Lives They Lived: Fred Rittenhouse
A war hero and beloved educator, Fred Rittenhouse found joy in living his life for others.
When he was 18 years old, Fred left his home in West Virginia to enter the U.S. Army Infantry. A year later, he landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on June 9, 1944, three days after D-Day. During his 2 1/2 years in the Army he was sent all over Europe, including France, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia. He fought in five major battles and received five battle stars and the Bronze Star for heroism.
During his time overseas he sent regular letters to his brother, Robert. The letters didn't go into specifics about the war or exactly what Fred was doing, but they did paint a picture of what it was like for a young man to be engaged in World War II and how the experiences of combat influenced his life.
In a letter to his brother from France in 1945, Fred warned his brother of such influences: "Yes, I've changed a little since you last saw me. I doubt if you ever recognize me when and if you see me again."
Bob Rittenhouse, Fred's son, said that his father remembered everything from the war, even the serial number of his rifle. Those memories, both good and the bad, helped shape his personality. Bob said that Fred mainly told war stories that he remembered fondly, saying that he didn't want to remember the bad things that happened.
"I can't imagine having a memory like he had," Bob said. "He remembered everything so matter-of-factly, like it happened yesterday."
Fred didn't talk much about the war when Bob was a kid, but over time it became clear how the war had affected him. Bob remembers being at his uncle's wake, where everyone was reminiscing and telling stories. When Fred, who was practically raised by his brother, was asked what he thought, he said that when someone dies they should do what was done in the war.
"He said, 'Well, when someone in the war died, we kicked in his foxhole and omitted his name from the conversation,'" said Bob. "He saw so much death in World War II that he didn't want to go to any funerals at all."
Bob said that Fred was extremely proud of his time in the service. On Father's Day of this year, the family presented him with a shadowbox of all of his war medals, including the Bronze Star, which he never knew he had received. On that day, Fred finally told his family the story of when he saved three men from a burning tank, the act of heroism that awarded him the Bronze Star.
"He wouldn't put that shadowbox down, he held onto it as long as he possibly could until it got too heavy," Bob said. "I asked him, 'Well, Dad do you want me to hang it up now?' and he said, 'No, put it on the sofa right next to me. I want to look at it for a while.'"
Fred was not only a war hero, but a committed educator. After the war, Fred graduated from Rochester Junior College in 1950 and then moved on to Hamline University, where he earned a master's degree in history. After teaching history in Blooming Prairie for five years, he attended Winona State University where he earned his second master's degree, this time in English.
He taught in Pine Island for four years, then moved to John Marshall High School in Rochester, where he taught for more than 30 years.
"He liked the fact that he could pass on what he learned and could make the person a better person and see them succeed later in life," Bob said.
Although he was known as a teacher that wouldn't let students take the easy way out when it came to education, he was extremely popular among his students, said Chuck Rittenhouse, another of Fred's sons.
"I don't think there was a student who didn't like him. We'd be at a bar someplace and someone would walk up, hit him on his back and talk to him for a while. I'd be like, 'Dad, who's that?' and it would be one of his past students," Chuck said. "They always stopped and talked to him because they all loved him as a teacher. That's just the kind of guy he was."
Chuck was never one of his father's students, but he recalls several moments growing up when Fred acted as a mentor and teacher. Chuck remembered how his father encouraged him to start reading for leisure when he was in the fourth grade, handing him a copy of "Where the Red Fern Grows."
"He said, 'Read this and let me know if you like it, and I'll always have a book for you.' And I obviously loved it, so he was always giving books to me," Chuck said. "I think I have four books in my car right now."
Bob said that he would best describe his father as a storyteller. Fred was always telling tales of his life, talking about what happened that day, and giving gardening tips.
"He knew everyone. Everywhere you went, at the grocery store, you'd hear, 'Hey, Fred.' He just walked down the street and people would talk to him," said Bob. "If you didn't know him and he sat down next to you, you'd know him by the time you got out of that chair."
Fred took the experiences he had gained throughout his life to educate others, leaving a mark on the minds of those who were fortunate enough to listen.
"He had many many many stories, I couldn't even begin to think of them all. I could tell you Dad stories all day," said Chuck. "He was just the best person I'll ever know, ever. That's my dad."