Who was Penny Cent?
Stefan Fosfore?
a.k.a. Robert H. Centurion?
a.k.a. Penrod Centurion?
a.k.a. Fredrich Wilhelm Schmidt?
a.k.a. Robert Schmidt?
And where did he go?
(Photos taken about 1934)

If you know, please email information to:

July, 2005 through May 2007 Updates: See Significant New Finds Below

On July 26th, 2015, a "Penny Cent Symposium" was conducted in the
Harrisburg District Library during which some significant facts were revealed.
See the "Symposium Updates

by William R. Carr

Once upon at time, there was a college of liberal arts and humanities in the hills of Hardin County, Illinois — one of southern Illinois' poorest and most "backward" counties. Far removed from any city or population center of any size at all, it was not only in the hills, but in the woods, of what is called the Illinois Ozarks (today more commonly called the Shawnee Hills and the Shawnee National Forest). The campus was shaded by trees that pre-dated it. The college living quarters and classrooms were initially tents with wooden floors. As it grew, the few buildings that finally made up the campus, were designed and built from scratch by the faculty and students. They were built at very little cost, of native materials — lumber from the local forests, and sandstone from the college's own quarry. The water supply was the creek that meandered across campus property, down in the hollow, until the well was dug. Heat in the various buildings was from fireplaces, and the fuel was wood harvested from the campus property, supplemented later with coal stoves. There was no electricity, and lighting was by kerosene and gasoline lamps.
    Courses of instruction offered included various humanities, biological, physical, and social sciences classes, along with algebra and trigonometry — and art. Requisites for resident students included: "...plenty of blankets, along with sheets, pillow, pillow cases, towels, and other items of personal use... High boots, overalls, and rough, warm, outdoor clothes..." and the willingness to do hard work. Part of every student's tuition was paid in the form of labor, and the first half of each day was spent at work, gathering and cutting firewood, building and maintaining the campus, etc.
    The main educational asset the college possessed, aside from its dedicated and highly motivated staff, was its library of about twenty-five hundred books — the first ever "public" library in Hardin County. Though young, the staff was not a bunch of intellectual pretenders. Their credentials were from such places as Northwestern University, Ball State College, Antioch College, the University of Illinois, and the Fredrich Wilhelm University of Berlin.
    If it were not for the historical record that clearly indicates that such a college existed, and the fact that many older residents can still clearly remember it, the very idea of such a college would seem pure fantasy. No sign of it remains at its former site today.

The College in the Hills is a venture in education, based on the theory that a worthwhile training for life can be made available to a group of students who are willing to live and work together on a thoroughly cooperative basis. As a result of this theory, we have been able to make the cost to each individual lower than ordinary living expenses at home. At the same time we are attempting to bring the College into the community through extension classes and adult education groups. In building an education to serve this present age, the College in the Hills has aimed at two ends: ---we are helping to build a new social, economic, and political order in our time, and we are trying to make ourselves into human beings capable of living in that better order.

The College opened last June (1934) and ran a ten-week quarter ending August 31. During that time a temporary building was constructed, which is now being made winterproof. This structure will house the kitchen; a combination living-room, dining-room, and library; and the women's dormitory. Other structures are planned in accordance with our conception of organic architecture, using the native oak, and stone from a quarry on the campus. We are trying to put up a building with the maximum possible usable space; one wholly utilitarian and yet in keeping with the landscape of the region.

According to present plans the staff and students are to put up these structures without any outside help. Finishing the job of weatherproofing the present structures and starting on the next units are the biggest jobs on campus. Preparing meals and daily maintenance are our other two major tasks. (College in the Hills Fall Quarter 1934 Newsletter "Forward" and "General Information")

   The college was obviously (or at least purportedly), an experiment in "New social, economic, and political order" building. The staff had big plans, as if they knew they were part of a vast army embarking on the transformation of the nation, and their mission was to work their wonders on Hardin and neighboring counties. Whether the college was unique in that it was the one and only such experiment, or was one of many such experiments around the nation, I don't know. It is likely that there were other such experiments elsewhere. But it may have been a pilot project which, having failed, discouraged other similar attempts. If it was truly a one of a kind effort, initiated solely by those personally involved (both one site and behind the scenes), the College in the Hills would have been a rare and unique phenomena indeed!


One of the most interesting and enigmatic characters in the drama that was the College in the Hills was the German-American artist who went by the unlikely name of Penny Cent (most often articulated as one word — Pennycent). Of the college staff, he was the only obvious foreigner, and he spoke with a German accent. This, in itself, would have inevitably led to considerable speculation and suspicion by the local population. But, to make matters much worse, he also went by what was obviously a fictitious name. In fact, his true name and identity was wrapped in so much secrecy that apparently not even the other staff members knew it, and it remains a mystery to this day.
    My uncle, George Carr, and my father, James R. Carr (both artists in their own right), befriended Penny Cent, thus I have inherited a second-hand "relationship" with Penny Cent's memory — and a personal interest that continues to inquire into that empirical question that many have asked over the last half century and more: "Whatever happened to Penny Cent?"
    Lamentably, the college only lasted for about two years. When it closed down and its staff moved on to other pursuits, Penny Cent moved to Harrisburg and privately taught art at his rented house. He was known to have resided at 104 N. McKinley St., Harrisburg, as late as 1941. George Carr was one of his students. By 1941, World War II was in progress, and an anti-German hysteria had been nurtured by the government and the media, and Penny Cent apparently found Harrisburg uncongenial. When Penny Cent left, it is believed he spent some time in Carbondale, Illinois, before returning to New York City, the last place he was known to have lived.

