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reed magazine logoAutumn 2009

Ottomar's Odyssey by Robin Cody

Ottomar and a pair of moneyed Portland friends determined one night over beer that they ought to own their own brewery. “I took them to Germany to buy one,” he says. Ottomar is well connected. He knows the Prince of Bavaria, who knows somebody who knows somebody else, who sold Ottomar and his partners a set of gorgeous and massive copper brew-tanks, which were subsequently shipped to Oregon. They opened here as Portland Brewery, which became best known for MacTarnahan’s Ale. Pyramid Brewery bought the partners out.

“Uncle Otto’s Oktoberfest won a gold medal,” he says. “It was a Weizen, no longer available. Compared to mine, the Widmers’ Weizen is just water.”

Ottomar does get around town. At the posh University Club, downtown, the doorman greets him as Professor Rudolf. A barman beams when Ottomar walks in. He and I are here for lunch—pork schnitzels and Pilsner Urquell—with economist Robert McCullough ’72, who warms up with a testimonial to Ottomar’s mastery of the Socratic method.

“In Hum 210,” he says, “I got more from the debates than from the material. As soon as a couple of us had swayed the others to our point of view, we’d switch sides. In nine years of Reed and graduate study,” he says, “only a handful of professors had an intellectual impact on me. Ottomar made a difference. Not until I got to Cornell did I realize how favored I’d been at Reed.”

And then he breaks into a story. “Ottomar goes down to the docks,” says Robert, “to pick up the BMW he’s ordered from Germany. In the trunk of the car are several cases of fine wine he neglected to declare. Inadvertently, of course. It slipped his mind, these cases of fine wine in the trunk. And when the crane lifts the car off the ship, it drops Ottomar’s BMW. The car falls glass-shatteringly to the dock in a spreading pool of Riesling, and here—running—come the U.S. Customs guys. . .”

Is this true, Ottomar?

“That was the second time. The first time, a case of German rosé disappeared from my trunk. It was gone,” he says, ruefully. “And uninsured.”

The wonder of it, finally, is not that Ottomar was a Nazi recruit. I get that. I was a teenage boy. Maybe you’re familiar with the species. Teenage boys are unformed human beings. They are putty. Ottomar was a willing if unwitting participant. He grew up. Boys grow up. They cool. Unless they don’t.

The wonder of Ottomar is how little he cooled. His causes are different, but he hurls himself at them with that same boyish enthusiasm. His unflinching loyalty—once nearly fatal—became an extraordinary force for good at Reed, in Portland, and beyond. In 1989 the President of the German Federal Republic personally awarded Ottomar the Weizsächer Bundesverdienst Kreuz, a medal of honor for promoting cultural exchange.

Ottomar has range. He has intellectual and artistic and comic and social range. His unbridled zeal for teaching, for learning, for music, for art, for fine wine and friendship. . .

What’s German, Ottomar, for a bon vivant?

“Hmmm,” he says, relishing the question. “We might say ein Lebemensch.”

Yes. We should have a word in English for a Lebemensch, a man who loves with abandon the good things in life and lives to share them. Former students, at Ottomar’s retirement, arranged a feast. It was a roast, I’m told—hilarious, I’m told—but the joker who has the script won’t return my calls. Students also planted a linden tree in his honor near the German House. That tree is still growing, and Ottomar is still teaching, still learning, still becoming Ottomar.

Robin Cody was dean of admission at Reed in the early ’80s and is the author of several books, including Ricochet River and Voyage of a Summer Sun. He and his wife, Donna, live near the Canyon.

An Extraordinary Gift

For some time, Ottomar has known that his kidneys were weakening. This year, his doctor advised him to prepare for dialysis and join the waiting line for a kidney transplant.

His wife, Catherine, determined that she was blood-type-compatible to Ottomar. She donated a kidney of her own.

“The gift of life,” Ottomar calls it.

At this writing, five weeks after double surgery in August, Ottomar and Catherine are both out and about. Ottomar tires easily—it was major surgery, after all—but they rib each other cheerfully about who got the most flowers and offer thanks to the Reed community for logistical and moral support.

reed magazine logoAutumn 2009