A New Leader Brings His Own Style and a 'Breath Of Fresh Air'
Undergraduate Council Chair Robert C. Rhew
It's 9 a.m. in Winthrop F-11. Someone is doing pushups in the common room.
Robert C. Rhew '92, the newly-elected chair of the Undergraduate Council, is partaking in a morning exercise ritual. He is not wearing a shirt. In fact, all he is wearing is a pair of Mickey Mouse boxers decorated with red hearts.
Don't be fooled: this carefree exterior belies a potentially dangerous man.
"He's the worst morning person," says Rhew's roommate, Kabir Misra '92. "He's crabby, angry--until he does his pushups. Then he wakes up."
A Pariah No Longer
Those who know Rhew say that when he is fully awake, he shows few signs of his early morning crankiness.
"He's probably more outgoing than I am. He's sometimes insufferably cheerful," says Rhew's sister Kathleen K. Rhew '91, a psychology concentrator in Kirkland House.
One of a rooming group of five, Rhew has certainly learned to appreciate having others around, ever since he endured long hours in a Canaday E single room his first year here. His sister had enjoyed a similar room so much the year before, Rhew says, that her proctor, Colin L. Leitch, assumed that Rhew would be happy to keep the room in the family.
That assumption proved wrong. Very wrong. "I felt like a pariah from the rest of the world," Rhew says.
But the lonely Rhew made the best of an unhappy situation, not willing to easily give up the familiar privileges accorded his more fortunate neighbors. Using Oreo cookies as bait, Rhew lured his entrymates to squeeze into his closet-like room for several 3 a.m. study breaks.
"He was a good sport about it," Leitch says. "Rob was a great spirit in the entryway."
Now a prefect in Canaday A, Rhew still hasn't abandoned his talent for planning first-year activities.
"I would probably ask Rob above anyone else if I had a problem related to adjusting to undergraduate life," says prefectee Jonathan R. Mawdsley '94.
"He's a high-energy guy," Leitch says. "I've been very impressed by how serious he is about student concerns."
Rhew's roommates say they agree with that assessment. "He's always a pillar of strength," Misra says. "If you have problems, you can go to Rob."
Dazed But Unfazed
Although Rhew serves as a source of emotional strength for others, he regrets having to neglect his physical activity since coming to Harvard.
Rhew ran track and played tennis in high school. He says he misses team sports, although he participates in intramurals whenever he can. To the amazement of his roommates, Rhew went out for the Winthrop tackle football team for the first time this year.
"It's incredible that he went out to play," says roommate Kevin R. Kozak '92, who clearly remembers Rhew's virgin tackle. "He got flattened. He got up dazed."
But Rhew wasn't deterred. Kozak says that when friends asked if Rhew was okay, the inexperienced football player got up and requested that the ball be passed to him again.
"I got creamed a couple of times," Rhew admits.
Rhew tries to make up for the absence of structured sports in his life in other ways.
"He bought a hockey stick for some reason," says roommate Michael Willis '92. "He doesn't play hockey. He just takes the stick and knocks a metal can against the wall and wakes up our neighbors."
Clearly, Rhew likes to do things his own way, as his overall style of organization demonstrates. For example, Rhew keeps his clothes organized in three different drawers: "clean," "medium-clean," and "not so-clean."
"He's untidy, but he's organized," Misra says. "For disorganized people, he's a great boon."
"His messes wouldn't make sense to everyone else, but he knows exactly where everything is," Kathy Rhew explains.
She says her brother's unique style drove their mother crazy when they were growing up in suburban Detroit. "To her, his room looked like had his pile of dirty clothes and his pile of neat clothes."
'Bonkers About the Environment'
Rhew's current room is designed to express his longstanding love of nature and concern for the environment.
Rhew's single bedroom in the suite is decorated with nature posters, and the books lying around have titles such as Ecotopia, In The Rainforest, Weather, and How to S--- In The Woods.
Under a sign which reads "Rob Rhew's corner," one corner of the Winthrop F-11 common room is set aside for a collection of cans and bottles to be recycled. But there are no nature posters hanging in the common room. Rob Rhew is still working on his roommates.