The following brief biography of Penrod Centurion (a.k.a., Penny Cent) was found on an Internet art web site. It leaves more questions unanswered than it answers. Hopefully, other interested researchers will be able to complete the story of the mysterious Penrod Centurion (a.k.a. Penny Cent).

Penrod Centurion

1905 -

Although Penrod Centurion was born in New York, he was educated in both Swiss and German schools. In 1926, he returned to America. Before coming back to New York, Centurion was the director of College in the Hills, a small experimental school in Illinois. During this time he was also involved with the Federal Writers Project of Illinois. In 1937 Centurion came back to New York and became one of Hilla Rebay's inner circle at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. This particular group of artists, which also included Rudolf Bauer, Rolph Scarlett, Laslo Moholy-Nagy and Irene Rice Pereira, shared with Rebay an embrace of nonobjective art. Centurion was among many other American artists who received scholarships and employment opportunities through the Guggenheim Foundation and Centurion exhibited in the first exhibition of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. Selected References Art of Tomorrow. Fifth catalogue of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection of Non-Objective Paintings, New York, 1939. Lukach, Joan M. Hilla Rebay, In Search of the Spirit in Art. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1983.


On Sunday the 26th of July, 2015, Gillum Ferguson (owner of Penny Cent painting, "WPA Harrisburg Street Scene") conducted a surprisingly well attended Penny Cent Symposium. 

The three person panel included Debra Tayes, recently retired from the Illinois State Museum system; retired school teacher, Luciella Foster (who knew Penny Cent during his Harrisburg years); and Bill Carr (this writer).

My roll was to tell of my father's relationship with Penny Cent.

Mrs. Foster (a mighty young 96 year-old), had just graduated from high school in 1937, had landed a summer job at the Harrisburg city swimming pool where she met Penny Cent. She spoke of him in glowing terms, remembering him as a very kind, generous, and gentlemanly person who took an interest in people. 

Debra spoke at length about Penny Cent, sharing the fruits of her many years of extensive research into the artist. Her research has including a visit to New York's Guggenheim Foundation where she accessed their archives and was able to gain a very deep and person insight into Penny Cent's relationship with that institution's Museum of Non-Objective Art, and his (finally) stormy relations with Hilla Rebay, the museum's co-founder and head administrator.

Among other things, we have learned from Debra that Penny Cent's real name was Robert Schmidt.

Below is a very short synopsis of Ms. Taye's revelations. There is still a considerable amount of mystery surrounding Penny Cent's "life after the Guggenheim" and the circumstances of his death in October of 1986.


1905 (or 1902) - 1986

  Pending future update

 Penny Cent worked on the Work Progress Administration (WPA) Illinois Arts Project. He was, apparently, the administrator in charge of the deep Southern Illinois art project. His name was listed as Penny Cent, and his department was listed as "Easel/Administration" — location: Harrisburg and Williamson and Saline Counties. He helped my uncle, George Carr, and Paulis McClendon (two of his students), get jobs with the Federal Illinois Arts Project.  No doubt he touched many other lives in a positive way too. (Some published accounts say that Penny Cent worked on the Federal Writers' Project, but this was probably a mistake, unless he was in two separate programs at the same time or at slightly different times. My father, James Carr, worked on the WPA Federal Federal Writers' Project.)
    Penny Cent was, among other things, a fitness enthusiast as well as a vegetarian. He rode a bicycle around Harrisburg when bicycle riding was no longer considered an adult activity. He was friendly, outgoing, kind, and generous — and obviously possessed a great sense of humor, as the flippant nature of his name would indicate.
    One Harrisburg native who remembers Penny Cent fondly is Luciella Foster, who still has some of his work. Just out of high school in 1937, Luciella had a summer job at the Harrisburg City Park swimming pool where Penny Cent often came to swim. "He was generous with what he had," she told a local newspaper writer in 2000, "He took the boys to go swimming who didn't have money to pay the admission fee." She said she knew little about him otherwise, but thought he was a kind man.
    It seems incredible that such a person would simply disappear from the face of the Earth, but the matters of his later career and ultimate fate remain a mystery which continue to baffle local researchers. After his involvement with the College in the Hills; and having been awarded several Guggenheim art Fellowships for nonobjective art (which apparently provided his financial wherewithal while at the College in the Hills, prior to the WPA Arts Projects); after having touched and inspired several lives; he seems to have simply vanished — remembered, but otherwise totally lost.
    After leaving Harrisburg, Penny Cent seems to have changed his nom de plum to Robert H. Centurion for a while, and then to Penrod Centurion. Under the name Penrod Centurion he produced what is probably a considerable volume of abstract art, and some of his works can be found on various Internet web sites. None of those I've found thus far have been dated later than 1949. Only rumors have persisted. The man seems to have simply ceased to exist. If his given birth date of 1905 is correct, he would have been only 44 years old in 1949, with a long career ahead of him.

