Celebrating President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes’ 90th

By Jennifer Savran Kelly
periodiCALS, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 2016

Tim Vanini with Rosa and Frank Rhodes

On a twilit summer evening in 1991, President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes played the back nine holes at the university golf course with alumnus Tim Vanini ‘91. 

“It was an awesome night for golf,” Vanini said. “Hardly anyone else was on the course, so it was just Frank Rhodes and I walking together and talking. It was a memorable evening.” Four days later Vanini received a handwritten thank-you letter from Rhodes, wishing him luck on his future endeavors. 

This is only one such story among many about Cornell University’s beloved former president (1977–95), who is celebrating his 90th birthday this October. Among his many accomplishments as president were new initiatives in Asian studies, supercomputing, biotechnology, nanofabrication and an increase in faculty and student diversity. Yet his sincere personal style made as much of a lasting impression on the campus community. 

“Frank Rhodes set an example that you had to try to emulate,” said David L. Call ’54, M.S. ’58, Ph.D. ’60, professor emeritus from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and dean of the college during Rhodes’ full term as president. “In addition to being a tremendous public speaker, Rhodes is a thoughtful, deliberative person, whose approach to building relationships influenced the way that I worked as a dean.” 

These qualities not only contributed to Rhodes’ effectiveness as a leader, Call explained, but also to his unprecedented fundraising success. Whether at intimate gatherings or speaking to a large crowd, Rhodes knows how to make things personal. 

When professor of horticulture Marvin Pritts was new to Cornell’s faculty, he attended a dinner at which Rhodes delivered the keynote talk. 

“As Rhodes addressed an audience full of dignitaries from around the country and presidents of other Ivy League universities,” Pritts said, “a woman in the audience started coughing. Frank stopped speaking, took his glass of water to the woman, then returned to the podium and continued his speech. I can no longer remember the content of that speech, but I’ll always remember his act of compassion.”

In the years following his tenure as president, compassion has continued to define Rhodes. James White ’39, Ph.D. ’44, professor emeritus of food science, befriended him decades ago after learning they share the same birthday, ten years apart.  He said that after Rhodes retired, the alumni association contacted him about a man in a nursing home who was quite ill. The man’s greatest wish was to receive a degree from Cornell University, which he had never attended. 

“So Frank and I went and met this guy and had a lovely afternoon,” White said. “We didn’t give him a degree, but we gave him something that said Cornell all over it. You could say Frank gave him a degree of satisfaction.”

This summer at a reunion event, after 25 years, Vanini was grateful for an opportunity to share his golfing memory with Rhodes and his wife, Rosa, as well as to thank them for their service and guidance—and for being such a class act.

After years of working closely with the former president, Call would echo those sentiments. However, a little known fact about Rhodes, he confides, is that he actually was not an avid golfer. 

“I think he knew it was a way to get closer to people, and that’s what’s important to him,” Call said. “That’s the kind of person he is.”