Ann Pratt Image

In Memoriam: Remembrances of Elizabeth Ann Courtney Pratt  

June 7, 1932 – January 1, 2021

Ann was a member of the ‘great generation’. Hers was not the first who brought Anthroposophy to the North American continent, but the generation who took it up and made it their lives’ work, creating, spiritually striving, as the seeds of change began to germinate farther and farther. Ann was an initiator, one who believed anything was possible. She drew the future toward her as new impulses flowed from the spiritual world into not only her thinking heart but also into her limbs, her will.

Ann was born in Manhattan into a spiritually striving family. Her mother was Elise Stolting Courtney who studied biodynamics in Europe as a young woman. Her father was a devout Christian Scientist who died when Ann was quite young. Rudolf Steiner gave what was to become known as the ‘American verse’ to her uncle Ralph Courtney, Joseph’s brother. They were all a part of a quickly growing circle in Manhattan who created what is said to be the first vegetarian restaurant in New York City and the first branch of the Anthroposophical Society. The need for healthy vegetables for the restaurant led the group to purchase farmland in Spring Valley, just north of the city. Here not only did the gardens grow but also the arts: music, eurythmy, and theater were all a part of a burgeoning spiritual life there. It was here that Ann spent her childhood summers with her parents and sister Charlotte Courtney Dukich. In her teenage years, Ann waited tables at what was then called ‘The Threefold Farm’ (now the home of Sunbridge Institute) during summer conferences. Ironically, she later also waited tables at the Waldorf Astoria luxury hotel in Manhattan, now a Hilton.

It was Ann’s mother who first traveled to Dornach in 1926 to study eurythmy with her traveling partner Gladys Barnett-Hahn, (who had earlier sold her grand piano to pay for the trip!) It was Ann however, who became a eurythmist herself, traveling to England to study with Margaret Lundgren, wife of A.C. Harwood, while her husband Swain cared for their two daughters, Laura and Alice back in New York.  Ann’s mother in fact turned to the study of biodynamics instead.  One could perhaps see the seeds of the practical will which stood out so strongly throughout Ann’s biography planted right here!

Ann’s passion was eurythmy, and this started very young! I recall Ann describing to me her first eurythmy performance: she was only a little girl when she played the part of the mouse in the favorite nursery rhyme Hickory Dickory Dock, while Marjorie Spock was the clock. Imagine tiny Ann at the base of a very tall Marjorie clock!  She carried this art form with her wherever she landed throughout her life. In every teaching situation, she brought eurythmy to those around her and her Antioch students remember those times vividly. Her own movement moved others!  Her daughter Alice and Alice’s childhood friend Christina Root, recall watching their mothers Ann and Nancy perform eurythmy at the Threefold Auditorium in complete awe of the beauty they created in their colored eurythmy silks!

Over Ann’s shoulder was ever an invisible quiver of beautifully colored arrows, ready to find their mark wherever she planted herself in the service of anthroposophy, especially in Waldorf education. They unerringly landed at the point where the task was to initiate a new impulse – those sparks from the future which spoke so strongly to her threefold self – her heart, her thoughts, her will. She was an initiator, one of those of whom Rudolf Steiner spoke: that over her destiny in golden letters was written, “Be a person of initiative”.

Where did those arrows first take Ann? To Wilton NH with her husband Swain, then a teacher at High Mowing School, to create first a Waldorf kindergarten then to be followed by a full eight grade Waldorf school. When Beulah Emmet, the founder of High Mowing rejected Ann’s request to create a kindergarten there (especially for the children of the faculty – a future initiative at Sophia’s Hearth perhaps already expressing itself), Ann forged ahead to create it on her own. In 1972, the Pine Hill Waldorf School opened its doors in a small building in Wilton Center owned by local lawyer (and Pine Hill Board member) Charles Sullivan. Two years later the school, now growing rapidly and attracting dedicated young teachers from many areas, bought an old New England farmhouse at the end of the Bennington Battle Trail and soon extended from K-8th grades.

Then land was purchased across from High Mowing on Abbot Hill and the current Pine Hill building was completed in 1984. In 1974 Ann was the Faculty Chair, 3rd grade class teacher, a Board member and taught eurythmy to the early childhood students. Of course, she was also a full-time mother to her two teenage daughters! In the mid 1970’s Ann left active class teaching and was for a time at the Kimberton Waldorf School in PA. By 1984 Ann and Swain were back in Wilton building their home on Curtis Farm Road. The Pine Hill faculty, meanwhile, assisted by regular visits from Alan and Mary Howard, began to offer a teacher training program in conjunction with nearby Antioch College.

After the Bennington Battle Trail site burned in a fire in 1983, land was purchased across from High Mowing on Abbot Hill and the current Pine Hill building was built in 1984-5.

Financing was orchestrated by the Rudolf Steiner Foundation (now RSF Social Finance) – spearheaded by Siegfried Finser – and this collaboration marked the beginning of a national profile for the foundation.

When Antioch New England’s nascent Waldorf teacher education program needed its second director in the 1985 school year, Ann followed that arrow to continue to build up this young seedling. She remained until 1991, when a call from friend and colleague Betty Staley unleashed a fresh arrow to lead her to Milwaukee to be the program implementer for the Urban Waldorf School, the first public Waldorf school in the country. From 1991 – 1993, Ann oversaw the Waldorf training of the founding teachers who came from both the local public school district and from a few Waldorf schools. She oversaw the program development in the school as well, a 96% African American student body in Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhood. In 1993 a change in funding allocation left Ann a difficult choice: leave Milwaukee suddenly (she and Swain had recently bought a residence) or go back into the classroom. So she became a Kindergarten teacher again at age 61. It was a very trying year even for her. One of her students was the most difficult student she had ever encountered, and the assistant assigned to her by the school offered little or no cooperation or support. The stress began to affect her health.