"A rather lengthy article about Penny Cent appeared in the 14 August 1938 Evansville Press. At that time the College had closed, the buildings had burned (under what circumstances I have been unable to learn). The artist at that time had a studio in Harrisburg. Penny Cent told the reporter his name was Penrod Centurion (the man was his own worst press agent!). One person who knew him well said his name could have been Frederich Wilhelm Schmidt, but the Schmidt/Smith name certainly bears no proof of its own identity. He claimed to have been born in 1905 of German-American parents, and to have been sent back to Germany at an early age to "help the American branch of the family keep its fingers on a valuable inheritance." The inheritance vanished in WWI.

Cent said he attended Frederick Wilhelm University in Berlin, specializing in political economy and history. He also took art training at college, later attended Berlin Academy. He was a business correspondent in English, French, and German in 1924, in Finland. He also wrote movie reviews for the German press. In 1926 he moved to Chicago, and at one time worked in the art department of Marshall Field.

Penny Cent came to Southern Illinois with the College In The Hills group in 1934. He worked on a Federal Writers Project and continued his painting. He later won a Guggenheim fellowship in "nonobjective art," now known as abstract art. Cent called the form, which he had turned out for years, "Cromorfs," a term he coined from two Greek words--"chromos-color" and "morphos-form."

No one seems to know what became of Penny Cent. There were rumors that he was arrested as a spy and sent to Leavenworth, but several years ago a reporter failed to find any proof of that. Others thought he moved to a city and became a street person. The last Saline and neighboring counties saw of him was on the day James Carr and Paulus McClendon, who had befriended him to the end, helped him pack his belongings in his red convertible and waved good-bye as he drove away--destination uncertain. Carr never heard from him again."

Quoted from the Springhouse Magazine, June 1989 (Vol. 6, No. 3) The College in the Hills, Part II, by Mildred B. McCormick

    While at the College in the Hills, Penny Cent was known to accept mail addressed to Frederich Wilhelm Schmidt, but it is unlikely that this gives a hint of his real name — unless he happened to be named for the Friedrich Wilhelm University (Now the University of Berlin), where he attended college. Friedrich Wilhelm was the name of the king of Austria, and the crown prince of the German Empire under the Keiser, who had a son of the same name born about the time Penny Cent was born. King Friedrich had many namesakes, including the philosopher, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Naturally, it is possible that Penny Cent was one of those namesakes. Schmidt, of course, is the German equivalent of Smith.
    We can speculate that Penny Cent was from a rather affluent family, since they were apparently able to send him to Switzerland and Germany for an education. For the same reason, we can speculate that his family valued German culture and educational institutions more highly than what was available in the United States — or at least desired their son to maintain his German identity and cultural moorings. They may have had political connections in pre-World War One Germany. Possibly Penny Cent was wealthy in his own right (though the main family "inheritance vanished in WWI"). It wouldn't stretch the imagination too much to speculate that he might even have been a member of the Austrian royal family. Perhaps, as an artist, he was determined to make it on his own after gaining his education, eschewing his possible inheritance. Perhaps once his odyssey in the American heartland and New York was over, he resumed the station in life to which he was an heir — forever divorcing himself from his former American identity.
    It is quite possible that he had political reasons for keeping his identity secret. (Of course, many German Americans shed their German names for anglicized versions during the anti-German hysteria of WWI. My step-grandfather's surname, for exampled, was changed from Kerr to Carr) One might speculate that Penny Cent returned to Germany, was somehow swept up in the war, and perhaps failed to survive it. However, at least one painting by Penrod Centurion that I have been able to locate, was dated 1949. Though it is not known where it was painted (for some of his work has surfaced in Europe), it would indicate that he did survive the war years. If he had serious communist sympathies (though we have no evidence that this is the case), he may have disappeared behind the Iron Curtain — into the USSR or East Germany. In fact, he may have disappeared behind the Iron Curtain if he happened to stray into East Germany or the Soviet block with serious anti-communist sympathies.
    We can only hope that he did not end up the way College in the Hills researcher Fred J. Armistead reported to Mrs. Foster — that: "The last time Pennycent was seen he was a bum on skid row in New York City."
    Could this have been the fate of the artist who was said to have been a member of Hilla Rebay's inner circle at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting — an up and coming institution in that era, and one that still exists (Since 1952, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum)? (See recent mention of Penrod Centurion from Guggenheim Museum Web Site.) If so, what happened to him next? The Guggenheim Foundation archives may have the answers, but has not yet yielded them up. I'd like to believe that we will rediscover Penny Cent under yet another name, perhaps having lived a long and happy life in Europe or among South Sea Islanders.

