, both Purdue and Oberlin had accepted Geneva , and she decided to attend Oberlin, located close to Cincinnati after the enlargement of the Great Lake had forced the move of the campus away from its original location near the shores of the now-gone Lake Erie .

In September of 2172, Mrs. Midland went into the two-bedroom addition and gave it a good cleaning. Then, she closed the door, to open it only during college vacations. This addition remained essentially unoccupied for more than ten years.

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