Tributes to Professor Emeritus Ross Cutter

By Scott McQuilkin, '81, Vice President for Institutional Advancement

Oct. 28, 2017, Memorial Service at Knox Presbyterian Church, Spokane

I expect most everyone is fully aware of the work elements of Ross Cutter's Whitworth legacy. He served as a professor and as head men's tennis coach from 1958-1991; he was inducted into the NAIA Tennis Hall of Fame and Whitworth's Heritage Gallery Hall of Fame; Whitworth named its tennis courts for him upon his retirement; an athletic department endowment bears his name, along with his colleague, Paul Merkel. He was committed to teaching, to service, and to his relationships with faculty colleagues, coaching peers, students and student-athletes.

That's the demographic stuff. Memorial services offer us a chance to dwell on the person we celebrate and to think about the qualities they possessed, the values they lived out, and the lessons to be learned from what they modeled. It's been a joy to dwell on Ross Cutter and think about those things.

With that context, I've framed my comments under the header, "Lessons from A. Ross Cutter." What he said, how he said it, and therefore lessons observed. So, five brief lessons.

Lesson #1 Making connections on a personal level is a door-opener

Ross was the freshman advisor for my wife, Janice. Her first encounter with Ross will have a familiar ring for many here today. "Where are you from, Janice?" "Sandpoint, Idaho." "The Sandpoint Bulldogs. Have you had the huckleberry shake at Dub's Drive-in?" And Janice thought, "This guy is fun. This is going to be a good place." How many students were on the receiving end of those hometown questions? And as a result, the anxious transition to college was met with that warm and hospitable Ross Cutter welcome.

Ross made invitations to "suck up of cup" of something. There's subtext in that phrase – it takes time to suck up a cup, which means conversation, being unhurried, and building a friendship. And then looking forward to another cup because of how enjoyable those 30 minutes were that you just had with him.

If we were particularly well-dressed, we were "sharp as a marble," and if we had done something particularly well, we were ranked as being "a cut above plain vanilla." And with those words of recognition, "Ah, he sees me."

Lesson #2 Humor and self-effacement break down barriers

Dozens of elementary school children have been on the receiving end of this question and response from Coach Cutter. "Hello, Andy. What grade are you in?" "Fourth." "Ah, fourth grade. The best two years of my life." What a wonderful way to lower one's stature.

Ross lingered in a Westminster classroom on campus after teaching a class, probably holding court on some topic, while the group of students for the next class began to trickle in. These students were there for an English literature class on the poet Milton, of Paradise Lost fame. Finally the English professor, ready to start class, said to him in a good-natured way, "Dr. Cutter, unless you are prepared to teach Milton, you need to get a move on." To which Ross replied, "If Milton wants to learn, I'd be happy to teach him."

For Ross, Occidental College was Accidental College; the Gonzaga Bulldogs were the Bullfrogs; and when his team loaded the van for a match against a school not known for high academic standards, Ross would say, "We're off to have our students take on their athletes."

Lesson #3 Don't take yourself too seriously

At the beginning of every home tennis match, Ross oversaw a ceremonial ritual known as the "Ceremonial Opening of the First Can of Balls." This ceremony often took place on the road, too. Both teams would gather and a distinguished guest would be given those honors. The subtext was, "Yes, we're competing, but let's keep some perspective, and by the way, we should take a moment for fellowship." In the early '80s, the son of Washington Gov. Booth Gardner played tennis for Pacific Lutheran, and the governor had the honor. As he popped the can top and the air escaped the sealed tube, Gardner said, "This has been the highlight of my administration." Ross turned to the PLU head coach and quietly muttered, "I know a lot of people who would agree with him."

Lesson #4 If you have a point to make, when possible, make it winsomely

Two aspects to this illustration. Ross taught a weekly night class called Sports and Society. Three hours, one night a week, 90-minute first half, 15-minute break, followed by 75 more minutes of class. In college baseball at the time, Whitworth teams played a three-game weekend series – two seven-inning games on Saturday, and a single nine-inning game on Sunday; two sevens and a single nine. I had a player on my Whitworth baseball team who had a habit of asking a question or adding a comment during the first half of class, getting whatever class participation credit he could get. Then this player would skip out at the break. Coach Cutter approached me about my player's attendance this way: "Coach McQuilkin, could you please mention to your catcher that for my class we are playing two sevens and not a single nine?" This player started doing the academic doubleheader. Ross made his point clearly, effectively and charitably.

Lesson #5 Look for more in people than what you know. Chances are, you've missed something about their gifts.

Ross led the recreation major at Whitworth. One year I had two players in that academic program. With these two players, there was some player-coach tension, for which the blame rests on a tightly-wired head coach. I knew these were students of Ross's, so at some point I mentioned my frustration about them, which must have been said in terms of a criticism that represented the entire person. Ross did not answer to my critique specifically. In fact, the way he ignored my criticism was telling in itself. Instead he said, "You should see those two work with people with developmental disabilities. I've never had two any better. They are naturals, they will go far, and they will make a difference." And now, almost 30 years later, they have. Two weeks later these two players brought some young, disabled adults to the dugout before the game and my eyes were opened to something I had not known, or had maybe been unwilling to see. Ross was right.