Penny Cent's last known address in possession of my father. "Current usage" Robert H. Centurion. The paper is signed, "Best o' regards, Chuck." My father, now in his nineties, can't remember who Chuck might have been.



NOTE (JULY 7, 2005): On June 30th, the webmaster received an email from a Mrs. Linda Talbot of Michigan. While searching through the personal effects of her recently deceased mother, she made a significant discovery. She found some strange abstract artwork by an artist who signed his name "Penrod Centurion." In her Internet search for information about the artist, she found this web site and contacted the webmaster.
   Charles T. Whitlock, Mrs. Talbot's father, who passed away in 1987, had been born, and had grown up, in Harrisburg, Illinois. Since finding the Penrod Centurion paintings, she has learned that her father knew Penny Cent as a young man while still in Harrisburg, and may have studied art under Penny Cent. The paintings are dated 1938, and Mr. Whitlock was a senior in high school in that year. Linda says that other family members believe her father met Penny Cent at the Harrisburg swimming pool where both spent a considerable amount of time. Mr. Whitlock moved to Michigan with his family and pursued a career as a police officer on the Oakland County Police Department.
   Mrs. Talbot speculates that her father may have been the "Chuck" who signed the address note shown above that was found among my own recently deceased father's papers, and I am inclined to agree.
   Mrs. Talbot kindly had digital photos made of two paintings, one of which is on the back of the other, which are published here for the first time ever in the gallery below.


JUNE 1, 2006 and May 11 UPDATE

While Penny Cent's disappearance remains clouded in mystery, some tantalizing clues are beginning to come forth. As mentioned above, the Guggenheim Foundation probably has a lot of answers, but its archives have been mysteriously sealed and withheld from the public scrutiny. It appears very likely that the archives contain information the foundation would rather not reveal. In addition to the Significant Find Above, the webmaster has recently received another email from Mrs. Linda Talbot. She has found some old letters exchanged between her father (who was a Harrisburg friend of Penny Cent), and her mother during World War Two. One dated March 1, 1943 is briefly quoted below (slightly edited for clarity):

I have been reading my letters... from my dad to my mother while he was in the service. (In) One letter, dated March 1, 1943, while going to school in New York and staying at the Broadway Central Hotel, he states that their was a party with a bunch of guys from Harrisburg – and in walks Penny Cent.
     In the letter (my father) said that Penny Cent told him that he was really (working) with the F.B.I. – on one of the biggest spy rings in the U.S. – (involving) some rich guy by the name of Von Bauer. Dad said Penny Cent was living in Brooklyn at that time.

This adds an entirely new dimension to the quest for information about Penny Cent. You might say it adds the hint of a little more drama than we'd thus far imagined.

From another interested source searching for answers, I learned that there was a considerable amount of conflict at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (now the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum), between it's co-founder and top administrator, Hilla Rebay – to be more precise, Baroness Hildegard Anna Augusta Elisabeth Rebay von Ehrenwiesen,  (b. 1890 d. 1967 – born in Strassburg, Alsace) – (who practically claimed to have all but invented nonobjective art), and her erstwhile following, which included Penny Cent. Rudolf Von Bauer, who held a much higher position in her "inner circle," came into serious conflict with the Countess.
     According to this source, "Rebay wanted to own him..." and, along with several others, Bauer became very angry with her. Penny Cent was so angry that he, together with others, launched a campaign to unseat her from her position at the Guggenheim. And, one particularly puzzling tidbit, "Hilla Rebay was put under house arrest during the war..."

Von Bauer, according to biographical articles published about the countess, was one of Rebay's several lovers, which would help explain why she wanted to control him, and why there may have been wider conflicts infecting the Guggenheim than the hint of alleged espionage.
     A interesting essay, entitled, "Rudolf Bauer: A Non-Objective Point of View," by Steven Lowy, from the web site of Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco, helps flesh out the reasons for Bauer's conflict with Hilla, and with Guggenheim. (This information kindly sent to to the webmaster by Brian George, in May 2007).

I had speculated, "Could Penny Cent have actually been working covertly with the FBI to break a major World War Two spy ring firmly ensconced at the Guggenheim? Hilla Rebay and Rudolf Bauer, of course (like Penny Cent himself [though American born]), were Germans. If Ms. Rebay was placed under house arrest during the war, there is considerable smoke here. Could it have been the result of Penny Cent's revelations?"

