Catha (Levinson) McSweeney

Catha (Levinson) McSweeney

My sister, Janet, and I went to Manumit, in Pawling, in the early 1930s starting, I think, in 1932), and left after 8th Grade. I’m delighted to find this website, but don’t recognize a single name -unless Hildy Lindlof is related to John L. and his sister(s) who were there, then. Like all Manumiters, we had outsized social consciences – marched in the May Day Parade in NYC (in observance of the Russian Revolution)and in picket lines, put on plays about “Vonya of the Streets” (Russia, again), Harriet Tubman and the “Railroad bosses and other “Robber Barons” – so named in a book by MacAlister Coleman. We righteously cursed our Pawling neighbors, Thomas E. Dewey and Lowell Thomas. We weeded endless rows of vegetable plants, fed the horses, chickens, cows, pigs, etc. and learned math by doing such things as “chicken accounts.”

In our community were German-Jewish refugees, like Klaus and Beate Breitbarth’s father, a doctor,who did kitchen work; Erika Klein, a famed German actress, who did meanial work, too, and several others. We listened to Hitler’s snarling speeches on shortwave radio with translations by these sufferers, and our teachers. We loved and admired our dedicated, and under paid,teachers, Bill and Ben Fincke, our mother, Polly Levinson, and John Seeger, whose brother Pete was a regular visitor who brought us songs and tales of Appalachia, chain gangs, unions and hobos. He led us over hills, fields and brooks, playing his recorder, while we sang out. And, he led us to a hdden, unlit field were Paul Robeson sang, out of reach of the KKK members sworn to harm him. Famous people’s chidren and grandchildren were our classmates _ Stella Adler’s grandson, Benny Carter’s dauughter, Maxine Sullivan’s son, Charles and Mary Beard’s grandsons, the son and daughter of the affore mentioned MaCalister Coleman and his notable wife,Mary Fox, one of America’s first woman doctors and a pioneer in many medical fields. They were also sons and daughters of union organizers and officials, writers – like my father, Edward Levinson, news reporter, author, speech writer for Norman Thomas – and painters, theater people, musicians – and farmers, factory workers, and poverty-stricken children from the Appalachians.

And, we had our Lee Marvin, who grew up to have the same rough outside-soft(ish) inside he displayed at Manumit.

I could go on, and on, but I’ve exceeded my time. So, I want to close by saying – we were, or thought we were, chosen to bring light, love and enlightenment to those not lucky enough to have lived this idyllic life. I’d like to hear whether these same ideals and practices continued after Manumit left Pawling for Pennsylvania. And, of course, from anyone from “my time” who might read this

Never heard of them, but here are a couple more names from long ago. John Hoke, Pawling. Noted for tucking his pet boa constrictor inside his shirt – in class, the dining room – whatever.

Freddie Faulkner, Pawling, a science teacher who saw the dangers of Hitler, Mussilini and General Francisco Franco so early, he enlisted in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and was killed shortly after in Spain. (Long after that, history books said members of that brigade, and others in the war against fascism, had been duped into volunteering by the Communists who used the Spanish civil war to advance their own agenda).

We knew nothing of it at the time, and mourned and celebrated Freddie’s idealism.

However, another memory of Freddie: with him as our teacher. we squeamishly dissected frogs and other not so lovable creatures. One day he came to class with one of the dozens of cats from the cow barn in a burlap sack. When he told us we were going to dissect itt, we protested vigorously, and he relented.

Speaking of protesting. once we were served lamb chops, from our own herd, for dinner. To a “man” we refused to pick up our forks, and Bill Fincke, or perhaps his brother Ben, apologized, and that meat never appeared again in the dining room.

Catha Levinson McSweeney


Catha – I enjoyed reading your Manumit memoir. I remember you well – especially your smile – and your sister Janet and your mother Polly – and met your Dad once or twice. I was in Ben’s group and just a skinny blonde pip squeek then. Janet was a group ahead of me but we became friends through Anne Fincke who’s mother Mildred was a friend of Polly’s, and because my mother Amelia, who became treasurer/bookkeeper, was a friend of Polly’s while Polly was still teaching at Manumit, and later when she moved to NYC. (Whew – big breath here.)

Did you go to Pawling High for awhile with Ruth Patsy Klein (Erica’s daughter)? I remember Erica – always with a cigarette screwed into the side of her mouth and squinting out at a world that had become very grim. Such intelligence and acting talent reduced to housekeeper/laundress as a refugee from Hitler. – how did she do it? And Max, of course – gone from a comfortable middle class life to sweeping and mopping floors. And Fritz Breitbarth from brilliant doctor in Berlin to floor swabber, to school nurse. He was finally allowed to take his Boards and then became a much respected doctor in Tarrytown, NY. Yes, all of those people (there were so many others as well) gave us a very special perspective on and relationship to the war.

