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For College President, a Freshman Refresher Course

As Martin entered the college auditorium Aug. 25 to attend convocation, he moved instinctively to where most of the parents were seated. His wife, Susan, reminded him to join the students.

"Once seated," he wrote in his journal, "I begin to wonder about the mechanics of matriculation: Will there be a good faculty turnout? Did Building and Grounds turn the public address system on, as they sometimes forget to do on my campus? I am obviously not thinking like a student."

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 attends two-hour evening seminars twice a week. He gathers with 17 other students and two tutors in a room outfitted as a lab; the students eventually will be asked, in the inimitable style of St. John's, to recreate historic discoveries such as Newton's theory of gravity.

The oldest freshman dresses just like the others, in jeans and a pullover. He sits and chats about crew practice with fellow rowers until class starts. Then, he sits and listens.

"He pretty much immediately fit in," said David Miranda, 19, a St. John's freshman from Boston who rowed with Martin. "Sometimes we'd talk about Plato, and sometimes we'd just talk about things that are going on day to day."

It's been 43 years since Martin, then a gangly 18-year-old, enrolled at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. He transferred out a year later, bitterly disappointed after failing to penetrate the school's social hierarchy. He finished at Drew University in New Jersey, then completed a second bachelor's program and a master's in theology at Yale University, followed by a doctorate in history at Oxford. He has been the president of Randolph-Macon since 1997.

"I was a real geek," Martin recalled of his disastrous first year in college. "I had short-cropped red hair. I must have looked to people on campus like I was still a sophomore or freshman in high school. And I really wanted desperately to be a part of the community. I was a mismatch."

This, more than cancer, might be what drove him to start over as a college freshman at the twilight of his career.

"As the freshmen march across the stage," Martin wrote in his journal, "my mind goes back 43 years ago. I am wondering which, if any, will accept me as a classmate just like I wondered at Denison during a rather different matriculation ceremony. Back then I was a geek. A skinny kid, barely 18. . . . Now I am 61 and, again, very different from the young people I see crossing the stage. And I am nervous."

It would get worse. Later in that first week, Martin and the other students attended the first in a series of waltz parties that are a tradition at St. John's. He arrived and found himself herded into line with several dozen teenage boys awaiting female partners.

Unpleasant images of past college mixers flooded his mind. He had ended up partner-less in his first dance at Denison, that being the first great disappointment of his college career. Now, here he was, decades older than anyone else in the room, garnering dirty-old-man stares from some of the women. He stepped out of line, to avoid the inevitable rejection, and struck up a conversation with a young man who hadn't found a partner.

When a female dance instructor approached and suggested the two men dance together, Martin fled. "I just knew," he wrote, "that the specter of having his classmates see him dancing with an old man would polish him off."

Weeks passed, and the students came to accept their 61-year-old classmate to the point that his presence in the seminars was barely noticed. One Monday night, his class discussed the last section of Plato's "Phaedo," in which Socrates, condemned to die for his words, prepares to drink hemlock.

A tutor asked students to explain Socrates' last words: "Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; make this offering to him and do not forget."

One freshman pointed to the translator's interpretation: Asclepius is the Greek god of healing, and Socrates is saying that death is a cure for the ills of life. Another suggested that Socrates turned to the gods because death and dying were beyond the philosopher's control.

"I am thinking of something a bit more personal," Martin wrote in his journal, "namely my time in the cancer ward at Johns Hopkins, where death is sometimes gladly welcomed as a relief from the torment of terminal cancer. I'm not sure my young friends would understand this. But I think Socrates would."

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