Lowy's essay, however, indicates that it was Bauer, rather than Penny Cent, who was responsible for Hilla's "house arrest." He had apparently intimated to the FBI that she was a Nazi spy – about the same time Penny Cent was intimating the same thing about him. Hilla was investigated on the spy charge, but the only thing they could find to pin on her was the "illegally hoarding" during war time. Apparently Penny Cent's effort on behalf of national security against Bauer failed to bear fruit, unless it was more bitter fruit for himself.   
    All of this would explain why Penny Cent became literally penniless, and probably never saw another penny of Guggenheim endowment money. And he may have became "persona non grata" in the entire nonobjective art world. After Solomon Guggenheim died, Hilla Rebay was finally forced out of the Guggenheim "Museum of Non-Objective Painting" and the name was changed to make the separation all the more galling to her (for she was not at all popular with the other members of the Guggenheim family or museum trustees). And, of course, many of the artists of her inner circle crashed along with her, including Penny Cent. Bauer was cut off too, but at least he came out rather well off.
     It would be a twist of irony if Penny Cent, who had been suspected by some (at least in Southern Illinois), of being a German spy, was actually undercover for the FBI? I have personally wondered how such an obviously fictitious name would be officially enrolled in the Federal Arts Project. It seemed so unlikely to me that such a name would be accepted in a Federal Program, but he was not only a WPA artist, but a regional supervisor – enrolled under the name of Penny Cent!
     One of the ways a person "disappears" in our society, of course, is through the "witness protection program." Whether that program was going on during World War Two, I don't rightly know. Penny Cent (as Penrod Centurion), however, is known to have painted at least through 1949. Then vanished without a trace.
     At that very time, on the eve of the Cold War, apparently something else was happening in the art world. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was beginning to take a hand in promoting the popularity of non-objective art. (See: "Of Spies and Splatters" by Frances Stonor Saunders, which appeared in the London "Independent on Sunday," on October 22, 1995.)
     Another way a person often effectively disappears is merely to move into a status of object poverty after being disowned by influential friends. It is likely that this happened to Penny Cent. Cut off from the source of his sustenance, and perhaps even "black balled" by the entire non-objective art community, he probably found that there was little market for his Cuniforms in the real world of that era – in spite of the promotion provided by the CIA.
     Penny Cent later life and fate remain unrevealed. Though parts of the puzzle continue to accumulate and fall into place, the whole picture is still far from clear.

You might say, the plot continues to thicken around that empirical question that prompted the creation of this web page, i.e., "What ever happened to Penny Cent?"

    One reason the college failed was that many local residents immediately suspected that the staff of the College in the Hills was a group of communists. Penny Cent, particularly, fell under increasing local suspicion. Both his German accent and fictitious name worked against him. By the time Penny Cent left Harrisburg, National Socialist Germany had engaged Europe in the war of the century, and many had long suspected that Penny Cent must thus be a Nazi spy. Most of his local friends had fallen away during the years leading up to World War II. My father was one of the very few around Harrisburg whose friendship lasted to the very end — the day Penny Cent left the area never to be heard from again in these parts.
Though I have an interest in learning more about Penny Cent, I am not engaged in any primary research into the matter. My purpose here is to devote a web site to what has thus far come to my attention with respect to his life and work — assembling that information in one place where those with interest may find it. It is my hope that this page will attract the attention of those with a similar interest and, hopefully, some additional knowledge of the subject — maybe attract some of answers to the many as yet unanswered questions. Any additional information, as well as digital images of Penny Cent's artwork, will be most appreciated. Please email any such information or images to: so they can be incorporated into this site. Those who send information should state whether or not they would like to be credited as the contributing source of any such information or images that may be added to this site.
With the exception of some of Penrod Centurion's nonobjective art, which I have been able to find on the Internet, most of the information, photos, and illustrations, on this web page have been published on the pages of the Springhouse Magazine, a unique journal published by Gary and Judy DeNeal near the site of the College in the Hills in Southern Illinois. Most of this information may be found in the April and June, 1989 (Vol. 6, Nos. 2 and 3), and the February, 2001 (Vol. 18, No. 9), issues of that publication.


