Ronald Mathias ’62, made history at Simpson College, but he’s not exactly sure how it happened.
And he wasn’t even a Simpson student at the time.
Mathias was studying for a master’s degree at Indiana University when he received a telephone call from Dr. Joseph Walt, Simpson’s esteemed history professor.
In essence, Walt asked: How would you like to be the first student from Simpson to participate in an exchange program with Oxford University?
“I thought, well, that sounds like a pretty good opportunity, so I made a right turn and went to Oxford,” Mathias said.
According to Walt’s book, “Beneath the Whispering Maples,” the Oxford Exchange Program was an initiative undertaken by William Kerstetter, the college’s president at the time.
Kerstetter had joined 11 other Methodist College presidents on a tour of European universities. Kerstetter later proposed that Simpson send a student to Christ Church at Oxford for a two-year study program. Christ Church, in turn, would send a professor to Simpson to teach the fall semester.
In his book, Walt said Mathias’s “academic accomplishments and rare promise made him the ideal choice for this honor.” An honor student at Simpson, Mathias graduated cum laude and was a member of scholastic and leadership societies.
And that’s how Mathias, an Indianola native who had never traveled overseas, found himself at Oxford in October 1963.
Although never told, Mathias has theories why he was selected. He said Indiana University had recently sent a letter to Simpson, thanking college officials for sending Mathias to Indiana and asking for more students like him.
In addition, because the academic program for Mathias would be the same as that for a Rhodes Scholar, he wonders if Simpson was looking for someone who fit the scholar-athlete profile.
“I wasn’t a great athlete, but I was captain of the Simpson tennis team for four years,” he said.
He remains modest about the honor. “There were plenty of other Simpson students who were as deserving,” he said.
Mathias laughed when asked if he was intimidated by Oxford’s reputation. “No, I don’t think so. It was a lot of hard work. I studied very hard.” He received a bachelor of arts from Oxford in 1965 and a master’s degree four years later.
The exchange program undoubtedly changed the direction of Mathias’s life. Instead of teaching, or working for the U.S. State Department, he spent most of his life working as an international banker in several different countries.
After his stay at Oxford, Mathias described his experiences in an article for the Simpson College Bulletin, writing:
“For me, Oxford is the weekly bout with the tutor, the Bodleian Library, the game of squash, the society meetings, the comedy of Union debates, afternoon tea, quick trips to London, Yorkshire pudding. And yet it is much more than the sum of all these parts.”
Only one other Simpson student participated in the exchange. Mathias said Christ Church ended the program after a commission questioned the fairness of Oxford’s admissions process for students from England.
Mathias and his wife, Carolyn Bakker Mathias ’63, are retired and live in Walnut Creek, Calif. They often attend reunions in Oxford and return to Indianola at least every other year.