Read the following excerpt from Designing Victory, by Robert P. Madison
Smoothing the Square
The 1940s was the decade in which I became a man. Not only did my combat in World War II toughen me, the war also left me far more worldly, and eager to connect with a woman who would be my soulmate until time itself ran out. The contessa taught me so much—about another way of living, about a wonderful culture that has endured for centuries. But many factors were at work that made it clear to us that, while we had enjoyed a special relationship, the contessa and I were not destined to enjoy a lifelong one. So, when I left Europe, I left with the reasonable expectation that I’d never see Laura again.
By the time I arrived back home in 1946, I was a well-rounded man, far from the square I was when I entered college six years earlier. That unfortunate blind date at Howard University may have been a fiasco, but at least it resulted in one positive outcome: my more formal engagement with women. Becoming comfortable with the fairer sex didn’t come easy for me, though. Mostly due to my mother’s strict and pious upbringing, I was so näive that, when I got to college, people called me “Monk.” Some of my close friends still do, and that’s OK. While some might shrink from a nickname like that, to me it’s kind of fun.
When I arrived on campus at Howard in September 1940, I was the poster child for what was known as a “square,” something I wouldn’t realize until much later. You know, all straight edges and socially clumsy, that was me. Maybe I was that way because we changed neighborhoods and elementary schools so often, I never had time to form healthy, steady relationships. Another factor was poverty: I couldn’t afford to take girls out on dates.
That pattern continued even at Garnet-Patterson, Washington’s best junior high school. And because East Tech in Cleveland was an all-boys public school—unique then and virtually unknown now—I didn’t have many opportunities for regular, casual contact with girls my age.
In more ways than one, though, my college experience before the war had already begun to round me out.
Bob, first row, third from left, with other pledges to the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Howard University in 1940.
Bob and Leatrice Branch on Engagement Day, 1948
Stretching the square
My metamorphosis didn’t happen all at once. At Howard, guys would be drinking, but not me. Smoke? I didn’t smoke. These guys would say, “This guy has got to be in the monastery. Look at this guy, Monk. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t run around with women.”
First thing I actually tried my hand at was smoking. Seemed easy enough. To start, you put a pipe in your mouth. Someone said, “Why not put something in that, like tobacco?” So I smoked the pipe, and it was cool. I was trying to grow up like the rest of the guys.
But the nickname, “Monk Madison,” came first, and that is what I’ve been known as ever since: Monk. I was pious, I really was. I used to go to chapel every Sunday. Most tellingly, I didn’t know the first thing about girls.
In Washington, D.C., I was still a novice at socializing, especially with the opposite sex. Things didn’t improve immediately, though my social circle widened when I became an Alpha Phi Alpha pledge and went to a fraternity dance with a friend, Lucretia Lindsay. That date was an education all its own. Whoever said socializing “Monk” Madison would be smooth?
We took a cab, because I couldn’t drive, and when we got to the dance, she said, “Where is it?”
“Where is what?” I said.
“Where’s the bottle? The booze?” Now she turned cold.
I came up short and dry, and she didn’t have anything to do with me for the rest of the dance. I began to wonder about Howard girls.
I called my friend Jeff Rogers and said, “Jeff, I’m having a tough time with these chicks.”
Ever the fixer, Jeff said to me, “Bob, I’ve got the right woman for you,” and he gave me a phone number. He had told her about me, so when I followed through, she was expecting my call. My experience with women gained perspective when I met Leatrice Lucille Branch, who was on the other end of that phone line. She was studying to be a math teacher at Miner Teachers College across the street from Howard.
Leatrice turned out to be quite a talker. I’m not; back home, we were on a party line, and there was no time to be windy. Anyhow, we talked for about five minutes, and I said I’d like to come see her. She had no objections. I walked to her home, about three blocks from campus, she let me in, and she introduced me all around.
At my house, there was my mother, my father, me and three brothers—five males and one female. At Leatrice’s that night, I met her two sisters, her mother, her grandmother, and her father—one male and five females in her house.
As I sat in the living room waiting for her, the Branch family was screaming up and down. I had never seen such a busy household, and I didn’t know what to do. I noticed a canary in a cage in the corner, so I started talking to the canary.
I’d never been in a household like Leatrice’s.
I loved Leatrice from our first meeting, though I may not have realized that then. In 1943, as commanding officer in the ROTC Army Specialized Training Program, I even staged a parade for her. That parade was really something—at least I thought it was.
Leatrice was home that Thanksgiving because her grandmother had passed away. I told her I was going to do something special for her. So I gave an order to the ROTC battalion that we would be passing the field at 1600 hours. I told Leatrice about it, so she came up and stood right behind me. I shouted to my troops, “Pass in review!” On cue, they saluted me, and both the parade and my show for Leatrice were over.
It doesn’t take hindsight for me to realize I was full of myself. At just 20 years of age, already in charge, I tried to take advantage of my position to win over Leatrice. One hitch to my grand scheme, though—the girl of my dreams was not that impressed. I told her to wait for me while I changed into civilian clothes, but I returned to the parade stand only to discover that another fellow had walked her home. Still, we dated for a year, and, when I left for officer candidate school in Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1944, I told her I wanted to marry her. She didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no, either, and I was OK with that. Maybe that was because of the optimist in me, or maybe the vision of Leatrice and Bob, together as husband and wife, burned so brightly in my imagination. As I readied myself for a brutal war, I just knew that a wonderful love would be mine when I returned.
She gave me a picture of her before I left; I carried her photo in my wallet throughout the war. When I was wounded, and everything was taken from me, that picture stayed with me. And even though our correspondence was one-sided, she was never far from my mind.
I always thought Leatrice would marry me. I just knew she was right for me. I felt it in my bones. But in the back of my mind, in training camp or in Italy, I couldn’t help thinking that Leatrice hadn’t given me a “yes.”
Finally, the war was over. For me, so were Europe and the Contessa Ferrari, whom I grew so close to toward the end of that conflict and for some time after. I was ready to go back to America and, above all, to Leatrice. But when I got home, I found out I would have to bide my time for that woman.
About two weeks after I returned to the States in 1946, I went to see Leatrice at her home in Washington. She smiled and greeted me—but I could tell something wasn’t quite right. Then, she softly told me some startling news:
She was engaged to be married—to another guy. Not me.
Even though I was shaken on the inside, for her sake and mine, I held it together on the outside. I was a returning, decorated soldier; got to be strong. Got to be a gentleman. I hid my shock behind a smile and managed to say, “I’m sorry to hear that and I wish you the best, but I still want to marry you.” And although I wasn’t aware of any script to follow on how an officer and a gentleman should act when a lady rejects his wedding proposal, I spoke what was in my heart. Believe it or not, I really meant that. When she said she was sorry but she was already taken, intuition led me to think she wasn’t all that convincing.
Something’s going on, I thought. But I couldn’t stay stuck in the Leatrice situation. I had a design for victory as an architect, and that meant getting my degree in that demanding field.