Von Rittmann '95 towers above all obstacles

by Rebecca Siegel | 6/11/95 5:00am

James von Rittmann '95 will be celebrating Commencement along with the rest of his classmates, but with a different perspective on graduation -- von Rittmann is a 34-year-old businessman who enrolled at the College at the age of 29.

"I am such a non-traditional student -- I've had some really phenomenal life experiences," he said. Dartmouth "had the vision enough to allow me to be creative in my own way."

Von Rittmann attended Mount San Antonio College for a year after high school, but then dropped out because of academic problems.

"I was always working twice as hard for half the grade," he said.

He then went to work for Ralph Lauren. There he helped to create a new division for the company called "Wardrobes," so that movie companies could see clothes being worn on camera to help them decide on future wardrobe purchases for motion pictures.

As the division grew, von Rittmann said his lack of a college degree was inhibiting his career opportunities.

So he left Ralph Lauren and began a business chartering a boat that once belonged to Al Capone.

"I really got to use my skills I learned at Polo, but it was my own ideas and concepts," he said. "I knew that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life at that point. I felt that I had an instinct that most don't."

But a lawsuit forced von Rittmann to give up the boat.

Von Rittmann then entered the real estate industry, after a friend asked him to take on a project.

"I decided to do [the project] because I wanted to honor my commitment with my investor and I wanted the challenge to see if I could do it -- and I did," he said.

Following his stint in real estate, von Rittmann said he began to evaluate his professional experience.

"I felt that I had some really great feathers under my cap," he said. "But what was it going to get me?"

Von Rittmann then made the decision to go back to college as an older, more serious student.

He applied to a few schools, of which Dartmouth was one, but was not accepted by any.

Von Rittmann's first visit to the College from Wellesley, Mass. took six-and-a-half hours because of a huge blizzard.

In the middle of the trip his car malfunctioned, but he was still able to find a ride up to Hanover.

By the time he reached McNutt Hall for his interview, his hands and feet were so blue that the admissions officer conducted the interview at Dick's House where von Rittmann was checked for frostbite.

In August 1990, following rejections from various institutions, von Rittmann met with admissions officers from Babson College who accepted him on the spot, and he enrolled as a full-time student.

Von Rittmann attended Babson for a year, but said he did not do well academically.

Once again, von Rittmann applied to Dartmouth and was rejected. Brian Meegan, an admissions officer at the College at that time advised him not to give up, according to von Rittmann.

Von Rittmann was so intent on being accepted to Dartmouth that he tried to find a way to transfer to Dartmouth just for a term to prove he could compete here academically.

After Wellesley College rejected his proposal to attend Dartmouth through its college transfer program, Babson worked out an agreement with Vassar College and von Rittmann was given the chance to study at Dartmouth for a term.

One week after coming to Dartmouth as a transfer student through Vassar, von Rittmann was diagnosed with severe dyslexia.

He said he was relieved to finally discover the root of his academic difficulties.

"I had to throw away all the learning methods I was raised with," he said. "But I told my story to professors, and they let me work with my disability to make this work."

Von Rittmann, an economics major, said he was intent on coming to Dartmouth because of the "Dartmouth experience" that he said includes a diversity of student interests and a "phenomenal" faculty.

"The people here are as intelligent as any other of the Ivies," he said. "But they were of sound mind as well as sound body. The kids here seemed very balanced but at the same time, very focused."

"There was a bond -- there was a magic here that could never be quantified," he said. "I just knew I was going to do whatever it took to get up here."

The "Dartmouth experience" was not all easy going for a 29-year-old first year-student, according to von Rittmann.

"I was not your normal applicant," he said. "I was 29 and I really didn't feel that I fit in here, but that was okay."

Von Rittmann lived off campus during his first year at Dartmouth and said he was not fully integrated into campus life.

He said students often asked him if he was a professor.

"Dartmouth students just wanted to know your story, and they didn't really care about age," he said. "But I did -- I wanted to let the students do their own thing."

After realizing he wanted more from the "Dartmouth experience," von Rittmann moved on-campus and began what turned out to be a huge commitment to campus activities and College service.

He started working at the alumni fund, and after just one term was running the entire project.

Von Rittmann said he met with administrators in the Alumni office, and they were flexible to his new ideas for the program.

"The Alumni Fund had faith in me," he said.

Another project that von Rittmann took on with vigor was the integration of other non-traditional College students into Dartmouth life.

He said he felt as if he had "slipped through the cracks" without ever having a formal orientation to the College or freshman trip, as the traditional first-year students had.

Von Rittmann said he started the first organization for non-traditional Dartmouth students in the spring of 1993, so that they could "tap into the Dartmouth experience."

Von Rittmann said he noted the differences between traditional and non-traditional students, and began lobbying the administration for non-traditional on-campus student housing.

"We have the tendency to be in bed by 11," he said. "We have different kind of needs. We don't vomit in sinks and think it's cool, and Pearl Jam at 1 a.m. is just not our speed."

"We often call ourselves 'The Geritol Club,' " he said.

Another area in which von Rittmann has left his mark at the College was his complete revamping of the bell system in Baker Tower following a lightning strike this past summer.

Following the storm, the entire system was down, and there were no backups of the usual music, according to von Rittmann.

While heading the project that upgraded the system, von Rittmann said he was struck by the limited nature of the songs that were available, noting that the array was not representative of all students at the College.

"I didn't want it to be a politically correct tower -- I just wanted it to be sensitive," he said.

So Von Rittmann established a BlitzMail "request line" under the name of "Bells" so students could request which songs were programmed to play in between classes.

Now, thanks to Von Rittmann, the Bell Tower plays Madonna's "Like a Virgin," "Rule Britannia" and the theme song from "The Smurfs" cartoon.

For the three months it took to get the Baker Tower bells fully functional von Rittmann rang them manually twice daily.

He can now run the bells from the comfort of his own room by using the latest in computer programming technology.

Von Rittmann is currently waiting to hear from various business schools and is unsure of where he will be next fall.

This summer, Von Rittmann will be on-campus taking a few more classes to complete the requirements for his undergraduate degree from the College.

"Dartmouth has been very, very good to me," he said. "I will remember this place very fondly forever."

Von Rittmann describes his academic performance at the College as "stellar."

"I am very proud of myself," he said. "I wouldn't have wanted to do it anywhere else. There isn't a school in the world which can beat Dartmouth in terms of resources."

"And I've made the most phenomenal friends that I know I'll have for the rest of my life," he added.

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