Derek Bovingdon

Derek Bovingdon, student application photo. Courtesy of Western Regional Archive.Fig. 1

Derek Bovingdon seems to have had a rather interesting life before coming to Black Mountain College – but “interesting” does not mean “good” or “carefree.” Bovingdon’s experiences included time abroad and the exposure to different cultures that this entails, as he was born in Tokyo, Japan on January 14, 1919 to Gertrude King Bovingdon.[1] His father, John Bovingdon, was a Harvard alumnus who was teaching economics at Keio University, but he soon began to indulge a kind of wanderlust – both in terms of place and proclivity. John Bovingdon eventually moved to LA but traveled abroad often, undertook a rigorous diet and refused smoking and drinking alcohol, and began to perform interpretive modern dance.[2]

He lived very much outside of the established social norms of the day, and he seems to have become entirely estranged from his family. His name is not mentioned on any documents that could be found in the Western Regional Archives, perhaps because the couple divorced in 1922, when Derek would have been only three years old. His application makes no mention of his father, and in response to a question inquiring about his interest in the school he replies: “My mother became interested through the first accounts of the college. I became enthusiastic after her and my interview with Mr. David Bailey.” On July 22 of 1938 Derek Bovingdon’s application was accepted for matriculation beginning that September.[3]

His father’s inclination towards the arts seems to have been shared by his son, who would even go on to study economics – which his father had been teaching at the time of his birth – in his final year at Black Mountain College. This year-long introductory course taught by Professor Gothe may have simply been part of Bovingdon’s exploration of the liberal arts during the latter part of his attendance however, while during his first year his coursework focused rather heavily on the fine arts: Music Appreciation with his advisor at the time, John Evarts; Dramatics with Robert Wunch, and other classes in this vein including Folk Dancing and Chorus taught by Professor Sly. In his second year, he took a General Physics course and then a follow-up tutorial with his second advisor Charles Lindsley, while maintaining his focus on the arts with courses such as The English Novel with Professor Kurtz and the continuation of Chorus, now taught by the newly arrived Professor Heinrich Jalowetz, a refugee fleeing the threat of fascism in Europe. In his third year however, the only arts-related courses he took were Contemporary Architecture and Mechanical Drawing – the remainder of his schedule was filled with classes such as Educational Sociology, Political Theory, and International Relations. Whether it was the latter two courses, his interactions with Jalowetz and other refugees on campus, or some other reason is not recorded, but Derek Bovingdon did not return after the summer break of 1941. Instead, he joined the Army and began training to be a part of a bomber crew.[4]

Bovingdon made many friends among the students and faculty at Black Mountain College. Unfortunately, the Archives have few records of his time at the college – most of the information pertaining to him is in the form of memorials and remembrances after his untimely death. It seems that for whatever reason, Derek Bovingdon kept a relatively low profile. While so many of his fellow students were being photographed – alongside the faculty as they went about their studies, work projects, performances, and leisure activities – no verified picture of Derek Bovingdon can be found other than the one attached to his application, which is included above.[5]

Despite Bovingdon’s history with the breakup of his family and his somewhat lower profile on campus, he was a well-loved and memorable figure, and his death struck the college like a bolt from the blue and drove the reality of the war and its consequences home. Immediately, Charles Lindsley began spearheading efforts to honor his memory with a scholarship fund.[6]

Black Mountain College Bulletin, Vol I Number 3, April 1943 – News regarding Derek Bovingdon. Courtesy of Western Regional Archive.Fig. 2

Bovingdon had been training to be a bomber pilot, and had skipped the usual preliminary requirement of being certified as a co-pilot first.  He had married fellow student Barbara Sieck on the day he received his commission into the Army Air Corps.[7]  Strangely, perhaps due to his estrangement from his father or simply a clerical error he gave his “true name” as Derek Sieck on the marriage application, although in all other places it is recorded as Derek Bovingdon.[8] He would be participating in the unprecedentedly massive and terribly destructive European air raids – the largest air war in the history of the world, even today. Although he had spent his time at Black Mountain indulging a passion for the arts, both contemplative and performative, he was willing – if not prepared – to sacrifice his life in support of this goal. He would never see combat, though: The B-17F Flying Fortress he was training to pilot crashed into the side of a mountain in foggy weather in Washington state in the spring of 1943.

Word of his passing was included in the Black Mountain College Community Bulletin of April 6th, 1943 through an excerpt from a letter sent by Jean Jordan, another former student engaged in military training: “It seems they went out on some kind of routine flight flight Monday and never returned. It was five days before they found them. Barbara (Sieck, Bovingdon’s wife who was also a former student) has gone to Massachusetts, I suppose to be with Mrs. Bovingdon (in this case, Bovingdon’s mother).”[9]

Like many among the students and faculty of Black Mountain College, Derek Bovingdon believed in the righteousness of the cause of the Allies against Germany and the powers associated with the Nazi regime enough to forsake academics in support of the war. Although we have no correspondence from him and little documentation of his short life, we can divine from statements made after its end that he was a kind and loving human being – and that at least at Black Mountain, he had built relationships that lived on after he departed the campus and the world as well.

[1]Black Mountain College Papers, Student File Abstracts, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of NC.

[2]“The Strange Case of John Bovingdon”. LIFE. 15 (7): 34. August 16, 1943. Retrieved 7 April 2017.

[3]Black Mountain College Papers, Student File Abstracts.

[4]Black Mountain College Papers, Student File Abstracts.

[5]Black Mountain College Papers, Student File Abstracts.

[6]”Letter from Charles Lindsley to Theodore Dreier, July 1943.” Theodore and Barbara Dreier Collection. Box 52. Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

[7]Black Mountain College Bulletin Newsletter, Volume I, Number #3, April 1943. Black Mountain College Papers. Box 26. Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

[8]Certificate of Marriage, Derek Bovingdon to Barbara Sieck, 4 January 1942, Cochise County Arizona,

[9]“Black Mountain College Community Bulletin, April 6, 1943.” College Year 10. Bulletin 24. Black Mountain College Collection. II, General Files 1933-1956. Publications, College: BMC Bulletin/Bulletin-Newsletter, Vol. 7 – BMC Community Bulletin, College Year 12, January-June, 1945. Box 27. Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

Fig. 1Black Mountain College Papers, Student File Abstracts.

Fig. 2Black Mountain College Bulletin Newsletter, Volume I, Number #3, April 1943. Black Mountain College Papers. Box 26. Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.