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Charlotte Cremin Dies at 81; a strong partner to a brilliant TC president

Charlotte Cremin (M.A. ’75), the wife of the late Pulitzer-prize winning education historian and Teachers College President Lawrence Cremin (Ph.D. ’49) and the daughter of Robert Bruce Raup (Ph.D. ’26), who spent nearly 40 years as Professor of Philosophy and Education at the College, has died at age 81.

Born Charlotte Cranch Raup, Charlotte Cremin was a self-described “irreverent spirit” who, along with her husband, sought to “destarchify” an institution that was at once counter-cultural and a bastion of many traditions. Cremin established a career as a middle-school mathematics teacher at a time when “faculty wife” was still a ubiquitous term. Yet she also embraced the role of presidential help-mate even as she redefined it.

“Charlotte was a strong and determined person, who knew her own mind and followed her own dictates,” says Ellen Condliffe Lagemann (Ph.D. '78, M.A. '68), Levy Institute Research Professor at Bard College and former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Yet despite her independence, I remember her saying she did not think of herself as a feminist.  She wanted to be called ‘Mrs.’ rather than ‘Ms.’ She loved being a wife and mother and was extremely proud of her children, Jody and David. As Larry's wife while he was president of TC, she worked hard to take the stuffiness out of formal dinners and receptions.  Often at such events, Jody and David would open the door and greet guests rather than having one of the staff do that.”

The dinners were often catered, but Charlotte Cremin always baked a dessert or cooked one course – including, during the winter holidays, bûche de Noël , a rolled-up Yule log that took a week in the making.  “After dinner, Larry often played the piano,” Lagemann said. “Both Larry and Charlotte wanted those evenings to be fun and they were.”

“She was a warm, lovely person and a wonderful hostess who always made you feel that she was glad to see you and that you were welcome in her home,” said TC Trustee Sue Ann Weinberg (Ed.D. ’97), whose dissertation adviser was Lawrence Cremin and whose recent gift honored his memory by laying the foundation for the College’s Center for the History of Education.  “One never felt that distance that you might expect from ‘the President’s wife.’ There was an immediacy about her – she had the most wonderful smile.”

Indeed Cremin took pride in her husband’s efforts to downplay issues of rank and ceremony.

“He would go to the maintenance people’s Christmas party,” she recalled in a 2012 interview for the Teachers College Oral History Project. “I think the first time he did it they were all stunned, but he sat down and played the piano with somebody and had a drink with them. He enjoyed doing it and being a human being.” The Cremins also made a conscious choice not to live in the College’s President’s Residence, in part , Charlotte Cremin said, “so that our children wouldn’t grow up in a fishbowl,” but also because the idea seemed ostentatious. “This whole business of the starchiness – we consciously tried to undo partly because we didn’t want to do it.”

Charlotte Cremin grew up in the College’s Seth Low faculty apartments and attended TC’s Horace Mann elementary school and later its Horace Mann Lincoln High School.  She was TC royalty: Her father had been the protégé of John Dewey, and her own marriage to the man regarded as the institution’s brightest star and perhaps the nation’s foremost exponent of progressive education only solidified that status.

Yet she had a pronounced disdain for pretension and a fondness for occasional mischief. She fondly recalled dropping water balloons down the stairwell at Seth Lowe and roller-skating down the hallway, much to the annoyance of Professor William Heard Kilpatrick and his family, who lived on the floor below.   

Rebelliousness was in a sense a family legacy. Her father was a former minister who had said he had quit the cloth because “I couldn’t preach what I didn’t believe.” Her mother, Clara Elliott Raup, fought successfully to attain a full professorship at Barnard College after years of lecturing in economics and statistics.

“The new head of the Economics Department tried to discontinue her after she had been there for something like twenty years,” Charlotte Cremin recalled. “My parents made the college back down because she essentially had tenure because she had been there so long. If it wasn’t convenient, they should have thought of that long ago.”

Amid a family of career academicians, Charlotte Cremin, the youngest of four children, was most decidedly not one.  She spoke of “bumping along” as a music major at Barnard, following in the wake of “two rather brilliant older sisters,” both of whom went on to earn Ph.Ds.  Nevertheless, “she was brilliant in her own right,” said Weinberg, with a head for numbers and patterns. A lifelong crossword puzzle enthusiast, she competed in national competitions after her retirement and repeatedly placed among the finalists in her age bracket. And as a young woman, during several of her husband’s sabbaticals, she began taking courses in mathematics teaching “as in insurance policy, in case something happened to Larry,” and commenced work on master’s degree at Teachers College while he was still serving as a department chair.  Far from trading on her connection to him, she took every step possible to preserve a separate identity.

