Presidential pedigree, anarchist leanings, and the type of intellect that breeds classroom insolence hallmarked an abbreviated stint at UR for one undergraduate in the early 1920s. This undergraduate was the younger son and middle child (of three) to one of Rochester’s greatest heroes, and perhaps the university’s greatest ambassador—(Benjamin) Rush Rhees, University President for thirty-six years, from 1900 to 1935.
All three of Rhees’ children passed through the University under his administration, but neither the oldest nor the youngest managed to make a splash like Rush Rhees, Jr. did— in manner or magnitude.
Rush Rhees, Jr.’s notoriety even rose beyond that of his father, in some academic circles. Indeed, Rhees, Jr. never had a library erected in his name, nor is he buried in the University plot in Mount Hope Cemetery with his father, brother, and others who held a name so consecrated in Rochester history. He has a story that has been mostly ignored and largely forgotten, and his legend most prominently lives on half a world away, in largely inaccessible texts.
From the time he committed to UR, in 1922 at only 16 years of age, Rush Rhees, Jr. had a philosopher’s temperament. And so, philosophy he studied. Philosophers ask paradigm-challenging questions, and this brainy son of a university president asked his stubborn philosophy professor perhaps one too many questions in the spring of his sophomore year, 1924. Rhees was barred from his ethics course and became the focus of a New York Times front page story: “Radicalism of Rochester President’s Son Causes Professor to Bar Youth From Class.”
The man in charge of Rhees, Jr.’s ethics course was Dr. G. M. Forbes, tenured professor, head of the department, and second only to Rush Rhees himself on the faculty totem pole. Dr. Forbes made an announcement to his class of 75 students, in which he referred to Rhees’ homework as the “most unsatisfactory notebook for the year’s work I have ever had turned in to me.” Forbes elaborated, saying, “It attempted refutation of everything I had taught during the year.”
University culture today is certainly more liberal—with regard to tolerance of counter-curricular beliefs—than it was in the 1920s. It is possible that an act by a student analogous to Rhees’ bold journal entry would be hailed by a professor in Dr. Forbes’ position today. But perhaps the decision to bar Rhees, Jr. from class by this university mainstay and close colleague of the President was not so one-dimensional.
President Rush Rhees’ biographer, John Rothwell Slater, wrote of Rhees, “He was not a relic but a force—the force of religion in higher education. If that is a losing cause, he did what he could to save it.” After spending six years at Amherst College in his twenties, Rush Rhees spent the next four years of his life studying theology, and ultimately became an ordained minister. He then worked as a pastor and later taught theology.
Rhees was a passionate Christian. When offered the Presidency at Rochester by the board of education in 1899, he accepted only under the condition that he could finish out one more year at the Newton Theological Institution. Even after becoming President of the University, Rhees taught a college course on the New Testament. He knew the Bible front to back, and believed in its word.
Though Rhees and his wife were abroad in Europe at the time of their son’s expulsion from class, at some point, before or after their return to the states, the devout Christian and Bible authoritarian likely went berserk when he read his son’s nationally publicized rebuttal following his denouncement by Dr. Forbes. Said Rhees, Jr.: “There can be no ‘moral law.’…From a Puritan I have revolted into an atheist.”
The elder Rhees’ biographer is wholly silent on the President’s reaction to the nationally publicized controversy stirred up by his son back in Rochester. He does write, however, that Rhees, Jr.’s “desire to study philosophy was assisted in every possible way by his father.” Whatever the case, Rhees, Jr. withdrew from the University shortly after this incident, and he left for Scotland prior to his father’s return home.
Rhees, Jr. completed his undergraduate education at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and soon thereafter was granted a research fellowship at Cambridge. He married a Scottish woman and settled down for good when he began teaching philosophy at Swansea University in Wales, where he was a fixture for 26 years.
Rhees, Jr. seemingly did not feel at home in Rochester. D. Z. Phillips, a former student and literary executor of Rhees, Jr., provides a short biographical sketch of the internationally renowned philosopher. In this biography he writes, “Rhees expressed a desire that his papers be kept at Swansea, the one place he said he regarded as home.” While Rhees was too bashful to publish as frequently as most, he was among the most respected in his field at the time, and his works as a philosopher and literary executor of the infamous Ludwig Wittgenstein can be found all over the world, even deep in the stacks of Rush Rhees Library, here in Rochester.
Evidence suggests that Rhees, Jr. himself never made it back to Rochester. He was considered for a faculty position under a later president, but the offer was never extended. It is unusual that somebody with such personal ties to the University could just get up, sail across the Atlantic, and—spare a possible visit to the family cottage in Maine—never come home.
There is a bit of untold mystery that likely lives only in personal letters, forever lost in time. Still, what is more mysterious and more interesting yet is the reverberation of Rhees, Jr.’s declaration of atheism among UR undergrads in the years to follow. Rhees, Jr. left Rochester in 1924, and, less than two years later, there was a diverse group of students recognized as “The Damned Souls,” whose mission it was to discuss and represent an atheist’s imposition.
In the years of 1926 and 1927, The Damned Souls caused more controversy and found themselves more greatly disparaged than Rhees, Jr. ever was. Among the controversies were kidnappings, beatings, calls for expulsion; alumni and faculty outrage; nationally-publicized, student-driven lawsuits; the mysterious disappearance of a well-known student; and, finally, a string of suicides, for which the The Damned Souls were arraigned in the court of public opinion.
Though Rhees, Jr. was half a world away, the liberty he took in denouncing his father’s religion had likely opened this door. Though his name is carved on our campus Acropolis, his legend is simply that—legend.