"We used to have the biggest fight," Misra says. "I used to keep the tap on while brushing my teeth, and he used to keep walking in and turning it off."
"It's quite a job to get my room to recycle," Rhew says.
But Misra admits that Rhew's convictions have altered his attitude. "He's changed a lot of me," Misra says. "I used to think there were more pressing problems in the world than environmental problems."
In his high school, Rhew helped institute an environmental action club, and his environmental work at Harvard began soon after he arrived on campus. As a first-year student, Rhew helped orchestrate his entryway's participation in a bottle recycling project.
"He got us to join several environmental groups," Leitch says. "I got magazines and what-not from environmental groups for several years after he left."
Rhew remained active in environmental affairs after leaving the Yard. Rhew is currently a member of the Phillips Brooks House Association's Environmental Action Committee, where his projects include teaching elementary school students about ecology and helping to organize a recycling campaign in Winthrop House.
Rhew does not hide his disdain for cities. The Earth and Planetary Sciences concentrator almost didn't make it to Harvard's urban campus.
"He wanted to go to Stanford," Kathy Rhew says. "He thought he was more of a Stanford kind of guy. He really doesn't like the city. He didn't want to come to Cambridge--it's a dirty, smoggy, polluted city."
Rhew admits that it was a difficult decision to pack his bags for an urban campus, but, he says, "I knew I'd be happy at any college that I went to. College is college, and I do what I want to do."
Still, Rhew says the most fun he has had at Harvard occurred far away from the city, on the First-Year Outdoor Program (FOP).
And one of the best experiences of his life, Rhew says, likewise took place far away from the bustle of cars and subways. The summer before his sophomore year in high school, Rhew made a seven-hour climb atop a mountain in Yellowstone Park, where he camped alone for a night.
"I finally felt alive," Rhew recalls. "Staying in Cambridge dulls my senses, makes me confused sometimes. Back there, everything was so clear, so gorgeous, so real."
Rhew says he plans to turn his interest in the environment into a career, possibly by being a professor of atmospheric sciences. "I guess this is kind of unusual. Being the UC chair, I could go on to politics or to law school or business school or something like that," Rhew says.
Rhew's roommates believe that such an ambition on Rhew's part is sincere.
"He's very idealistic. A lot of people at Harvard can get pretty cynical," Willis says. "He's not like that at all."
"He's just bonkers about the environment," Misra adds.
Council as Turtle
Rhew's passion for nature has even found its way into his political rhetoric in the Undergraduate Council.
In his speech for council chair earlier this semester, Rhew recounted a tale of a turtle climbing up a set of stairs. The turtle, he said, got tired and couldn't go any further. "Don't let the UC be that stubborn old turtle," Rhew told the council. "It's time to take a breath of fresh air."
That speech is also representative of what relatives and friends call Rhew's "unique" sense of humor.
"He has a strange sense of humor sometimes," muses Kathy Rhew. "He's really witty, but sometimes his jokes don't make sense to anyone except for him."
Rhew's sense of humor, Leitch says, "can be very dry, it's spontaneous, it's unpredictable. I hope it comes through in the UC."
The challenges of a new term and a brand-new executive board may not leave Rhew with much to laugh about, but the former services committee chair is used to working hard for the council.
"When I was a freshman, I never thought of running for chair," he says. "I spent a lot of time on making the council work, trying to promote its image in the undergraduate body, so I assumed roles and responsibilities that other people weren't going to take."
This semester will be Rhew's sixth on the council, and his third on the executive board.
"I used to laugh at him for spending so much time at UC," says Misra, who is the council's newly-elected finance chair.
Rhew encouraged Misra himself to run for the council last year.
"I ran because I thought that if he spent so much time on the UC, it's got to be worthwhile. If I hadn't talked to him about running, I never would have run. He convinced me. He's the catalyst, he's the swing factor."
And this term, Rhew suggested that his roommate try for a position on the executive board.
"He convinced me to run for finance chair," Misra says. "I didn't want to run until the night before [the election]."
Rhew says he ran for chair because he felt the council needed someone to work during the summer, and because he felt he had the leadership abilities to improve the council's faltering image and attitude.
Says Rhew, "The UC is something I put so much time into, I would hate to see it go down the drain."