Was there a Danny and a Bunny in your group? And Shane Reardon? Did you know that the Board forbade Pete Seegar to ever come to Manumit again because he taught us the Communist Party line songs like: I Hate War/ and so does Eleanor/but we won’t be safe ’til everybody’s dead. That was before Germany violated its pact with Stalin and invaded Russia.

My most vivid memory of you is at Martha’s Vineyard where you flung off your clothing and dashed laughing into the surf side by side with very handsome Jock Saltenstall, while Anne Fincke and I, and I guess your sister Janet, huddled behind a boulder modestly covering our nothing-much and watched – open mouthed at your audacity. The embodiment of free spirits.

The Manumit landscape of Manumit in Pawling – Ravine Road, Cobble Hill, Astronomy Hill, the fields, the dirt road to the dump on horseback, the barns, the brook – are all very much part of my inner landscape – the kind where I feel most at home. The Mill, Clark House, the Gym, Main House, Ravine house……..

I’ve often wondered about where life took Janet. Would love to hear more about you and your family.

My mother eventually married Billy Fincke and he became my stepfather.

Barbara Dutton Dretzin (Manumit student years: 1939-44


Hi Thelma – I’m doing pretty well. Trying to deal with pushing 80 when I still feel like the kid walking the brook barefoot watching for turtles (painted), frogs, snakes, garnets and sandy deep holes to get nice and sopping wet in.

I thought John Seeger, Pete’s older brother who taught at Manumit, had a bio. of sorts in the Manumit web site, but can’t find it. Maybe it was an email. Anyway he mentioned Pete’s banishment and how he himself later felt persona non grata. The Board was the Board of Directors (whoever they might have been – dunno).

The story as I know it started with a new girl named Wendy going home for vacation singing I Hate War and who knows what other of Pete’s songs to her horrified parents, who then pulled her out. Although very pro-labor, the school did not want to be known as pro communist. Someone else out there must remember this. We, the students, were amazed and angry when we learned of it long after the fact. And disillusioned. Pete was a true Pied Piper and we loved his visits and learning his songs; I recall at least ten of them today (The Brothers Du Pont, Poor Mr. Morgan…. It is strange, isn’t it? But I guess it was the times.

Not deterred by the ban, Pete invited a bunch of us to come to a Hootenanny in the Bronx to perform with him some of the songs he’d taught us. We rehearsed at his apartment in the Village. On stage, he invited me to step forward alone and join him in Lally-too-dum. Stage fright reduced my voice to a faint croak, but he sang along and strummed away and carried it off. The audience – it was jammed – kept begging for encore after encore (not from me) so Pete jumped off the stage and went singing up the center aisle right out onto the street with all of us – singers and audience following him. Inspiring! A powerful guy.

His brother John later started a camp in VT called Kill-a-something which attracted lots of ex-manumitters as campers, staff and camper parents. I think he still summers there. Some ambitious person with a tape recorder (or whatever they are called nowadays) might get some good Manumit stories from him.

Hope you are well.

Best, Barbara


Hi, Barbara, Thelma, & Everyone:

I don’t know anything about this story, but I’m intrigued and would be interested if anyone has more information. Like Thelma, I find it a little unlikely that Manumit would ban Pete Seeger. I also remember singing songs like “Los Quatros Generales” and “Joe Hill” at Manumit assemblies, at least I think I learned them there. I was going to concerts by Seeger and Paul Robeson at the U. of Chgo. Somewhere around the same time, so I’m not totally sure where I learned them, but I’ve always associated them with Manumit.

It wouldn’t surprise me, though, if Manumit’s history reflects some of the in-fighting and fears that are part of the whole American Left history. It would be fascinating to have all this data and someone with the knowledge of Left history to put it together.

Hope everyone had a good meeting at the White Horse (isn’t that today?).


Hi Barbara, I, too , have an internal landscape including the Pawling Manumit. Many very fond memories. When Pete Seeger built his house in Beacon, before he launched the “Clearwater”, many of us from the Village commuted out to help with the labor. Before that, Pete married Toshi, and when Toshi’s brother Al Ohta (I have lost his Japanese given name) married (I think to someone from the Seeger clan), my girlfriend and I were invited to the celebration, held at Pete’s apartment below MacDougal Street. Hillel and Aviva were there, a sabra couple from (nascent) Israel. Hillel took that occasion to teach one and all to play the challil (Hebrew name, an open reed flute, originally from the Jordan river).

Good memories, Best wishes to you,
Craig Work

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