My Friendship with Fred Rudolph
Fred Rudolph, the son of the manager of a Woolworths store in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania graduated from Williams in 1942. After the Army, he got his PhD from Yale. Williams obviously was on his mind. His thesis was Mark Hopkins and the Log. He returned to Williams in the first year of the American Civilization program. He authored two class works on the history of public education. Along the way there was talk of his being President. He spent his career at Williams. He loved Williams.
My friendship with Fred Rudolph and his wife Dottie made all the difference at Williams for this backward Eph then and for decades after. Before addressing that, I must explain what I was about back then and why we made for such a good fit. It seems indulgent, but it
all adds up for me.
In 1956, my family moved from a middle America town to Bronxville, N.Y., an upscale “Ivy” community. I was very easy-going and average in school. The summer before our move, my mother, prepping me for higher achievement, sat down with me to learn all 50 states and their capitals. The first week in school the teacher asked if anyone could spell the 13 colonies. Though I was so shy and backward, I had to raise my hand. Destiny. I spelled them all and it changed my life. My teacher wrote a letter of praise to the principal of my former school. My teacher was one who praised students exuberantly. I sought that. From then on through high school I was on an honor roll quest.
Being an impressionable sort, I quickly picked up on the world of elite colleges. One day in junior high, I was introduced to John Botts, a handsome collegiate guy in a Williams t-shirt. He was captain of the tennis team. I was so impressed by him and his college, wherever it was. From that moment on it was the college I sought. I appreciated its “elite mystique.” Kind of embarrassing. My mother, no surprise, was part of this Williams mission.
At a ritualistic Sunday cocktail party, she noted Williams men huddling and having a great time. Williams sociability was of great appeal.
My work was cut out for me. When an “A” was in range, I studied feverishly. About this time, my mother again wanted to do something special for me because my needy sister had so much devoted to her. Prep school. We visited only one. Lawrenceville (Tad Piper ’68). I was so impressed with the field house. The prep school guys, with their swagger, had always impressed me. Within weeks I realized in a very emotional way that this had been a well-intentioned mistake. The only time I have been homesick. I liken it to
I would have been lost there. There would have been no Williams College in my future. I returned home that night with my parents. Jumping ahead to when I received my Williams acceptance letter, I know three guys here who did not get into Williams (one kind of rubs it in). I think that they had more on the ball than I did, but somehow the forces that be sensed I wanted it so much. Reward for all that angst. Thanks to those shepherding forces, Fred Copeland and Phil Smith. At a reunion many years later I saw the ever-youthful Phil Smith.
I spoke to him recalling my interview, in which, to my embarrassment, I asked him how many books were in the Williams library. A classic naïve question.
One footnote to my Lawrenceville experience: 8 years later I went up to Yale where my L’ville house master, Insley Clark, was now Dir. of Admissions. He saw me and immediately said that he thought that I did the right thing. He had cogent reasons.
Fred is still in the wings of this rambling appreciation. I arrived at Williams, and I plummeted. Dull courses, very self-assured classmates. The second semester, sleeping late, all C’s. I did jump up to a B- average during the next two years. However I was absolutely obsessed with a long-distance romance… Two weeks before the end of my junior year, she was at Williams. I got home and the letter was there. She was getting married. The worst and best thing that ever happened to me. Drop-kicked into the world.
Enter Fred. My second semester I had taken a course with him, American Character and Culture. A generalist’s dream. We read an interesting variety of books, In Cold Blood, The Protestant Establishment, etc. Great for discussion. For the first time, I had something to say. Other history courses: lectures read from yellowed sheets, a Vietnam war course read from file cards and going back to freshman year, dreary perusal of documents. One professor, when I spoke against the Vietnam war, said, “Mr. Barns, don’t ever overestimate your own importance.” He was right…and so was I.
Fred was unstructured, your cocktail hour prof., but inspirational. After reading In Cold Blood I had this dubious idea of spending a month in Holcomb, Kan., scene of In Cold Blood. It does show that I was engaged in the world.
