Margaret Elaine Combs-Schilling, Columbia professor and coal miner’s granddaughter, died quietly in her bed from the effects of a brain tumor on the morning of July 7, 2016 in the loving company of her husband, the Reverend David Schilling, and son, Professor Jonathan Combs-Schilling. She was 67. While her last months were filled with many hardships, her capacity for joy and the radiance of her affection were undiminished, and her days were filled with music, family, and visits from loved ones, in particular her “three graces,” Professors Katherine Newman, Jean Howard, and Martha Howell, who brought her profound consolation and helped her heart sing up to the very end.
A subversive but proud daughter of the south, and the descendant of John Coombes who arrived at the Jamestown colony upon the Marigold on May 20, 1619, Elaine was the supremely devoted child of the Reverend Dr. Kenneth Bickley Combs of Dante, Virginia and Lucille Walters Combs of McRoberts, Kentucky, who were born in modest hollers only forty-four miles apart but on opposite sides of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They met inside the First Baptist Church in Van Lear, Kentucky where Kenneth was to deliver a single sermon while in transit to a church appointment. In the second row was Lucille, radiant in beauty and tender of heart, surrounded by the little children of the Sunday school class she taught (including a ten-year-old Loretta Lynn), but the service was interrupted by the Northern Lights in their southern-most appearance in the twentieth century. Struck by the celestial omen and drawn to Lucille’s grace, compassion and faith, Kenneth never made it to his intended destination—the couple wed six months later in 1942, beginning a life of profound love that would endure until they passed within days of each other in 1998 in the bosom of their beloved Elaine’s abundant care.
Kenneth and Lucille’s shared ministry began in Van Lear, but Kenneth was called soon after to Morocco and then Europe for a decorated tour as Chaplain in World War II, where he was present for the invasion of Sicily, D-Day, and Operation Market Garden, which saw many of his beloved “boys” killed by friendly fire. When no one else would go, he volunteered to be parachuted behind enemy lines, confirmed their deaths, returned by foot across the front, and sent each dog tag, with an accompanying letter, to the families of those who had perished. For this and much else, Elaine considered her father “a quiet hero.”
Upon his return, Kenneth and Lucille were called to a church in Clinton, Tennessee where Elaine was born on February 13, 1949 at a hospital in nearby Knoxville. In 1951 the family moved to Oak Ridge, and while sirens from the nuclear plant often interrupted Elaine’s sleep, her days were spent in the company of her beloved friends Celia Owens and Wendy Wilkinson in the rich green hills of Appalachia. Her sacred spaces were her daddy’s church, the classroom, and the swimming pool, an activity whose freedom and serenity gave her great joy throughout her life. When, after a swim, she would scandalize church deacons by walking through the nave with a dripping-wet bathing suit on her way to her daddy’s office, Kenneth would gently chide them that, while his headstrong daughter might not always care for rules, she had a heart of gold.
The third child of four, preceded by sisters Dorothy Combs Hill and Kathy Combs Vaughn, and followed by brother Kenneth Carl Combs, to whom she was a steadfastly loving and protective sister, Elaine’s childhood was joyful and intrepid. Her fearlessness was undiminished by the family’s relocation to Overland Park, Kansas, where she would revel in climbing trees and dodging tornadoes on the plains. With money short, vacations were often spent with paternal relations in Sarasota, Florida, where Elaine would marvel at trapeze artists as they practiced at the Ringling Bros. winter quarters, and laze about on overhanging branches with her siblings to watch alligators as they swam below. In 1967, this adventurous spirit led her to cross the Atlantic for the first time. Uncertain of what or where she wanted to study, but wary that Carson-Newman—the university where her father and two sisters had studied and at which she would later establish a scholarship in her parents’ honor—might not afford her the broad cultural canvas she desired, she traveled to New York City and set sail alone upon the Seven Seas ocean liner, bound for a host family—the Robberechts—in Vilvoorde, Belgium. Knowing little of the culture and nothing of the language, she began to learn Flemish mid-voyage but mastered it with sufficient speed that she received top marks at the local school run by Ursuline nuns. For an Appalachian girl, it was a transformative year of unheralded cultures and sites, and she maintained a deep bond with her host family, rejoicing in the last months of her life at a visit from her beloved “sister” Marleen.
While at a dinner party in Belgium, she met a Stanford University alumnus who encouraged her to apply. After acceptance to Stanford, she refused to take one of its required courses, an Introduction to Western Civilization, for fear that it would color her worldview and restrict her ability to maintain an inclusive, non-normative perspective on culture. She also found a vocation—cultural anthropology—and a husband—David—whom she met on the first Sunday of her first semester outside of Memorial Church, where he was acting as assistant dean of the chapel. Their falling-in-love was quick, deep, life-changing and life-lasting. She asked him to marry her and on August 10, 1969 they were wed in MemChu during Sunday service, in a ceremony presided over by Davie Napier, the Dean of the Chapel; Elaine’s father, Kenneth; and David’s father, the Reverend Marvin Schilling.