My father told Penny Cent right off the bat, "You're mistaken if you think the people down around here hunger for education."  Those that definitely did not hunger for education knew that they at least knew enough to get by. And they did, though at the time many also depended upon federal relief to supplement their family food larders. After all, this was during the Great Depression. And most of those who did hunger for an education were under the impression that it could only be had at great expense and inconvenience by going somewhere else — and to utilize it after attaining it would mean that most would probably never return to their farms and homes.
    That an education could be attained so near to home, and under such primitive conditions as existed at the College in the Hills, just didn't seem credible. Aside from that, the college labored under numerous other handicaps, not the least of which were it's lack of funding and accreditation. As a truly private endeavor, neither the federal nor state government gave it the least financial support or material assistance. The amazing thing is that the college managed to get started in the first place, and get as much accomplished as it did.
    In addition to those unavoidable handicaps, the young faculty members, in spite of being forewarned, failed to take the local culture into serious account. Penny Cent and his associates were like missionaries come to civilize and reform the natives of a foreign land — and that's undoubtedly how they thought of themselves. Had they worn missionary robes, or adopted something like a military dress-code, they might have been taken a little more seriously, but not necessarily approved of or appreciated. Had they come with millions of dollars in endowments, bulldozers and construction crews, at least they might have awed the natives. But they came only with themselves, high aspirations, a few books and tools, and their alien bohemian ways, which many locals took as arrogance and disrespect.
     Of course, there was a perception among the college staff, that the natives were in dire need of the most elementary instruction — in such basics as sanitation and how to live in a modern world. The Illinois State Supervisor of Adult Education (Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction), put the "need" succinctly when writing an appeal to the Carnegie Foundation in New York on behalf of the college: "It (the Illinois Ozarks) is culturally a colony of the hill region of Kentucky and Tennessee. There is no general locality in the state more in need of the kind of educational work the college can do; at the same time—as is but natural—there is no region less aware of its educational needs... (The college staff)  were well aware of the resistance they would have to face from local fanatic provincialism... I can assure you that any help you can give them will be an investment in the future enlightenment of one of the darkest regions in this troubled state."
    What "they" referred to as "fanatic provincialism," of course, was what most of our parents and grandparents called community and community spirit. Though the College in the Hills failed, we now enjoy the modernity that our grandparents lacked. But, alas, the community and community spirit which once existed are all but gone. Despite mistakes, and its obvious socialist ideology and orientation, the College in the Hills was emphatically not about destroying our community. It was actually about adding an educational dimension to the community and truly contributing to that community.
    It is lamentable that the College in the Hills failed, for the learning process might have been a two way street whereby the college staff might have learned from the local community's broader and more fundamental spirit of American rural self-reliance. The "natives" may have constructively influenced the missionaries who came to change and enlighten them. As things turned out, there was no effective exchange of ideas, and thus any meeting of the minds was derailed.
   The causes of the failure of the College in the Hills can be attributed to both the college staff and local community. The idea, if not its presumed root political motivation, had tremendous merit and potential, but critical mistakes were made. Those mistakes insured that the local community would reject the opportunity presented by idealists willing to work and make personal commitments and sacrifices on their behalf. That said, there is little doubt that the ideology behind the experiment was socialist, if not totally Marxist, in nature. The college president made that clear enough when he wrote:

"...we are helping to build a new social, economic, and political order in our time, and we are trying to make ourselves into human beings capable of living in that better order."

    Though I am not a socialist by any measure, I'm sorry that the college did not succeed. Our subsequent and inevitable "uplift" has nonetheless resulted in the destruction of the rural communities and the lose of much of our capacity for local self-reliance. Higher education has always taken people away from rural communities and has seldom been a two way street. The community would have benefited greatly, in my opinion, had the college succeeded — for though it may have been an experiment in grass-roots social engineering, it's own dedication to hard work and self-reliance might have put a different face on socialist institutions in America. While the people's horizons would have been broadened, the faculty's opinion of local culture might have been influenced in a positive manner too.
    At the local "people" level, there is nothing particularly wrong with socialist concepts. It is only at the state and national political level where they become a threat to "freedom and liberty" as we know it — or once knew it. The self-contained, and self-reliant agricultural or educational commune should have been allowed a place along with the traditional American family farm and subsistence farming. Had this experiment succeeded, the face of the nation might have been radically different than we find it today. This grass-roots attempt at injecting education and new ideas into the countryside itself, having failed, may have (at least in part), contributed to the evolution of the radically different society and government we have today, whereby government programs have destroyed the American style family farm-based local economics. Very radical change (in spite of once wide-spread rural provincialism), has been thrust down upon the nation from above without the fully informed consent of the governed, and with lasting and irreversible consequences (pardon the political digression, I just couldn't resist it).
    The College of the Hills was definitely an experiment in social and economic engineering. But pursued at the grass-roots level, the people would have had a say in the evolutionary processes of social change that were inevitably destined to impact their lives. There is no doubt about the socialist nature of the driving ideology of the enterprise, and the stated purposes leave no doubt that it was part of a much larger vision than merely transforming one rural community.   

The campus itself was unique in that it was built from scratch, by faculty and students, using mostly native materials, much of which was harvested from the campus property. It was a somewhat amazing undertaking and a very noble experiment. Unfortunately, because of the rustic setting, rustic architecture, an obvious and unrelenting lack of funding, and the informal atmosphere nurtured by the staff, few "natives" were inclined to take it seriously as an institute of higher education.

     Their intentions were good, and the project they undertook was certainly a very ambitious, and a potentially worthwhile one. But the "natives" resented the thought that others (especially citified outsiders), considered them in need of some sort of salvation. Penny Cent and crew were idealists, progressives, and humanists. They were different — and they didn't seem to belong. Among most of the residents of Hardin County, and surrounding environs, being progressive and humanist was enough to brand them as either candidates for, or messengers from, Hades. There were enough "locals" sufficiently aware of world affairs to recognized the socialist nature of the endeavor, and the entire nation had been taught that socialism and communism were diametrically opposed to democratic freedom and our capitalist system.
    It is hardly surprising that "socialists" would be regarded with suspicion in a day when communist socialism was considered a growing threat to western civilization and National "Socialism" (Nazism), was on the rise in Germany.
    To make matters all the worse, the college staff apparently intended to "go native," probably in an attempt to seem more approachable, but to a degree the local population thought unbecoming. In a sense they were like the hippies of a later era who thought nothing of visiting their ideas of "freedom" (free love, nudism, drug use, etc.) to ultra-conservative Mexican or Nepalese villages during the 60's and 70's, without the slightest regard to local sensitivities.
    There is no evidence that the staff of the College of the Hills advocated free love, nudism, or drug use, but their brand of informality was considered radical in 1930s rural (Bible Belt) America. At a time when American Christian missionaries were still being sent about the world to convert the heathen, the perception of a "non-Christian" mission to un-convert, or corrupt, American rural fundamentalists might have been expected to fly like a lead balloon.
    The faculty of the college was given to, as we now say, "dressing down," or "under-dressing" in two different contexts — as is illustrated below.

