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The commodore

August 3, 2012
By BOB SEIDENSTEIN (saranacbo@hotmail.com) , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Based on reliable secondary sources and my own observations, I've concluded the Paul Smith's College Golden Age of Eccentricity was the 1960s and '70s.

For those two decades, the freak flag flew proudly and prominently. And its flyers ranged from the highest administrators to the greenest freshman.

There was Bill Rutherford, who held the positions of registrar, academic dean, forestry department head and full-time teacher - simultaneously. I can still see him lecturing in front of his class, rubbing his back up and down on the door jamb, all the while scratching his dog behind the ears.

Or how about Doc Pickett? He was a small, egg-shaped man whose hair stuck out at a 45-degree angle and was the same color, thickness and stiffness of porcupine quills. He always had a puckish twinkle in his eye and was a brilliant storyteller who held 800-person audiences spellbound without a microphone.

Dr. McKee was one of my favorites. He was a Harvard man of vast intellect and strong opinions who'd been both a World War II OSS agent and a translator at the Nuremburg trials. I remember him stopping in the middle of a lecture on Rabelais to tell us his favorite wine sauce recipe. Then after he'd finished with the recipe he said, "And of course you'll use French wine because, as we all know, the only people who drink domestic wine are skid row bums."

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Salty dog

Among this cast of characters was the one who became my best friend - Ed Woodward. He didn't look very quirky - at least not until he took his dendrology classes outside in a downpour. For then, clad in his screaming-yellow Sou'Wester (complete with Sou'Wester hat, under which was his craggy, impassive face), he looked less like a college prof than the Ancient Mariner which, in fact, he was.

Ed graduated from Annapolis in 1932 and had a wild and wooly 20-year naval career. He spent three years in China in the 1930s on S-Boats. They were submarines that'd been built right after World War I, and by the time Ed got on them, they were pretty much unseaworthy.

His first clue something was wrong was finding out they couldn't dive lower than one-third their maximum depth. His next one was seeing a coolie repairing an S-boat hull by welding a juice can onto it. Finally, he noticed the boats' brass railings were always brightly polished. This was impressive while the boat was in port, but one day while in a plane flying over the ocean, Ed looked down and saw, clear as day, the bright brass railing of a submerged sub. Since a sub's survival is based on not being seen, Ed saw the handwriting on the railing and immediately withdrew from the submarine service. He said all the S-boats in that theater were lost within the first six months of World War II.

In 1939, Ed was assigned to something called Neutrality Patrol. If you never heard of Neutrality Patrol, don't feel bad - almost no one has. Essentially, it was a US dress rehearsal for WWII, with American ships escorting British convoys. Ed was even more directly involved: He served on a British corvette, hunting German U-Boats three full years before we officially entered the war.

During the war he was promoted to Commodore and commanded a flotilla of nine destroyer escorts in the Pacific.

Commodore is a wartime rank only, which gives the command power of a captain to a lower-ranked officer. Often (and I suspect it was Ed's case) the Commodore is a highly skilled officer who never played the political game, so after the war, he'll revert to his previous rank and stay there. I guess it's the navy's equivalent of a disposable hero.

And while Ed never bragged about anything, the closest he came was telling me he never lost a ship under his command.

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Confounding the opposition and sometimes the home team

When it came to being a member of the PSC faculty, Ed wasn't considered an eccentric, so much as an enigma. There were two major reasons for this.

One was he always spoke in a low mumble. Folks thought he did it on purpose so they had to strain to hear him, but I don't think that was it. Instead, I think it was a result of his years at sea: He was a navy officer. As such, he gave commands and they were carried out. Period. I doubt he ever raised his voice, or ever needed to, since I'm sure he never negotiated with subordinates.

Ed's other attribute that confounded people was his explaining things using metaphors or esoteric references. I'm sure he sometimes did this in part just to bug people. But mostly I think he was so bright and well-read he believed his examples would contain superior insights, which they would have, if people had understood them. Suffice it to say, it drove lots of people to distraction.

Once, in a faculty meeting, people were discussing the introducing some new - and untested - "improvement" whose advocates thought would cure our academic ills. Debate raged. Finally, Ed raised his hand and said people who thought this change would make them the powerhouses of academe were as powerless as King Canute.

A silence sat over the room, as people looked at each other, wondering who on God's green earth King Canute was. But as confused as they were, no one asked.

After the meeting I asked Ed, who explained the legend of King Canute. Of course it made perfect sense even though no one tried to find out why.

Another incident that still makes me chuckle. Ed always had a cigar in his mouth, but it was never lit. Naturally, the students wondered why, but were afraid to ask. Finally, one got up the nerve and stopped him as he was leaving the classroom building.

"Say, Mr. Woodward," he said, "do you ever light your cigars?"

Without missing a beat or breaking stride, and in obvious mock-shock, Ed said, "Why, my boy, haven't you read the surgeon general's latest report on the dangers of smoking?"

I had my own bout with his circumlocution.

Ed never talked about religion, but he always went to mass and in fact served on the parish council. Wanting to know if he was always religious or had come to it later in life, or what his religious motives were, I asked him. In turn (and typical fashion) he gave me some nonsense that had nothing to do with anything.

"Look, Ed," I said, "I asked you a question because I want to know the answer. So if you don't want to answer it, then tell me you don't. But don't go blowing smoke, OK?"

As much as Ed was a private person and reticent about answering personal questions, he was also my friend, so he answered me though in his own way, of course.

"All right, Bobby boy, let me tell you," he said. (Note: he only called me Bobby boy when he was treating me like a little kid).

"When it's pitch-black and you're in the middle of a winter storm in the North Atlantic, the waves are 8-feet high, St. Elmo's fire is dancing in the antenna array, and you know if you fall overboard you're going to die in maybe 10 minutes? In those conditions you've got to believe in something."

I processed that and then said, "So is that when you started studying all the known religions of the world?"

He nodded.

"Yes," he said. And then, in perfect Ed fashion, he added, "And I started studying a bunch of the unknown ones, too."

 
 

 

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