After a year spent in Morningside Heights while David finished his Masters of Divinity at Union Seminary and Elaine took a few courses at Barnard (and art classes at Riverside Church), the couple returned to California so Elaine could finish her degree at Stanford (B.A. with Honors, 1972) and David could begin his ministry and his fight for social justice. In the following years, the young, beautiful, brilliant Elaine divided her time between the roles of thoroughly unconventional but much-loved pastor’s wife in Milpitas and Watsonville, California, and doctoral student in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Upon the completion of her coursework, she led David to rural Morocco for two years of fieldwork (1976-78), where they were nourished by the affection of many locals, in particular El-Hajj Abdel-Latif, who looked upon Elaine as a daughter for the rest of his days. The focus of her study was the impact of a new road on merchant culture, but she became progressively more invested in how ritual informed daily life in their new community. Back in California, Elaine gave birth to her beloved Jonathan in 1979; finished her Ph.D. in 1981; and soon after began her thirty-three-year career as Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University.
Elaine and her red leather boots arrived at Columbia in 1983, where she taught classes on ritual and performance, the cultures of the Middle East and North Africa, and opera; was tenured in 1991; and served first as Vice (Acting) Chair and then Chair of the Department of Anthropology from 1991 to 1995. One of the many highlights of her time at Columbia came in 1993 when she was honored as the 49th Tannenbaum Lecturer, a performance that lingers in the imagination of many of her colleagues. A less august, but equally treasured, accomplishment came in 1989 when she gave a lecture on North African nomads at Bank Street to her son’s class of nine- and ten-year-olds, in which she helped the students construct a Tuareg tent in their classroom and guided them through a traditional tea ceremony, a proud and magical moment for her son which vibrantly lives on in the memories of his classmates.
As chair of Anthropology, she helped usher in a new era for the department and spearheaded the hiring of new voices. During the 90s Elaine was also a teacher and active participant in The Institute for Research on Women and Gender where she team-taught a number of interdisciplinary graduate courses and provided wise counsel in the formative years of the Institute’s history. As scholar, she published Sacred Performances: Islam, Sexuality, and Sacrifice, which examined the relationship between certain rituals—in particular marriage ceremonies, Eid al-Kabir (the festival of Abraham’s sacrifice), and the prophet’s birthday—and the stability of Morocco’s 1200-year-old monarchy. Her Moroccan fieldwork culminated in her study of Lalla Aziza, a little-known fourteenth-century female “saint” from the High Atlas Mountains who resisted gender, political, and cultural norms in her own time and whose memory lives on in the region, serving as a figure of empowerment and struggle during the French colonial period. Her shrine is a site of an annual festival and when, in 1993, all local festivals were banned to commemorate the foundation of a new royal mosque in Casablanca, Elaine called in a once-in-a-lifetime favor from the Moroccan ambassador to ensure that the centuries-old practice would not be interrupted. Arriving to the mountain town just in time for the celebration, she hoped that her intervention would not be the center of attention, and was gladdened when the locals responded that of course it was not her, but rather Lalla Aziza acting through her, that had ensured the festival’s continuity.
Her far-ranging interest in the praxes and power of performance led her, in 1998, to shadow Jonathan Miller’s new production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera to examine how operas can give sound, sight and material form to “unofficial versions of reality,” which became the main focus of her scholarship in later years. Her variegated research interests thoroughly informed her pedagogy, especially evident in her classes on ritual and performance, for which she would take students not only to the opera but also to Noh plays and the Greenwich Village Halloween parade. She exerted particular care, and took particular pride, in the senior thesis seminar in which she would warmly but rigorously guide the research of undergraduates for two semesters to help them arrive at a project inflected by their personal passions and reflective of their best intellectual selves. Indeed, though Elaine was an ambitious and accomplished scholar, she felt a deep spiritual connection to the vocation of teacher and transformed generations of Columbia students (not only, but especially, young women), helping them harness their intellectual potential and broaden their cultural perspective. Above all, she made them feel that their voices were worthy of being heard.
The renowned religious scholar, Ibn Qunfudh, who met Lalla Aziza in 1362, wrote, “She blessed me with her goodness.” As family, friends, colleagues and students of Elaine, we can say the same.
©2016 David Schilling & Jonathan Combs-Schilling
Hats Off, Elaine! In Memory of Margaret Elaine Combs-Schilling. Link