Roger "Rusty" Martin missed two days of crew practice in his first weeks as a freshman at St. John's College in Annapolis. Both mornings, he awoke in a muddle of guilt and longing. He feared the coach might cut him from the team.
Martin was due for CT scans and a checkup with his oncologist those days. At 61, he was not quite four years past a battle with melanoma that nearly killed him.
Roger "Rusty" Martin chats with fellow crew member David Miranda, left, and Schuyler Sturm as they play chess on the St. John's campus.
(James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
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Martin is the president of Randolph-Macon College, an 1,100-student school in the Virginia town of Ashland. This fall, he is reading Plato and Homer as a student with freshman status at St. John's, the liberal arts college known for its Great Books curriculum.
Cancer, he said, is not why he took a semester-long sabbatical from the top of the academic food chain to dwell at the bottom.
It may, however, explain why he went out for crew. Out on the misty Severn River at dawn, he found himself thanking God for allowing him to be sitting in that boat, surrounded mostly by breathless teenagers, pulling oars.
"Deep down in me," he said, "was this feeling that I had to prove that I had survived, that I was alive."
Martin is the oldest freshman by four decades at St. John's; some on the faculty are young enough to have been his students back when he was a history professor.
He enrolled, he said, to study the freshman experience in a way that would be impossible from the president's office. At Randolph-Macon, Martin's one-on-one contact with students took place mostly across a desk. What were his first-year students really like? He could only guess.
After his semester at St. John's ends, Martin plans to publish some of his thoughts in one or more magazine articles. He expects to write about his fellow freshmen, a group he found to be strikingly focused, keen to study, averse to drugs, loyal to their parents and quite serious about politics and faith.
And he'll tell of his mornings on the St. John's crew team, part of an athletic program that turns no one away and prizes teamwork over victory.
"For a guy that age to want to climb onboard a [boat] filled with younger, stronger guys takes guts," said Leo Pickens, the athletic director at St. John's and a man known to invoke Greek philosophers and thump his chest during practice.
Martin, whose athletic physique and red beard make him appear a decade younger than his age, did not hide his identity from the students and faculty at St. John's. He and college administrators set some ground rules: Martin would attend classes and events but would live off campus, with his wife and dog. He would take clandestine notes in class, a practice discouraged among students to foster conversation, but he would not speak.
Seminars at St. John's are painstakingly egalitarian, with professors assuming the humble role of "tutors." Martin, a lifelong educator trained to lecture, worried he might upset that balance .
"He wanted to see the freshmen up close, and kind of be in the milieu and see what effect reading and studying those things has on the way they talk with each other and the way they think about life," said Harvey Flaumenhaft, dean of St. John's. "And he figured this was a good place to do it, because the students don't make a sharp line between their studies and what they're doing outside of class."