When the task in Milwaukee was ready for its next phase, and others (one of whom was Mark Birdsall) came to carry on that work, Ann returned to Antioch in 1994. By then, the fledgling program was ready to welcome its second faculty member and Ann joined Torin Finser who had become the program director after Ann left for Milwaukee. It was during these second Antioch years that she became a founding Board member of the initiative that became Sophia’s Hearth Family Center. Together with Rena Osmer, Susan Weber and others, a new impulse was seeded and that seed was germinating – first at Antioch through a new design of its early childhood teacher education program and later on its own. It was the (at the time revolutionary) recognition that Waldorf education had a tremendous contribution to offer to the education of the child in the first three years. It became the first teacher education endeavor in the United States to create a program to prepare teachers for this new work with parents and very, very young children.

In 1998 when Ann stepped back from her Antioch responsibilities, she and Swain traveled to Sedona, Arizona where they pondered the possibility of retiring.  But work again called her and for the next two years, she was a part of what came to be known as ‘Pine Hill West’ when numerous former Pine Hill School teachers found their way to Sedona as well to support the fledgling school there. Here also, Ann helped to facilitate the birth and growth of The Red Rock Waldorf Teacher Education program with Merril Badger and others in connection with the school in Sedona and in Flagstaff in connection with the school in Sedona and in Flagstaff.

When asked to come to the Moraine Farm Waldorf School (then Cape Ann) in 2001, Ann did not hesitate but moved to Gloucester on the Massachusetts north shore to help build up the early childhood programs there.

Perhaps sensing (now at age 72) some inner call to retire or at least to rest, Ann returned with Swain to her roots in Spring Valley to become members at the Fellowship Community in 2003. But it was too soon for Ann to retire because her need to stay active out in the world brought her to Maine with her daughter Alice who was finishing her Artistic Speech training there. Though Swain stayed at the Fellowship, the physical separation from Ann was too difficult, so in 2004 Swain joined Ann and Alice in Brunswick where they lived for the next year.

Ann and Swain’s next move took them to Keene, NH, hoping to help develop an initiative inspired by The Fellowship Community.  Ann joined groups trying to create something both in Wilton and in the Ghent NY area. The Ghent, NY explorations culminated in the Camphill Ghent Community, a setting for older adults inspired especially by the presence of the arts.

However, there were still arrows in Ann’s quiver awaiting her bow, and when the Housatonic Valley Waldorf School in Connecticut asked her to come in 2007 to develop its college of teachers, another arrow drew her there. It was there, while serving this community that lovingly surrounded her efforts, that Ann suffered from Bell’s Palsy.  Perhaps a sign for the need at age 75, to slow down? But that was never Ann’s way.

There were not only these golden arrows of initiative living in Ann’s soul, but also some inborn restlessness, a challenge to find comfort in her earthly dwellings. When I (Susan Weber) first met Ann in 1986, she and Swain were living in the house they had just completed in Wilton NH, planning to spend the rest of their days there.  How surprised I was to hear that no, after the shortest of years, they were on the move – and on the move and on the move, following both those arrows and also seeking a more perfect earthly home.  I recall Ann sharing with me that during that first year in Milwaukee, she first, and then later with Swain moved seven times!  And friends also recall that the moving boxes were always at the ready, carefully and permanently labeled so that belongings could quickly and efficiently be readied for a change.

Over the last years of her life, Ann wrote poems and recorded her thoughts in notebooks or on slips of paper. One poem was ‘A Loose Leaf.’ I ponder this title, as it feels so descriptive of a theme of her life especially in the later years – when all the initiatives were completed, when all the arrows had at last been sent forth from that quiver, perhaps for Ann it was now a time without clear focus. A time of waiting or feeling herself a ‘loose leaf’ carried by a changeable wind rather than the clear path of the arrow.

Did she ever really find peace in an earthly abode? In her notes and musings after the death of her beloved, best friend, confidant, comforter, lover and husband Swain, the answer is probably not. After 89 years and still mourning his death, Ann ever continued to seek kindred souls in Anthroposophy with whom she could confide and share insights. In her 82nd year, she returned to the Fellowship Community to live out the rest of her life.  Even then, her thoughts were of how to be of service to others; how to be ‘useful’ in that community. At 85, when her short-term memory began to fade leading to some confusion, it was difficult for her to clearly express her thoughts. But her senses were even more astute, taking in everything around her in minute detail. Always perceptive and acutely aware of the inner life of others, she suffered or was lifted up by the thoughts of those around her. Her strong moral backbone seemed always to guide her to seek the very essence or kernel of truth in everything that she did in life.

Ann not only inspired the creation of many outer shells to house Waldorf initiatives, but her inner life was ever actively seeking in the house of her spirit. She was a lover of the sun, basking in its warmth and light until her death. In the early years, wherever she lived, she created beautiful gardens full of color and scent and her family and friends remember her excellent cooking and her love and enjoyment in being with friends and family.

In the last days of her life, Ann was surrounded by pictures of her family, and the ever-present copy of Rudolf Steiner’ How to Know Higher Worlds, offering solace, courage and guidance for who Ann was ever striving to become.  I am reminded of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, with wings flowing behind the upright torso, carrying Ann upward to the world of the spirit.

To us it is given,
At no stage ever to rest –
They live and they strive,
The active human beings,
From life unto life – as plants grow,
From springtime to springtime,
          Ever aloft!
Through error upward to Truth
Through fetters upward to Freedom,
Through illness and Death
          Upward – to beauty, to health,
          And to life.

Rudolf Steiner (given to Susan by Janene Ping)

Susan Weber, with Alice Pratt and Mark Birdsall

January 2021