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Special Day Recalls the Continuum of Culture

Just inside the door of Five Crowns restaurant in Corona del Mar, Ward Ritchie’s relatives distributed pin-on buttons proclaiming, “I (red heart) W. R.”

My wife and I wore our buttons proudly. I’m displaying mine in my garage print shop. My wife plans to show off hers somehow with her collection of cookbooks published by the Ward Ritchie Press.

Ritchie had lived to see his 80th year that day last Saturday. He was his usual glowing, affable self, testimony to one his favorite sayings, “If I had known I was going to live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

Later that day, Marjie and I joined friends of Donald C. and Frances Meadows at Moreno’s Mexican restaurant in Orange. This gathering was tinged with the sadness that farewells to favorite people always have. Don and Frances, both of whom will never see 80 again, have sold their lovely adobe home, Quinta de los Prados, in Panorama Heights, and are moving late in July to Yuba City to be close to their son, Donald F.

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Ward Ritchie, the dean of western fine printers, and Don Meadows, the dean of western historians--a pair of giants of our time--have enriched our cultural heritage.

It may seem I’ve interrupted my Greek experience to tell you about these beloved, creative people, but in truth I’m pointing out a continuum of culture that reaches back more than 2000 years to places and sites visited on our recent cruise of the Greek islands. I recall thinking of Ward, who prints as well as writes, and Don, who writes and used to print, more than once as I marveled at early examples of the alphabet--the greatest gift to civilization.

It was on the island of Crete that I saw with awe the law or codex of Gortyn, cut into stones sometime in the beginning of the 5th Century BC. The beautiful sans-serif letters on stone blocks incorporated into a wall, protected by an arched ceiling, have given us a unique glimpse of early Greek Crete and into the Dorian customs. They also are evidence of the earliest Greek law code and the first European one.

Back then they used to write from left to right and then from right to left, line following line in that order. When running from right to left, the letters, in logical fashion, faced the opposite way. This is called boustrophedon writing, a word that tends to escape my memory. It’s easier for me to remember that this is how the ox pulls the plow through a field, one furrow to the left, the next to the right. I was told that this was the meaning of boustrophedon.

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Fortunately, the Romans saved these ancient inscriptions by incorporating them into the building that forms a part of a well-preserved Roman odeum. Different cultures stand cheek by jowl here. Here is an altar and temple of Apollo. And here the ruins of a Byzantine church of the Apostle Titus, first bishop of Crete. On stones in the churchyard are carved inscriptions showing writing’s evolution in the 7th Century. Now the writing reads like ours from left to right. And here are the classical Roman letters, with neatly carved serifs.

It will be a long seven-century leap to printing with moveable type, but the groundwork of all type design has been laid here on Cretan soil.

And here lies the mystery that still baffles historians. Where does our alphabet come from? Of course, we got our Latin alphabet from the Greeks and the Greeks got theirs from the Phoenicians. (Now we’re back several thousand years BC.) But where the Phoenicians got theirs, nobody knows. We don’t even know much about the Phoenicians, except they were great seamen and sharp traders.

So that’s what I meant about Ward and Don being representatives of an ancient continuum. So, for that matter, is this page you’re reading. Study those Roman letters on this page and ponder on the miracle and the mystery of the ancient alphabet that is ours, blessed readers.

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