Ross Cutter generated warmth. There wasn't an arrogant or self-important bone in him. He gathered friends from across campus circles. Good luck finding anyone who heard him utter an uncharitable word, or saw him get into a political squabble. He found the good in people. His mark on Whitworth, his colleagues and students, is immeasurable. Ross Cutter was way more than a cut above plain vanilla.

By Dale Soden, Professor of History and Director of the Weyerhaeuser Center for Christian Faith & Learning

Oct. 28, 2017, Memorial Service at Knox Presbyterian Church, Spokane

I think we all knew this day would come, but I'm sure that none of us were ready for its actual arrival. Ross Cutter was a remarkable person in so many ways, and thus it's one of my great honors to be able to say a few words that hopefully capture for many of us the spirit of the person who was friend, mentor, coach and confidant to so many in this room.

I'm not sure I remember my first encounter with Coach Cutter when I came to Whitworth more than 30 years ago as a relatively young history professor, but I soon became blessed with years of stories, laughs, meals and memories.

Ross, as we all know, possessed an unabashed enthusiasm for life, an appreciation for people, and simply a spirit for fun that made him unique. His ceremonial opening of the can of tennis balls before the first tennis match was legendary. I did it a couple of times, as did many faculty, but on one occasion he suggested that I show up in my full academic robes and hat. As he called over the Whitman men's tennis team to participate in the opening of that first can of balls, he said something to the effect that he knew they were attending a reputable liberal arts college (Whitman), and so they would appreciate more than most the brief lecture that Professor Soden from the history department was about to deliver on the role of the tennis court in the French Revolution. And so I proceeded to explain how early revolutionaries gathered on the tennis court to help overthrow the King of France. These Whitman guys took it in with a good spirit and good humor, and afterwards Coach Cutter said what he often did, that they were "bleating like sheep" they loved it so much.

I was fortunate to be invited for years by Ross and Shirley to teach in the summer Elderhostel along with people like Laura Bloxham, Ed Olson and Vic Bobb. Ross and Shirley loved hosting Elderhostel each summer. They loved meeting people from all over the world who would come to Whitworth to experience mini-courses taught by our faculty. He also loved orchestrating the goofiest skits during the evening, where he would get us, the faculty, to perform as seagulls or donkeys gasping for water. With Ross, it all seemed like fun.

He loved his Jan Terms in San Francisco – loved showing students the city and loved showing them cool places to eat that weren't very expensive. But he also took his academic discipline seriously. He loved introducing students to the importance of not just physical education but the whole area of recreational leadership, particularly for inner-city kids. I was there only once with him, but will never forget our trip to the Ansonia Hotel, which was clearly not in the high-rent district and which Ross loved referring to as the Insomnia Hotel.

Ross loved Whitworth; he loved the students, his tennis players, the faculty and staff, but he always enjoyed teasing some of the administrators. I recall a former dean who did lots of great things but who sometimes seemed to take himself a bit too seriously, from Ross's standpoint. One day Ross and I were having lunch at El Sombrero and he excused himself to go to the restroom. When he came back, he said, "Dale, I washed my hands but when I went to the hot air blow drier there was a little note taped to the side and it said, 'For a message from the dean – press here.'"

Over the last 20 years, our friendship and encounters often had something to do with baseball. For years we would plan spring-training trips to Arizona. Ross and Shirley would go down and then I, with my kids, would often meet them there for at least one game during Whitworth's spring break. We once met up with Laura Bloxham who was and still is a great Mariners fan.

Those spring-training capers, as Ross often referred to them, led to what became known as the Interdisciplinary Seminar. The seminar originally consisted of Ross, myself, Deane Arganbright, a Whitworth math professor who retired in 1995, and Jim O'Brien, the food-service director for Sodexo.

We got so we would meet three or four times a year around the Major League Baseball season. Ross became the dean; he would convene us after Professor Obrien had gathered appropriate pastries in the Whitworth dining hall, and would declare that the seminar was beginning. He would always say, "And today's topic," with a pregnant pause, "is major league baseball." Jim Obrien was responsible for all information about the Boston Red Sox; I was responsible for the Seattle Mariners; Ross was responsible for 22 other teams. He was a fount of incredible knowledge.

Deane Arganbright sent me this brief message that captures a lot about what Ross meant to him and many others: Over the years the venue varied: bargain steaks at the Maxwell House; $1 dogs, popcorn and Monday Night Football at the Viking; dinners at the Pacific Café in San Francisco; sucking up a cup. But the centerpiece of any visit with Ross was an unexcelled, warm camaraderie accompanied by well-crafted stories. Ross was always the first person that we looked up during our trips to Spokane.

Like all of you here, I will miss him a great deal. He was such a gift to us all, this humble man with many passions and loves, not the least of which were Shirley, his children, grandchildren and extended family. He showed us all how to appreciate the small things and how to live life with joy and humor. He understood the value of friendships and relationships, and always provided a sense of perspective about what mattered and what did not matter. Mostly he helped us know how important it was to not take yourself too seriously. I love you, Ross Cutter, and I look forward hopefully to seeing you in heaven, where you are discoursing at the operational level about baseball and your many passions and telling me where there is a good place to eat for not very much money.