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Feature Story
reed magazine logoAutumn 2009

Ottomar's Odyssey by Robin Cody

Ottomar Rudolf, as a very young man, got caught up in a very bad cause. He survived. What then? What does a 16-year-old veteran of a disgraced army do with his life?

Ulm’s schools lay in ruins. Ottomar landed a job in a metallurgy lab and soon joined a class preparing young men to enter engineering school. Theaters and the opera were bombed out, but his CYO drama troupe performed wherever it could find a gym or a warehouse in the broken city. He attended art lectures at a start-up Volkshochschule, or community college. On stage, Schiller’s Don Carlos struck him like lightning, and he began reading Dürrenmatt and Brecht. On pure drive and intellectual curiosity, he was becoming the Ottomar we know.

His Uncle Arthur in New York sent care packages: food, clothing, coffee, Scotch, and cigarettes to boost the family’s purchasing power in a barter society.

In 1948, Uncle Arthur paid for Ottomar’s passage aboard an American liberty ship from Bremerhaven to Ellis Island. Catholic and pre-engineering credentials got him admitted to Manhattan College, and he loved the city—its theater, its concerts, the Met, the urban bustle and buzz. Ottomar had come there to study, not to stay, but within months of stepping off the boat he was a prisoner of American culture.

Otto coaching

Ottomar, the “rootin’ Teuton,” coaches Reed soccer squad. Can any reader identify the players?

He graduated from Manhattan College with a BA in philosophy. After graduate work at Columbia, he was teaching at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia when the Korean War broke out. Ottomar was drafted. Yes. The United States of America sent Ottomar Rudolf a draft notice. He wrote back, explaining that he’d already served.

“Wrong side, they told me.” Ottomar shakes his head in wonder. “I was supposed to leave my students. Report for duty right in the middle of a course!

I wrote to President Eisenhower. I asked for a two-month delay. Somebody answered the letter. I reported later, and then they made me an American citizen.”

In allem, einen Schritt voraus. Hard as it is to believe, Ottomar joined the US Army and served in Germany as liaison between battalion headquarters and the Frankfurt Bürgermeister. Before mustering out, he won a field promotion from corporal to major—leapfrogging sergeants and lieutenants and captains—so he could credibly teach classes to commissioned officers. When his time was up, Ottomar stayed to study at the University of Heidelberg. Later he completed his Ph.D. at Penn and taught at Bryn Mawr/Haverford for three years before Reed College brought him on in 1963.

Twenty-five, going on 30 years ago now, I was Dean of Admission at Reed. Ottomar served on the Admission Committee. Right away I noticed his effect on women. Ottomar, with his ready smile and mellifluous voice, would return a graded stack of applicant folders to our office and stay to chat. After he departed, mature and otherwise level-headed women gushed “Ottomar this’ and ‘Ottomar that,’ while I thought, ‘Ladies. Please. Let’s get to work.”

In committee meetings, Ottomar overlooked some ugly blotches on applicants’ transcripts. He’d find a nascent intellectual spark in the application and argue that Reed would ignite this kid. Some of you—you know who you are—got into Reed that way. And I began to refer prospective students to Ottomar for a talk about the Reed Weltanschauung. He loved Reed. Ottomar loved the idea of Reed. He was intensely loyal, unfailingly positive. If Reed ever needed an army, Ottomar would lead the charge.

Ottomar’s academic specialty is the Sturm und Drang period of 18th-century German literature, when young writers and intellectuals fashioned themselves after Rousseau in France to launch German Romanticism. “Sturm und Drang gave rise to a new way of thinking about man in nature,” says Ottomar. “Storm and Stress. Goethe and others were not afraid to express emotion in their work.” Ottomar’s PhD thesis on J.M.R. Lenz, a friend of Goethe and one of the first great German playwrights, became a book: Lenz: An Enlightenment Figure. Ottomar taught Sturm und Drang at Reed and at the Universities of Munich and Freiburg and still writes articles and reviews books on this period of German literature and history.

“The best part of writing and teaching,” he says, “is learning.” Ottomar invented new courses in order to master new material. To Elderhostelers, including ex-professors, he has taught courses on fairy tales and Weimar and Nazi Culture. He and music professor Virginia Hancock ’62 teamed up to offer a course on Das Lied to master’s degree candidates. “He taught the text, and I taught the music,” says Virginia. “I’m not sure the students got more out of it than he and I did. It was fun. When Ottomar gets excited, his accent thickens. I did a lot of translating for him in that course.”

reed magazine logoAutumn 2009