College President looking smart in a bow tie

Robert Troutt - President of Rhodes College

From the Memphis Commercial Appeal

Higher education in Memphis is a tricky thing. And so Rhodes College, being an elite college in a city where only 23 percent of Memphians hold a college degree, is in an especially tricky position.

Public conversations here about the role of colleges tend to center on cranking out more graduates for more jobs and more money. That is why the top majors among University of Memphis’ 23,000 students are nursing, professional studies and teaching, and not, say, political science or literature or history.

But Rhodes, the small, private, liberal arts campus of 1,800 diverse students near Overton Park, with its Hogwarts aesthetic, is flush with English and history majors.

“Education is not valued in rural or even poor urban Tennessee,” said Lewis Lavine, the ex-chief of staff of current Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. Lavine, now in Nashville working as president of the Center for Nonprofit Management, added: “Parents don’t want their kids highly educated, because then they’ll move away.”

So “Rhodes was a little embarrassed to be in Memphis,” he said. “But in just 10 years, Bill has changed that.”

That would be his longtime friend Bill Troutt, Rhodes’ president since 1999, who last year celebrated the college’s ranking by Newsweek as the nation’s top service-minded student body (a title it repeated this month).

In addition to routine student participation in soup kitchens for the needy, Troutt has created partnerships with FedEx, Snowden School, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and more.

Don’t let his bow ties, Milquetoast grins or happy-go-lucky manner — which his assistant describes as “Mister Rogers on speed” — fool you. Troutt, 62, is an education titan who headed a national college cost-cutting committee in the late ’90s that left indelible marks on the Higher Education Act, the umbrella law Congress uses to control and fund colleges.

Not bad for someone who grew up a poor farm boy from Bolivar, Tenn.

He saw his exhausted father go from single-handedly running their 100-acre farm, to taking a second job, initially as a night watchman at the local tannery and then in the engineering department at Western Mental Health Institute.

Troutt would come to Memphis to buy school clothes at the old Goldsmith’s or Lowenstein’s department stores. After some winning performances as part of the Bolivar Brass band — “think Tijuana Brass,” he said — he was whisked to New York on his first airplane ride to perform on host Ted Mack’s nationally televised “The Original Amateur Hour,” the “American Idol” of its day.

On the heels of his anointment as “most likely to succeed” at Bolivar Central High School, he graduated from Union University in Jackson, Tenn., earned a master’s from the University of Louisville and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt, then determined fervently — and a bit weirdly, given his youth — to become a university president.

After a few years as a higher education consultant in Washington, he ended up becoming vice president and then president of Belmont University in Nashville, crowned the nation’s youngest college president at the time. He was 32.

This school year he passes another milestone: He is one of only four presidents at the nation’s 3,000-some colleges to have devoted 30 years of service to the job.

Not that you’d ever catch him bragging. When Belmont named its new theater after Troutt and his wife of 41 years, Carole, the first performance there was the aptly-titled “Much Ado About Nothing.”

This is still a man who has dinner with his mother. He wears bow ties not as panache but as homage, seeing as his first was a gift to him from the family of the late Sen. Paul Simon, a giant in popular education advocacy (Troutt can now tie one faster than a necktie).

When he left Belmont, he was living with his wife and a 100-pound Old English sheepdog named Martha, and what Carole describes as “a diabolical cat named Nietzsche” in a 400-square-foot space. His house was roofless amid an epic renovation. His possessions were in a PODS container in the backyard. Everything else was in a Dumpster out front.

His empathy toward the blues-and-blahs dilapidation of Memphis is personal, born in part out of four hours one January afternoon in 1982 when Carole and their children, then 6 and 4, were kidnapped in a Nashville parking lot by a knife-wielding man who said he was a prison escapee from Mississippi (Carole, at the time, was trusting enough to leave her car unlocked regularly). While Bill fretted and prayed at church, the convict made Carole take $65 out of the bank and drive into the countryside before deciding to go back to Nashville and then, as she recalled recently, “just walk back into the shadows.”

In her charming, genteel way, Carole, asked at the time if she believed the kidnapper when he said he was an escaped convict, told a reporter: “Anybody who would pull a knife on someone would probably tell a little fib.” (Their daughter, Carole Ann, followed the convict’s life and informed Carole, years later, that he had died; while cutting down a tree, it fell on him). Even in relating that news, Carole gave no sense of karmic gloating, only the same oh-dear paternalism Rhodes students have come to know so deeply from the Troutts. His students secretly, affectionally refer to him as “P. Troutt.”

“He likes students,” said Spence Wilson, the hotelier who has served as a Rhodes trustee for 40 years, including an eponymous, endowed humanities chair that debuted this year. The two are friends, with the occasional duck-hunting trip to Arkansas. “He likes to be around smartness and brightness and capability and responsibility,” he added.

“If you’ve done something authentic,” said Troutt, in his office, “you’re well-served by giving that responsibility away to others and giving them the help and support to make it happen.”

He recently moved his office to the ground floor to be more accessible to students. A quote framed on a wall there reads, in part, “The good is the enemy of the great.” He would never say so about himself — he uses words like “neat” or “blessed” or “wonderful” and even “pretty darn good” instead — but his life and tenure are, by all accounts, great.

This year, he plans to join the Rhodes Jazz Ensemble, the students’ big band, on the saxophone. He loves playing “Night Train,” although his wife’s favorite tune is “All of Me.” Never one to rest on his laurels, he is quick to mention a new broad campus initiative: Rhodes 2020. Will he still be here then?

Temptation to leave never sets root, said the grown-up farm boy from Bolivar. “Can you imagine coming home?” he asked, mentioning that Carole is from Bells, Tenn. “Coming home to help make it stronger? How can you top that?”