At left is Penny Cent decked out in only a loin cloth. This was something he wouldn't have dreamed of doing on the campuses where he gained his credentials. The "natives" considered this (as well as young ladies in shorts), to be in bad taste, and the next thing to nudism — certainly unbecoming of college "professors." Below is a group shot of the staff. Though they are dressed perfectly decently, they seemed to the locals to lack the dignified bearing expected of professional educators.


The original college staff, seven of whom are probably included in the picture above

Donald P. Brown President (probably at right above) Northwestern University
Donald Monson Business Manager and Architect Northwestern
Astrid Aronson College Secretary & Social Research Northwestern
George Guernsey Humanities Northwestern
Mildred George Speech Ball State, Northwestern, Butler
Harold Monson Speech St. Olaf College and Luther Seminary
Penny Cent Art (second from right, above) Friedrich Wilhelm University, Berlin
Thomas E. Garrison Political Science Northwestern
Nadia Naumann Psychology, German Northwestern
Richard F. Peterson Psychology, Biology University of Illinois and Northwestern

The illustration at right (possibly by Penny Cent), appeared in the booklet or newsletter, College in the Hills, Summer Quarter, 1934. It is reminiscent of the type of art which had become the hallmark in the USSR and other "Peoples' Republics." It presumably shows the laborer and his foreman (the learned), as equals.
    Were these progressive idealists communists? Perhaps. In fact, I would say, probably so, at least at one ideological level. Several of the college staff were members of the Socialist Party, and the rest, according to the college president, Donald P. Brown, were "non-party socialists...  well to the left of center. (Though) There is no political party or group backing us."
   The college president, said, "The location, in the Ozark uplift, was selected because of its possibilities in labor education among the miners and workers nearby."

    Few communists, it must be remembered, actually belonged to the American Communist Party, since there was (and still is), considerable social and political stigma attached to such membership. The Marxist agenda was being promoted in this country (then, as now), mostly by non-party intellectuals, largely through the influences of the adherents and intellectual descendents of what is known as the "Frankfort School" (which was active in the United States during the thirties). Many socialists would deny that they are unduly influenced by Marxism. But the revolutionary processes taught by the Frankfort School aim at a transformation of society, and the destruction of western culture (as it had developed), through subtle educational and psychological means (invisibly), from within the society being transformed. This has since been termed "cultural communism," and (according to many contemporary right-wingers), its cadres are as active and functional today as when the USSR existed, if not more so (though, seemingly contradictorily, many have embraced global capitalism [globalism] as the means by which to bring about a somewhat altered version of their new social order).
    The College in the Hills was obviously organized very much as an educational and working "commune." It was also intended to be a "labor college," targeting local coal and fluorspar miners. What else than for indoctrination into the socialist labor movement? The "professors," or teachers, at the college were called "advisors," which is in keeping with the ideal of the equality of the proletariat. The assertion that "we are trying to be instrumental in the bringing of a new social order, as well as fitting our students to be citizens of that order," was the purest of Marxist rhetoric, (though it may just as easily have been another expression for Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal).

(in a note to a Mrs. Hosick - from February 2001, Springhouse)

Dear Mrs. Hosick:

You possess culture and religion if you possess art. The brighter human ideals as well as the culture of any community reveal themselves and are fostered by a deep love and revert interest in the beautiful aspects of its very setting and surroundings. The beauty of the landscape as God has made it and the beauty of buildings as man has made them, are among the real first causes of Art. You love God if you love Art, because then you love the beautiful things He has mad or inspired.

Penny Cent 12-24-34

    When it came to possessing religion, the local community would have taken serious exception to Penny Cent's statement in the above note. The Christian fundamentalists of the region around The College in the Hills held unshakable beliefs when it came to what it took to "possess religion" and know and love God — and art and culture had nothing to do with it. Such poetic ideas were taken as heresy.
    Penny Cent, of course, was the art instructor of the college. Though he was a "real" artist (as evidenced by the drawing below), he obviously gravitated toward nonobjective art, the artistic language favored by the political left. (And that's the kind of art that could elicit foundation grant money). The avant garde movement and practitioners of modern, nonobjective, art (abstract expressionism), were particularly associated with leftist thought, as is illustrated in a revealing article entitled "Of Spies and Splatters" by Frances Stonor Saunders, which appeared in the London "Independent on Sunday," on October 22, 1995.