In the fall, I came back to Williams and knew that I had to leave. I was so restless. Very risky, given my draft number. Soon I was in California and a few months later hitching cross-country—69 rides in six weeks. The adventure of hitchhiking began that summer in Ireland. I had my Irish cap, Player cigarettes and a thumb. I had become an adventurer! My main goal was to meet people. An introvert had become an extrovert. Very much influenced by his course, I wanted share with Fred, mostly on postcards. This went on right until his death. I’d send these postcards and in good time Fred with his flowing fountain pen would respond to each of them. Maybe they were why he gave me my only A at Williams. For the “body of my work.”
During these years, three times my wife Rebecca, daughter Hayden, and I spent the night with the Rudolphs. I remember Fred standing by the “Climb high…” pillars saying to 2-year-old Hayden, “Someday, Hayden, you’ll be standing here talking like I am today and I will be talking like you are talking today.” Very funny. Fred and Dottie loved to entertain. Dottie, with her regal presence, was at first intimidating, but she was good humored and kind. Jack Maitland, football star, was so humbly impressed that he would be a guest of a professor. Twice I stayed at their Captiva Island house.
Getting back to Fred in the classroom….It was a beautiful day in the spring, and the American Studies majors were meeting in the traditional Griffin Hall room. We were restless. So was Fred. Let’s go! With great amusement, I saw Fred tiptoeing out the door. He did not want his colleague, the smug pedagogue, with the notecards, to notice us playing hooky. This was not a formal scholar, though his scholarship was notable. See Google.
Long ago I came to realize that my connection with Williams was simply belonging, the association. I did not go there as a stepping stone to law school or higher academia. With Fred, who was steeped in Willlams, we shared this bond. My e-mail address is eph1969, my bank password the college’s founding year. I probably can name more famous Ephs than anyone. etc..
I have noted that friends rarely mention their school, while with me it’s always just beneath the surface. I have a humorous slant on this. For many years on and off I have worn a Williams hat, only twice recognized. Recently I put on a Cleveland Browns hat, 3 times in a day. The Williams satisfaction has mostly proven to be a private
I would always have stimulating Williams conversations with Fred. It was his life. Here is a rather touching one. It had been standard for a new President to meet with Fred, an unofficial folkway of the school. It took weeks for President Harry Payne to make the call. They met for lunch and Fred found no connection. One could say this spelled failure for this President. As Fred said, “He just did not understand the place.” The super outgoing Morty Shapiro took over and called Fred right away. Like a kid, Fred listened for a week to the phone message from Morty.
Because the Rudolphs were wealthy, they could live differently than most faculty, e.g. the entertaining. I remember walking along the hallway of the history department. Fred had put up framed prints of art. Some people thought it was gauche, “Those silly Rudolphs.” Fred seemed unfazed. He thought it a nice offering.
I will end this freewheeling tribute with one of Fred’s last comments on Williams. “It’s twice the school you knew, at least.” I could not agree more. I look at the Mountain Day videos and it is the spirited women who stand out. I can’t imagine guys back then with that kind of spirit, Of course there have been other great improvements. And they all began with John Sawyer, whom I believe saved Williams from its slide into mediocrity.
If in Williamstown, I encourage you visit the faculty graveyard. You will recognize many names and feel your own mortality. The Rudolphs are there, and on the back of the stone, if still visible, there is a quotation that you will enjoy. (When choosing their plot, the Rudolphs were careful not to be next to certain people. They were a bit snobbish in this Williams world. For Fred it was a kind of entitlement).
“The best part of the good things of that life was knowing students like you who grew into friends.” Love, Dottie (from her card after Fred’s death).
The last time we saw Fred and Dottie was poetical. We had stopped in
Williamstown for a cameo. We hesitated to make a surprise visit on the
Rudolphs. We were standing in front of Morgan Hall and Rebecca spotted
Dottie in their car. Rebecca went over and waved me down. I asked Dottie
about Fred. “Well, you can ask him because here he comes.” With the
NY Times in hand, a daily ritual at the Press Room, he approached but
not knowing who we were. Then he did, with a smile I’ll will have
forever. We had a great visit and both agreed it worked out better this
way. Great luck.