“He was made president while I was still taking courses, and I made a deal with the Math Department – please, call me Charlotte, don’t ever mention my last name; that way I can fall on my face anonymously,” she said in her Oral History interview. “That year at commencement, I didn’t walk in cap and gown, although I got my degree. I sat down front in my spiffy clothes, and there was a reception and I ran into a couple of people and I said, ‘I’d like you to meet my husband,’ and they sort of went, ‘Oh.’”

For her humanities requirement, she also took Lawrence Cremin’s famous course, “The History of Education in the United States.” However, she insisted that the paper she wrote – on the work of her father -- be read by the course’s graduate teaching assistant (Lagemann, who would become a lifelong friend) rather than by her husband.

“I had listened to him and [Professor of Philosophy and Education] Phil Phenix flip a coin, and the loser had to read Mary Bereday’s paper,” she said, referring to the wife of George Bereday, TC Professor of Juvenile Law, Sociology and Education “I didn’t want anybody to have to do that. I took his course for pass/fail. I didn’t care what I got in it.”

Charlotte Cremin first met her husband when she was 13 and he was 21, a student in her father’s class who sometimes came for dinner and played the piano. 

“He played the best ‘Chopsticks’ I had ever heard in my whole life,” she recalled. “I was going oom-pah-pah and he was just all over the piano, and it was such fun. Then I’d see him on the street – ‘Hello, Mr. Cremin’ – until I graduated from college. Then on my graduation day, my mother and I were on our way back from Barnard to our house, and Larry passed on Broadway and he sort of went – ‘What’s happened here?’ and we talked for a while.”

The Cremins wedded in 1956, in a ceremony in her parents’ living room. He was Jewish and she was Christian, but as neither was especially religious, they were married by a minister from the Ethical Culture Society.  

Charlotte Cremin subsequently taught for many years at Dalton, the prestigious New York City private school where the Cremins, who were ardent believers in public education, sent their children during the 1970s, a troubled period for the New York City school system. “We believed in public education, but we didn’t want to crucify our kids on our beliefs,” she said.  At Dalton, too, Lawrence Cremin made his presence felt, joining the board and at one point helping to engineer a change in principals. But Charlotte Cremin, in turn, provided her husband with a teacher’s perspective on the education she had received at TC.

“There were seminars and studies at Dalton that were made available to teachers who wanted to take them – a woman who knew just enough about the way the brain works who introduced math teachers to what you had already known but couldn’t really articulate,” she recalled. “A lot of the research was fairly new, but we had to know it – not so much to be rigid about it but to be aware of the fact that kids thought differently. And I think that was not emphasized [at TC] and I think it should have been.”

Her opinions were heard. Lawrence Cremin worked on many fronts to make TC a more “academically stringent place,” she said, with no vestiges of a “normal school,” as many state teaching institutions were then known. Lawrence Cremin did not live to see the larger fruits of some of his efforts; When he died in 1990, from a heart attack, at age 64, the institution was in a period of financial retrenchment. Yet today his vision of “education writ large” is at the core of TC’s philosophy.

“His definition of education was not what happened in school only,” Charlotte Cremin said in 2012. “The reason he started the three-volume history (American Education) with what happened before people came to this country was because most education was not done in schools. A woman would take in kids to teach. The town crier taught them what was going on. Town meetings taught people what was going on. There were newspapers to read, there were Sunday things to go to. Then Larry stretched the envelope some – he said “Ok, you’ve got television, it teaches.” The idea of ‘Sesame Street,’ he loved. The fact that kids could learn and have fun and that puppets could talk sense and people of different colors and genders could talk to each other and talk to these puppets – it was all teaching.”

Charlotte Cremin is survived by a son, David Cremin, a venture capitalist and former professional musician. A daughter, Joanne Cremin, died in 1997.  – Joe Levine

Published Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014

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  • Charlotte and I met at The American Crossword Tournament 25 years ago and became fast friends. She was intelligent, warm, funny, caring and totally honest. I loved her to pieces and I shall greatly miss her. - Norma Mindell
  • "Charts" and I were classmates, Barnard '54, But we came to know each other well In Los Angeles. She introduced me to the National Puzzlers League, she took me to doctors' appointments when I was in need, we wined and dined and giggled together and talked about mystery books we liked. We had both lost a child - we teared together. We talked about mortality together. Her going away has left a hole in my heart. - Arline Chmbers
  • "Charts" was one of my good friends in the National Puzzlers League. I will remember her fondly, but there is now a big emptiness in my puzzling world. - Miriam Raphael
  • Charlotte, or Charty, was my grandmother and will forever hold a special place in my heart. She was the best grandmother anyone could ever ask for, and I will miss her every day. - Eliot Cremin
  • I first met Charlotte Cremin when I became her colleague in Dalton's middle school. Charlotte was a kind and wise teacher and a great colleague. Her wonderful sense of humor was refreshing. She became a valued friend. I cherish the memories of the times we worked together. - Pearl Rock Kane