As this drawing clearly illustrates, Penny Cent was a talented artist in the classic sense, and not just a pretender. But he was given to nonobjective art or, as he called it, cromorfs (see examples, below), which was becoming the trend of the times, especially in Europe.


The work at right, entitled "WPA Street Scene," surfaced on an Ebay Internet auction site in December of 2001, and was purchased by Harrisburg native Billy Beal (Since then, Mr. Beal has passed on, and the painting acquired by Gillum Ferguson) This is an example of intentionally "primitive" art, bordering on impressionistic — that is, the artist made the scene less realistic than his artistic abilities were capable of. (Click on the image for a larger view)

Harrisburg Illinois
"WPA Street Scene," Owned by Gillum Ferguson

Examples of Penrod Centurion's nonobjective work.
click on the images to view a larger representation.

"Tri-Suite No. 1"

"Flower Vendor"

McClees Galleries

"Tri-Suite No 2"

Green Shift and Up


Shown below for the first time are two newly discovered Penrod Centurion paintings, found in Michigan in June of 2005, by Linda Talbot.
See note above.


Untitled Abstract

Untitled Nude
(with Alien?)


 "If that's art," President Harry Truman once said, "then I'm a Hottentot."

While my instincts favor President Truman's assessment of modern art, I reluctantly agree that it is art — attractive in many cases (such as the works above), but often merely eye-catching (as blood or rubbish in the street is eye-catching). It isn't the art I would personally wish to be associated with.  I consider much of it the 'Acid Rock' and 'Rap Music' of visual arts. In my personal opinion (which, of course, has never proven to be worth a plug nickel), it represents an erosion, or repudiation, of western artistic values – that is, a reversion to "primitive art" as "modern" artistic expression (see "Of Spies and Splatters"). But, after all, what am I but just another "failed artist."

By contrast, the painting below is a somewhat primitive attempt at fine art, rather than an intentional perversion of it. W.R.C.

Paulus McClendon Painting
This unique painting, by Paulis McClendon (1908-1978), was painted in 1940. Mr. McClendon made the paint he used from egg-whites, and it is an example of local "primitive" art by one of Penny Cent's art students. The painting was given to my father, James Carr, who kept it for many years. In 2000, James donated the work to the Illinois Museum of Art. The most striking thing about the painting will be seen (or not seen), in the shadows (Note the fence section, lower right). The scene is typical Southern Illinois, but the actual location, if taken from life, is unknown.

Return to Top


The Springhouse Magazine, April 1989 (Vol. 6, No. 2) The College in the Hills, Part I, by Mildred B. McCormick.

The Springhouse Magazine, June 1989 (Vol. 6, No. 3) The College in the Hills, Part II, by Mildred B. McCormick.

The (Harrisburg, Illinois) Daily Register, November 18, 2000, "A man called 'Pennycent'", by Brain DeNeal

The Springhouse Magazine, February, 2001 (Vol. 18, No. 9): "College in the Hills, A Phenomenon of the Great Economic Depression," by Fred J. Armistead. (Originally published in 1980 funded by the Southern Illinois University, Carbondale)

    COLLEGE IN THE HILLS, FALL QUARTER 1934, reprinted in the above issue of Springhouse.

The (Harrisburg) Daily Register, January 3, 2002: "Painting by Pennycent returns," by Brian DeNeal.

The The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (

The Federal Art Project in Illinois, 1935-1943, by George J. Mavigiliano and Richard A. Lawson, (1990 Southern Illinois University). Southern Illinois Artists (or those who worked in So. IL), listed are:

  1. George Carr, Easel — Harrisburg

  2. Penny Cent, Easel/Administration — Harrisburg/Williamson County/Saline County

  3. Vachel Davis, Easel — Eldorado/Saline County/Williamson County/Herrin

  4. Karl Kelpe, Mural — Chicago...Carbondale

  5. Earl Ladyard, Mural — Chicago/Shawneetown

  6. Paulis McClendon, Easel — Harrisburg/Saline County

  7. Bernard Satta, Sculpture — West Frankfort

  8. Emma R. Schoembs, Administration — Chicago/Cairo

  9. William Samuel Schwartz, Easel/Mural — Chicago/Fairfield/Eldorado...

  10. Paul Stoddard, Graphics/Administration — Chicago/East St. Louis.

"Of Spies and Splatters" by Frances Stonor Saunders, which appeared in the London "Independent on Sunday," on October 22, 1995.

"Rodolf Bauer – A Non-Objective Point of View," by Steven Lowy of the Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco. (


Email correspondence with Linda Talbot, of Michigan.


Your are visitor number since 2 May, 2004. Thanks for visiting.

Thank you for visiting.

Return to Southern Illinois Home Page

Return to Southern Illinois History and Genealogy Page

College in the Hills, by Mildred B. McCormick

The Springhouse Magazine web site Home Page