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.