Marlboro College

News Former Marlboro President Rod Gander Dies at 76

Rod Gander, president of Marlboro College for 15 years, chief of correspondents for Newsweek Magazine from 1967-1980, and most recently State Senator from Windham County until his retirement in 2006, died peacefully after a four-year fight against lung cancer, on September 24 at his home in Brattleboro. He was 76.

Memories of Rod and/or expressions of sympathy for the family may be sent in care of Marlboro’s Development Office online at alumni@marlboro.edu with “Rod Gander” in the subject line or by mail to the college. Contributions in his memory may be made to the Gander Fund at Marlboro College or to the In-Sight Photography Project. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, October 20 at 3:30 p.m. at the West Village Meeting House in West Brattleboro.

Rod was a central figure at Newsweek Magazine during the news-heavy years of Camelot and the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam and Watergate. As news editor and then chief of correspondents, he recruited, prodded, and protected 68 reporters in Newsweek’s domestic and international bureaus, staving off editorial interference when he had to, while serving as the magazine’s chief labor negotiator and all around troubleshooter on the side. “Rod was a tremendously important, solid and muscular right arm to me,” said Osborne Elliot, who became editor in chief in 1961 when the Washington Post Company bought Newsweek and set about to take on Time Magazine in head-to-head competition.

Rod reveled in taking on the team of Henry Luce, looking to staff Newsweek with bright, energetic, and often off-beat journalists who would never have made it in Time’s staid newsroom. “Rod was always open to the odd character,” said Peter Goldman, the magazine’s premier writer during those years. “You didn’t have to have an Ivy League degree or go to journalism school to get a job at Newsweek. He repopulated the place in an amazing way.” At one point when the staff was full, he hired a young writer and diver named Peter Benchley and hid him away in the magazine’s feature service. “I thought he had the right stuff,” Gander said afterwards. “He said he was writing something about sharks.”

The day Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy, Rod started pulling reporters down to Dallas from Washington, Chicago, New York, wherever he could grab them. “I can still see him coming through my door, bugging the hell out of me,” Mr. Elliott recalled. ‘More space, Oz. More space.’ So I started peeling sections out of the magazine. International was the first to go, then Business, and all the time Rod was saying, ‘You gotta clear out more room.’ Finally we were down to the Periscope Department, which was sacrosanct. ‘Kill it,’ Rod said. So down went the Periscope. It became a historic moment in the race between the two news magazines. For the first time, on the story of our lives, Newsweek skinned Time—and our success was largely due to Rod and his team.”

With his team supplying the raw materials for the weekly first draft of history, as the Washington Post’s owner Phil Graham liked to define the news, Newsweek flourished through the turbulent Sixties and early Seventies. “What I remember most about Rod was his non-judgmental open-heartedness and generosity to those of us who were on the battle lines in the deep South, in Vietnam and other hot spots,” recalled Karl Fleming, a legend among reporters covering Civil Rights. “’What can I do for you?’ was his unswerving posture toward those of us who worked removed and isolated from the New York home nest.”

Rod got the call when Newsweek’s women staffers filed a lawsuit to break the glass ceiling at the magazine. “Oz said, ‘Make it happen,’” recalled Lynn Povich, who subsequently became the publication’s first woman senior editor. “Rod was one of the few people you could talk to openly about the problem. At the time, because of the system, there was no future for women at the news magazines. They could not get promoted beyond the reporter’s level no matter how much talent they had. Rod saw the justice of the complaint and he tried to work it out fairly. He had a tough job. A lot of the other men around there didn’t see it his way.”

“He had a mysterious way of working,” said John Dotson, the magazine’s first African-American correspondent, hired after the Watts riots and later promoted to Los Angeles Bureau Chief, then News Editor as Rod’s number two. Rod supported pioneering efforts of Mr. Dotson and others to establish a fellowship program for talented young African Americans at the Columbia University School of Journalism, and was also instrumental in ensuring the integration of the newsroom and the reporter ranks. Mark Whitaker, Newsweek’s first African-American editor, was first hired by Rod for a summer internship while still on the Harvard Crimson.

When the changing news climate and economic realities of the late 1970s began to constrict Rod’s freedom of action, he started looking for something else to do. “I admired his leaving Newsweek when he did,” said Dotson. “He went up to a place out in the woods devoted to young people. That was Right-on Rod.”

The place was Marlboro College, founded in 1947 to provide returning soldiers on the GI bill a college education on the chilly shoulder of Potash Hill west of Brattleboro. Marlboro was tiny, idyllic, and run on the principle of the tutorial and town meeting. It was also close to broke. “Very few people at the College understood how close we came to going over the edge, “ said Will Wootton, who worked for Rod for many years before becoming president of Sterling College in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. “That’s because Rod didn’t tell them. He didn’t moan or try to scare the faculty into compliance. He didn’t fire anyone. He didn’t declare an emergency. He never missed a payday. He just said: ‘Keep teaching, keep working, don’t worry.’”

In his years at Marlboro’s helm, Rod expanded the board of trustees and attracted the support of new friends of the college who gave generously. By the time he retired in 1996, the endowment had come out of intensive care, enrollment was up and Marlboro had a national reputation as a small college that made a big difference in the lives of its graduates.

Retirement only made Rod restless. In his early seventies, he ran for the Vermont State Senate as a Democrat and spent two terms in Montpelier as representative for Windham County. “Rod played a unique role,” said Peter Welch, the senate’s majority leader, now U.S. Representative for Vermont. “He was probably the best speaker in the State Senate. He defended constitutional protections and he was a fierce opponent of extending Vermont Yankee, the nuclear plant in Vernon. In a way, he was the last of the New Dealers. He wasn’t for Big Government; he was always pushing for the best break for average Americans. He was extremely principled, but he didn’t condemn. He had an almost grandfatherly acceptance of the human condition. Whenever I had to make a hard decision, whenever I wondered if I was going too far—or not going far enough—I’d take a walk with Rod.”

Rod was born in Bronxville on the day after Christmas in 1930. His father was an investment banker who wanted to see him on Wall Street, his mother a practicing Quaker. They named him Roderick MacLean Gander, but no one ever called him anything but Rod. After Phillips Academy and Hamilton College, he lasted barely one year as a fledgling banker before heading for Greenwich Village—he tried to write a play about the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti with Tom Meehan, a college friend who many years later scored with Annie— and then going into journalism, starting on the clip desk at Newsweek for $27.50 a week. His entire life was animated by his passion for social justice, his instinctive impulse to mentor and support those he worked with, and his deep, abiding love for his wife and family.

Rod is survived by his wife of 52 years, Isabelle, two sons, MacLean Gander and wife Lynne Shea of Brattleboro, and James Gander and wife Justyne Ogdahl of Greenfield, Mass., a daughter, Elizabeth Pierce and Dean Pearce of Middlebury, and five grandchildren.

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