GAMBIER — Rud Hayes’ mother was annoyed by her son. At age fourteen, he had taken a break from his schooling for a bit, but then refused to go back.
He preferred hunting in the woods around Delaware, Ohio, and goofing off.
He had grown resistant to the constant pressure his mother gave him to live up to the lofty standards of the father and brother who had both died when the boy was young.
The boy was bright, but his mother said he was lazy.
Rud said that he was tired of the “musty crusty fusty rules of antiquated fools.”
Sophia finally guilted her son into spending a year in New England at a college preparatory school, after which she found him smarter, but “still unpolished.”
She didn’t have the highest hopes for her boisterous boy.
But she underestimated him. The boy that friends and family called Rud was to grow up to become Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president of the United States.
It’s worth noting, too, that far from being the boisterous youth known for being silly and lazy, he was so solemn and serious in the Oval Office, he became known as “the preacher president.”
After Rud’s return from New England, he entered Kenyon College in Gambier at the age of
16, giving this future president a Knox County connection.
It turned out that his recollection of his earlier studies stood him well, and he found college easy.
Though generally well-behaved, he and his roommates did regularly violate the rules by roasting potatoes and corn in their rooms while studying.
The winter of the 1838-1839 school year, Rud had a mishap while ice skating. Ari Hoogenboom’s biography of the president does not say where this incident happened.
One would guess it was either a local farm pond, or perhaps the mill race along the Kokosing River.
But Hayes’ letters home say that it was ice over a water depth of eight feet. Hayes claims not to have been scared by it and was confident he could have gotten out, even if his friends hadn’t dragged him from the icy water.
But perhaps his confidence was a front, because his older brother had died in a similar mishap, and by this point in his life, Hayes was already admitting to a tendency toward nervousness.
Well into the school year, Rud began to complain about boredom and being irritated by too many rules and regulations.
When his mother and uncle wrote to him, telling him he’d better learn to like his professors, Hayes replied that he did like them … to be at a distance away from him.
Despite his irks, the boy was become a shrewd judge of just how far he could bend the rules.
Because he began cultivating the admiration of the professors and administrators who recognized his intelligence, Rud found that he could get away with a lot.
At the height of his Kenyon stay, he regularly violated school rules by keeping two hunting rifles in his dorm room, hunting in the woods around campus, and even roasting his hunting catches right in his room.
“Old Sparrow can smell a cooking rabbit further than any mortal,” Rud wrote to his sister about Kenyon’s vice president, William Sparrow.
Hayes either charmed the administrator or shared his bounty, because Sparrow didn’t even threaten to throw the boy out.
By the following year, Rutherford Hayes had emerged as a natural leader among the students.
He reported the Fourth of July, 1840, as the best day of his life to his family, exulting in the games, music, speeches, lemonade toasts, and above all the dinner: seven kinds of meat, ice cream, and 29 different kinds of cake on offer for dessert.
He played a key role in settling a heated argument between the debate societies, which almost got into a physical fight arguing about the day’s speaker.
By his junior year, Hayes had moved into one of the bull’s eye rooms on the top floor of the Old Kenyon dormitory and served as treasurer of the Philomathesian Society, soon to be elected its president.
He had gained the reputation as a serious scholar and keen follower of politics and current events.
One of his closest friends was Guy Bryan, a southerner who defended the “curious institution” of slavery, which Hayes argued against.
It says something about Hayes’ growing ability to be diplomatic that the two remained friends while excoriating each other in debates.
It was noted during Rud’s senior year that he was the Kenyon student who had checked out more books from the college library than any other.
In addition to his studies, Hayes did extra reading in history and biography, while keeping up with his favorite novels and poetry.
He was part of a brief student rebellion later that year, when all the seniors refused to take one of their final exams after a number of them had been punished for a drinking spree.
Though Hayes was already becoming known for his moderation, he admitted to being involved in the spree “up to his eyes.”
The rebellion was so widespread among the senior class, the administration backed down from threatened punishments, knowing they couldn’t expel their entire senior class.
In Kenyon’s end-of-the-year evaluation, they glossed over the rebellion as a “misunderstanding,” and otherwise rated Hayes as outstanding.
To his surprise, he was named class valedictorian, an honor usually reserved for one of the seminary students.
Afterwards, Hayes went on to study law, then enter politics, which eventually saw him nominated as a dark-horse candidate for president in 1876.
Though the election and Hayes’ subsequent administration were turbulent affairs that did little to accomplish the ideals that Hayes pursued, he is remembered as one of many movers and shakers who came through Kenyon in the mid-1800s.
That marked a period when the institution was the most prominent school on what was then the western frontier of the country.