Casting a Lengthy Shadow: Dr. James Rodman is Leaving a Lasting Legacy

July 01, 2009

Dr. James P. Rodman '49At six feet, five inches, Dr. James Rodman ’49 casts a large shadow physically, but that doesn’t even begin to compare to the huge influence he has had on Mount Union College.

During his time on the faculty from 1951-1959, and then again from 1962-1992, after a three-year leave at Yale’s Department of Astronomy from 1959-1962, Rodman inherited an established physics and astronomy program and took it to the next level.

With the Clarke Observatory as the anchor, he used his many talents to make a challenging academic discipline interesting to a wide array of students.

Interestingly, the namesake of the observatory, George Washington Clarke, who was one of the College’s founders and a faculty member from 1854 to 1898, has been described as a “renaissance man” due to his varied interests and talents.  A century later, Mount Union found its renaissance man in Rodman.

His interests are many, and students have encountered him in a number of different venues.  The serious student would be challenged in the classroom as his “tough but understanding nature” would maximize the student’s potential.  Or, a non-major might be rocked by the explosion from Memorial Hall during Rodman’s annual lecture on explosives.

Yet another student might be found in the fencing course offered by the same Dr. Rodman he or she has had for astronomy.  And others would be entertained by his rendition of Old Man River during one of his musical group’s many performances on the campus and in the community.  The group, known as JR-4, featured himself, the late Hugh Jae ’54 and Bill Bowman ’56 as well as other musically-inclined guests. 

Adding to the “renaissance man” reputation is the fact that Rodman has been a student of multiple languages including Spanish, French, German and Egyptian, among others.

The Rodman legacy at Mount Union and Alliance actually began before Jim, as his mother Hazel (Purcell ’14) Rodman was the first woman appointed to the College’s Board of Trustees in 1921, and her husband C.J. was an involved Alliance industrialist.  Together, they were instrumental in funding the Rodman Playhouse on campus.  Jim feels his mother’s wide range of interests influenced him in subtle ways.

“I was exposed to the academic environment at a young age, and that interest expanded significantly during my time at Yale,” Rodman said.  It was at Yale where Rodman encountered working with computers, a skill and interest he brought with him to Mount Union.

Rodman graduated magna cum laude with honors in physics from Mount Union in 1949, but physics wasn’t his only major.  He actually had a rare triple major combination – physics, mathematics and chemistry.  He earned a master of arts degree in experimental nuclear physics from Washington University, St. Louis in 1951, and a doctoral degree in astronomy from Yale University in 1963.  Upon his return to his undergraduate alma mater, he came under the tutelage of a faculty member who became his mentor – Dr. Forest “Frosty” Shollenberger, who taught from 1918 until 1970.

While establishing himself as a valued member of the Mount Union College family, Rodman was loyal to the Alliance community where he was born and raised.  In August of 1950 he married Margaret (Kinsey ’51), and they became the parents of four children:  William ’74, Jeffrey ’76 and David ’79, all Mount Union graduates; and Gretchen, who graduated from College of Wooster in 1980. 

According to David, “Throughout his life, dad has had an extraordinary passion for learning and thirst for knowledge.  He also has an equally strong passion for passing this knowledge on to others.  This passion is embodied in life at Mount Union College and he dedicated himself to it fully, and without reservation.”

One of Rodman’s star pupils, Nickolas Solomey ’83, who serves on the faculty of the Illinois Institute of Technology, gives credit to Rodman and Mount Union for his strong undergraduate background.  “Mount Union served me well,” Solomey said.  “Teaching students how to think is important.  The classroom is a good basis but it is not the only thing.”

As the accompanying sidebar (far left) indicates, the legacy of Rodman is multi-faceted. His deep interest in the College and its traditions is unwavering.  Idea after idea has been followed by project after project with Rodman behind the funding and most of the labor. 

And like Old Man River, he just keeps on rolling along.


Rodman’s Legacy

  • Served eight years as assistant professor of physics without taking a salary beginning in 1951 until taking a leave of absence to pursue a doctoral degree at Yale in 1959
  • Designed, wired and installed the Rodman Playhouse stage lighting system
  • Rebuilt and refurbished the original telescope at Clarke Observatory (at its initial location on campus), where he also designed and installed the planetarium
  • Designed WRMU and built the station from war surplus, procured federal licensing and operated the entire radio transmission system; designed and personally wired the original 200’ transmission tower and served as director of engineering for many years (all donated)
  • Designed and installed the central power source and distribution facility of the physics lab, saving the College tens of thousands of dollars; located and creatively outfitted it with war surplus devices rendering it an unusually complete and capable lab otherwise unaffordable to the College
  • Founded, designed, installed and operated Mount Union’s first computer lab, housed within the Department of Physics
  • Designed and built a lodge observing complex and leased it to the College at far below cost; prime users of the facility were Mount Union students who could carry out their observations with high quality equipment free of scattered light from the city
  • Voluntarily worked a double load (22 weekly contact hours) for many years so that students could have the full range and depth of study he felt they deserved from the physics program
  • Conceived and staged public lectures on astronomy and explosives to the delight of the many who attended over the years
  • Designed Clark Observatory (at its East Hall location), oversaw construction, personally wired the building, moved the dome and installed the telescope and planetarium
  • Contributed, designed and personally constructed Rodman Observatory (formerly located atop Wilson Hall)
  • Installed the first lights to illuminate several campus walkways
  • Conceived, designed, implemented and underwrote Eckler Garden
  • Conceived, donated, designed and personally constructed the Chapman Hall Cloister
  • Gifted back to Mount Union what is expected to amount to the greater part of the sum of his paychecks over the years
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