Rudder: From Leader to Legend

  • Published

Rudder: From Leader to Legend by Thomas M. Hatfield. Texas A&M University Press, 2011, 528 pp.

One can be forgiven for assuming that a biography of Earl Rudder published by Texas A&M University Press would be a hagiography that appeals only to an Aggie audience. Luckily this is not the case; instead, Thomas Hatfield has written a thoroughly researched and balanced biography of Rudder that highlights his service in the Second World War and his presidency at Texas A&M. Focusing on the life of his subject, Hatfield shows the reader “the triumph of humane and purposeful leadership in war and peace” (p. xiii). Rudder successfully used this leadership in two completely opposite organizations—the military and academia—and offers a model for the challenges facing leaders in today’s ever-changing Air Force and society.

The book begins with Rudder’s early childhood in West Texas where he grew up in a family of modest means. His athleticism made him a natural for football and led to a scholarship at Tarleton College and Texas A&M. Unlike today’s scholarships, his did not cover room and board, so Rudder worked full time while he played football, studied, and participated in the Corps of Cadets. He met all of these obligations and managed to graduate a year early. Hatfield concludes that A&M taught Rudder to manage his time and balance commitments. After graduation and commissioning in the Army Reserve, he coached high school football and worked as a teacher, planning to settle down and raise a family. War was looming in Europe, however, and Rudder dedicated time to his duties as an Army Reserve officer.

When activated in June 1941, he spent the next three years training throughout the United States and England, getting ready for the assault on Normandy during D-day. Preparation for the invasion and Rudder’s heroic leadership of the members of the 2nd Rangers Battalion as they scaled Pointe du Hoc comprise the most compelling section of the book. Anyone interested in the Second World War will enjoy Hatfield’s readable account of Rudder’s battlefield experience from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge and the surrender of Germany. The author shows how Rudder used his experience as a coach and teacher to size up volunteers and decide who had the physical endurance and intelligence to be a Ranger. He also had a vision for the Rangers and set a tough standard that he enforced fairly. Rudder excelled because he looked after his men, involved himself in the details of planning operations, and gave his subordinates the independence to carry out orders without micromanaging. Success in battle seemed to guarantee a career in the Army. Instead of staying in the service, however, Rudder chose a civilian career but maintained a commitment to the Army Reserve.

After the war, he returned to Texas where he established a business and became involved in local politics. He was appointed the president of Texas A&M College in 1958 during a critical period. Admissions were declining, and Rudder recognized that A&M had to modernize or become irrelevant—but it still had to preserve its traditions. Toward that end, he sought to establish A&M as a premier research university and do away with the perception that it was merely a military college. Accordingly, he changed the name to Texas A&M University, eliminated compulsory membership in the Corps of Cadets, and approved coeducational enrollment. These changes were met with hostility from the powerful Former Student Association, which opposed all of them. Rudder used his reputation as a war hero and former student to make these alterations and lessen opposition. His tenure at A&M was not without faults, though, highlighted by an ill-conceived feud with the campus newspaper over articles that criticized the university administration. In the end, Rudder transformed Texas A&M and placed it on the road to becoming a major university.

Rudder: From Leader to Legend offers some valuable insights for today’s Air Force reader. The obvious lesson is Rudder’s leadership skills. He led from the front and took pains to interact with his subordinates, whether as a battalion commander or university president. He sought out both privates and students, talking with them individually and understanding their needs. Rudder developed a clear vision for his organization, set a high standard, and worked to meet it. With the recent paradigm shifts such as repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and lifting of the ban on women in combat, the military faces challenges similar to those Rudder encountered as president of Texas A&M. One can take a page from Rudder and approach these issues in a pragmatic fashion, using humane and purposeful leadership.

Capt David Villar, USAFR

Vandenberg AFB, California

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."