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reed magazine logoAutumn 2009

Ottomar's Odyssey by Robin Cody

He and his wife, Catherine, continue a longtime tradition of entertaining each of his German and humanities classes at home for dinner. Ottomar cooks. “Catherine always looks forward to it,” he says, as if any wife could tire of Sauerbraten mit Spätzle with packs of Reedies in her home. “It’s one of her joys of Reed.”

Reed had no German House until Ottomar arrived and founded it. In retirement he still appears annually im Haus as Saint Nikolas at the December getaway feast. He also started the Reed in Munich program; he and Catherine give money to students so they can travel around Germany.

The range of Ottomar’s artistic and musical interests, and the energy he brings to them, is immense. He has lectured on German Expressionism at the Portland Art Museum. He sings in the Reed Chorus. He has served on the boards of both the Portland Opera and the Portland Youth Philharmonic.

At the University of Munich one summer, Ottomar saw weekend concerts, free to the public, and brought that idea home to Reed. He stirred up a group of Portland women to raise money and persuaded musician friends to put Reed on their schedules. Moscow’s Chamber Orchestra came to Reed. So did New York’s Fine Arts Quartet. Music Matinees, on Sundays in the old Commons, welcoming the neighborhood to free concerts on campus, were a big deal for a long time.

“Ottomar is an ambassador without portfolio to the community,” says Paul Bragdon [Reed president 1971–88]. “He’s been a major positive force. Reed is essentially a cool place. We’re not emotional, not demonstrative. Ottomar is warm and expressive. Spontaneous. His temperament is not really German. It’s Latin. He’s Schwabian. He is the last of the Romantics.”

It’s true that Schwabia is not Prussia, though both are German. It is also true, as Bragdon puts it, that “Ottomar’s warmth toward his colleagues was not always sufficiently reciprocated.”

Some people, sometimes, do find his enthusiasm irritating, his stamina exhausting. There’s a faculty meeting where Ottomar rises to propose, with Schwabian passion, that Reed field an intercollegiate soccer team. That’s not what we do here. He’s off base, but he won’t retreat. He’s a bulldog at your pants cuff. One faculty member rolls his eyes; another stalks out. But Ottomar goes right ahead to organize a Reed soccer team—with himself as coach. They join a real league. “We won, too,” he says. “We had a winning record.”

Come on. Really?

“We had a winning record the first half of the season. In the second half my guys had to write their papers. I went around knocking on doors, but it was tough.”

Ottomar is my Doktorvater, says Seattle physician Tom McNalley ’83. “I can’t overstate the role he’s played in my life, intellectually and spiritually. Whenever I had a looming decision—go to medical school, say, at age 37?—I’d take it to Ottomar. I’d like to have his balance between the intellectual and the outside. He collects art. He likes beer. He’s a man of the world. My wife, before we were married, was an au pair to the Rudolf kids. We got to know him as a good family man, full of bluster and love.”

Johanna Thoeresz ’87, a vice president at Mercy Corps, recalls Ottomar first as a taskmaster of a thesis adviser, then as a colleague, now as a close friend. “He’s a brilliant teacher,” she says, “and always enthusiastic about life. I like his playful side. How many people do you know who had a beer named after them? Ask him about Uncle Otto’s Beer.”

reed magazine logoAutumn 2009