An Act of Genius

A new scholarship honors the memory of Rod MacArthur ’43, creator of the famous MacArthur Genius Grant.

(Photo from the 1941 Tomokan, the College yearbook) (Photo from the 1941 Tomokan, the College yearbook) “This program brought to you in part by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.” 

For every aficionado of PBS and NPR, mental muscle memory easily conjures up the ubiquitous credit.

But few people know that Rollins College has a connection to one of America’s leading philanthropic organizations. Now, a recent gift to the Hamilton Holt School has strengthened that bond, honoring a man whose time as a Tar was cut short by World War II.

The Story of Rod MacArthur

In the fall of 1939, John Roderick MacArthur ’43, the son of insurance and real estate icon John D. MacArthur, enrolled at Rollins. For the next two years, Rod, as he was known, distinguished himself with prolific prose, his articles appearing in The Sandspur, Flamingo, and Tomokan.

Rod MacArthur’s tongue-in-cheek wit proved a hallmark throughout life, but at Rollins it culminated with a humorous article for the 1941 yearbook. “You and Your Neuroses” was a self-deprecating exposé that poked fun at just about every social class and time-honored tradition on campus. Elements of the 16-page opus remain as applicable today as they were seven decades ago.

MacArthur’s time at Rollins came during Hamilton Holt’s presidency. The two were friends, and Holt’s progressive stance on social justice and human rights helped mold MacArthur’s nascent worldview.

Indeed, “Little Mac” was finding order in his life. Yet the world around him was sinking into chaos.

Duty Calls

With war raging, MacArthur’s academic pursuits would have to wait. He traded his self-described “Esquire College-Wardrobes” for the civilian ambulance corps of the American Field Service, serving in Africa and Italy and, later, the French resistance.

On February 7, 1948, longtime Rollins friend Harold Boyd France ’42 was MacArthur’s best man when he wed Christiane L’Etendart, a Frenchwoman who bore him three children. In typical MacArthur style—by this time he was a foreign correspondent—he distributed an embellished “press release” with a Paris dateline.

“Only one member of the press and radio and one photographer were allowed at the secret ceremony,” he deadpanned under the pen name Algernon Snarbunquet. “MacArthur immediately took a leave of absence from the United Press and left for the Riviera, ‘to devote myself to more important work.’ ”

After attending the University of Mexico, he went to work for his father, who made his fortune with Bankers Life and Casualty Company in Chicago. From there, the younger MacArthur founded a highly successful collectibles trading company, the Bradford Exchange.

When John D. MacArthur died of cancer in 1976, about $1 billion in assets transferred to the foundation that bears his name. His son served on the board, firmly guiding the principles of how the new foundation would allocate its money.

That’s Genius

Perhaps Rod MacArthur’s most well-known act of philanthropy occurred in 1981, when he used his father’s foundation to establish the MacArthur Fellowship. Each year, between 20 and 40 U.S. citizens receive no-strings-attached “genius grants” that pay $625,000 to reward “originality, insight and potential.” Applications are not accepted, and an anonymous panel of about a dozen people selects winners.

In 1982, the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation was launched to support causes that range from abolishing the death penalty to vindicating the falsely imprisoned. Today, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center is a leading civil rights organization that is part of the Northwestern University School of Law.

Part of the Team

On December 15, 1984, shortly after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Rod MacArthur died at the age of 63. A couple years prior, former Rollins president Thaddeus Seymour ’82H had paid him a visit in Chicago.

“I expected him to be in a corner office,” Seymour says. “Instead, he was in a cubicle. That impressed me. He was obviously somebody who valued being part of the team.

After going to war, MacArthur was fond of writing friends and faculty back at Rollins. “Please thank (Hamilton Holt) for me,” he wrote to the alumni director from wartime France in 1944, “and tell him I think he’s got the best college in the world.”

Over the years, however, as the demands of life intensified, MacArthur lost touch with the College.

Yet, in the time leading up to his death, he was in the process of restoring that connection. During the summer of 1984, in fact, he sponsored a Chicagoland alumni meeting.
A few months later, he would be gone.

Holt and MacArthur Linked Once More

Coinciding with the 30th anniversary of MacArthur’s death, an anonymous donor recently gave $10,000 to support scholarships for students in the Hamilton Holt School—a fitting tribute considering MacArthur held his academic mentor Holt in such high esteem.

David Torre ’05, Rollins’ director of gift planning and a Holt School grad himself, says MacArthur was also influenced by the “Golden Personalities” Holt assembled at Rollins. As Holt described them, these were faculty members whose “sole love was teaching, who enjoyed associating with young people, individuals with noble characters.”

“Above all,” Torre says, “Rod MacArthur was an individual. His innovative ideas have stood the test of time. I’m sure he would be proud that his memory is being honored by supporting students in the Hamilton Holt School.”