In the mid-1940s, President Henry Wriston decided the University was ready to pay the bill for all alumni to receive the Brown Alumni Monthly, which since its founding in 1900 had been an independent subscription magazine reaching only a fraction of Brown graduates.
That seemed a good idea, said one crusty alumnus on the BAM Board of Editors, except for one problem: “Henry,” he told the president, “you will never be able to keep your hands off it.”
“Watch me,” Wriston was said to have replied, and he, along with every Brown president since, has succeeded in respecting what is now the 105-year tradition of editorial integrity and independence that has characterized the BAM.
Had it been otherwise in 1971, the Brown Alumni Monthly (which became the Brown Alumni Magazine in 1997) would never have had Robert M. Rhodes as its editor. He simply would not have accepted the job.
During his twenty-two years heading the BAM, Dusty Rhodes, who died of pneumonia a week before Commencement, brought the magazine to a level of unprecedented greatness in an unprecedented era of turmoil on the nation’s campuses. He was among a relatively small group of editors who freely used their best editorial judgment to produce highly professional, quality magazines on stringent budgets.
I was Dusty’s predecessor, the first non-alumnus and only the third editor of the magazine in sixty-eight years. When I moved into the administration in 1970 and was given considerable responsibility to find my successor, the list of experienced finalists was very short. It contained two names, and Dusty was number one. He, too, was not a Brown alumnus, but by 1971 he was admired universally in his field and was on his way to becoming known as the dean of university editors. He had already left his imprint on three other institutions: the University of Arkansas (his alma mater), Lehigh, and Penn, where his national reputation was in full bloom.
When he accepted the BAM editorship, Brown had just won, for the first time, the sought-after Robert Sibley Magazine of the Year award, given to the nation’s best alumni magazine. Rhodes’s charge was to make the BAM very much better, and he did that in short order. The Sibley ended up on College Hill three more times before the end of the 1970s, and the BAM remained—and remains today—one of the most emulated publications in higher education.
Dusty Rhodes’s long and successful career was no accident. He was bright, incredibly well-read, true to what he believed and to what he could and could not do. A number of presidents and university editors lost their jobs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, thanks to the immense pressure exerted by alumni not ready to accept what was happening on the country’s campuses—and in the world around them. This was the time of an unpopular war and a battle over civil rights, both of which triggered protest movements that, not surprisingly, were evident on virtually all U.S. campuses. The best college and university magazines reported these activities completely and accurately and were often criticized for doing so.
Dusty was ideally suited for the job: he had an art for dodging a bullet. There was no issue he was afraid to tackle; if a story wasn’t pleasant, he was unwilling to leave its reporting to the commercial media, which had a talent for missing the point. He believed it was the University’s job to tell its own story, and he knew that alumni would feel most respected and valued if they were told the truth.
Few editors went through that era without pressure from administrators and fund-raisers understandably worried about disenchanted donors. Among the historic events at Brown that Dusty’s BAM covered were the development of the so-called New Curriculum; the battle over ROTC; the first and only building occupation by protestors; a nationally reported court battle over the tenure of a female professor; disputes over discrimination by race, gender, and sexual orientation; and the landmark Title IX suit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Angry mail came in, but so did the reasoned and optimistic views of the majority of alumni. Dusty and his colleagues at a handful of other magazines succeeded in transforming what what had been compendiums of class notes and press releases into compelling, thought-provoking magazines aimed at opening up discussions with readers instead of circumventing them.
Dusty stuck to his beliefs about quality alumni magazines from those early days in Arkansas to his final spring at the BAM in 1993, when a stroke finally forced him to retire. Superior writing skill was his top requirement when hiring staff, and he pioneered the use of top-flight photography and illustration in alumni magazines. His eye for talent was unerring, and many of his staff members went on to distinguished careers of their own.
Dusty was a trusted colleague and friend to many. As I was considering becoming editor of the BAM in the late 1960s, I joined hundreds of editors who turned to him for advice over his long career. During those decades, Dusty was a leader at the old American Alumni Council, at the Washington, D.C.–based Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), and at the publication that would evolve into the Chronicle of Higher Education.
He could tell you how best to keep alumni informed, where and when to involve faculty, how to understand students, how to handle truly bad news that needed to be reported, how to get enough money to create a real magazine when money was always short, and how to shake the image among readers of being a house organ.
Dusty was well-traveled from his CASE experiences, yet closest to his heart was his beloved University of Arkansas. Once, long before he came to Brown, I asked him where in Arkansas he was from.
“Liberty,” he said.
“Where is that?”
“Just down the road from Mulberry.”
After graduation he headed the Arkansas alumni program and also edited the school’s alumni magazine. In recent years the walls in his room were a kind of Razorback shrine. “Hogs” were everywhere, along with pennants, game balls, and other mementos. My son Rob, who is a television producer of many Southeast Conference football games, had orders to send Dusty tapes of all the Arkansas games he worked on.
Dusty was known for many other passions. Smoking was not one of them. He consumed chocolate by the ton until he was no longer able to digest it. Once, during dinner at the swank Brown Palace in Denver, a waitress passionately described the elegant specials, especially touting the brook trout, a signature dish. Dusty smiled as she went on and on, listening politely and intently.
“May I tell you more about it?” the waitress asked him.
“No, that’s wonderful, and very interesting. Thank you very much. I’ll have the roast beef.”
His drink of choice was Diet Coke, all day and every day. The fortunes of the baseball Giants rose and fell—mostly fell—but he never deserted them. He followed Brown and Penn athletics closely, and what he didn’t witness firsthand he learned from the ceaseless curiosity that led him to read absolutely everything. His loyalty to music was broad yet clearly focused on Count Basie, whose big band recordings he collected—all of them.
As his good friend Marilyn Gillespie, who was then editor of Swarthmore magazine, once said of Dusty, he had an ability to listen carefully and endlessly to everyone else and then, in a soft Arkansas drawl, to make the quintessential statement that closed the case.
Yet that Southern charm could not hide Dusty’s hidden rod of steel when someone unfairly or inaccurately challenged his motive. The eyes would squint, a tight smile would form, and it was time to quit.
His deepest love was for his family. He married two talented women whom he adored and respected, and those of us who knew him well can only imagine the wilderness of sorrow he endured after each passed away from similar illnesses.
His first wife, Chris, was a talented writer and editor who collapsed into a coma that lasted nearly five years. Dusty visited her every day at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital.
Dusty later married Beth Ann Worthington (no relation to Chet Worthington ’23, who edited the BAM for thirty-seven years), whose photo—along with those of their daughter, Meredith, their son-in law, Matthew Pecci, and their two grandchildren, Anna and Mason—were more prominent even than the Razorbacks in his room.
Dusty Rhodes died during the night of May 23, eleven years to the month and day after Beth’s passing. She was an excellent singer, especially of “Amazing Grace,” and it was sung at Dusty’s memorial service on May 27 at the Presbyterian church in Barrington, Rhode Island, where he had been an elder.