With Peabody bequest, ex-student gives back

$2 million fund to help disenfranchised gay, lesbian musicians

April 12, 2010|By Tim Smith | tim.smith@baltsun.com

Tristan Rhodes spent less than three years studying piano and conducting at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University during the late 1960s, but the experience left such a positive mark on him that he has prepared a $2 million bequest to the conservatory. Other life experiences influenced the way the New York-born Rhodes has directed the money to be used.

The bequest, among the largest future commitments made to Peabody, will create the Tristan W. Rhodes Scholarship Fund "for the benefit of students who are gay or lesbian and have been disenfranchised by their families and therefore have lost support for education expenses," the agreement reads.

"I can't think of a better use of my money than to save a kid from bigotry," Rhodes, 62, said during a visit to the conservatory last week. "It's hard enough growing up. You don't need that."

Although Rhodes did not encounter a severe backlash at home or at Peabody because of his sexual orientation, it was a different story with a close friend of his.

"She was a fellow New Yorker," he said. "She could have had a brilliant literary career, but when she came out to her parents, they kicked her out. They were a very conservative Jewish family. She was dealing drugs to survive and she ended up a hairdresser. Her parents just threw her away. I don't want that to happen to anyone with a gift, particularly a gift in my field."

College-level scholarships specifically for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students have entered the academic world in recent years, most of them administered by national organizations, rather than the schools themselves. At least one project, the nearly decade-old National LGBT Scholarship Fund of the Los Angeles-based Point Foundation, has a similar goal to that of the Rhodes fund: It is offered to "meritorious students who are marginalized due to sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression."

The Michael Heinl Scholarship, established by an alumnus in 2003, is offered to a student at Hopkins' Krieger School of Arts and Sciences "who supports the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance" at the university.

Hannah Pressley, director of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Peabody, praised Rhodes' generosity and "unique support."

"I do know several people who have been disowned by their families because of their sexual orientation - none, fortunately, from Peabody," said Pressley, 23, a cello major working on her master's degree. "And I know some students who continue to act heterosexual because they fear they will lose the support of their families. That happens quite frequently."

The bequest agreement will also allow scholarships to be awarded to gay or lesbian students who have not been disowned by their families, but are in financial need.

"This very generous gift is all about lifting barriers," said Peabody director Jeffrey Sharkey. "We want the finest students, whatever their background, to be welcome at Peabody, and we want to be able to help them with what can be a very expensive education."

The Rhodes bequest is one of three future commitments of $2 million that Peabody has recently received, along with "two in the $1 million range," said Richard Selden, director of marketing and communications at the conservatory.

Rhodes, who earned a degree at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., has been involved with music for 40 years as a pianist, organist and choral conductor.

His resume includes stints as director of the National Boychoir of America in Washington and the New England Vocal Ensemble in Boston. He has taught at St. Mary's College of Maryland and the American Boychoir School in Princeton. He has also been a real estate investor.

"I haven't had a significant career," Rhodes says, "but I've been lucky to make a living doing what I love. And lucky to have been able to sock away some money. I wanted to give this money to Peabody because of the way I was treated here. No one cared if you were yellow or pink or chartreuse; straight, gay or confused. All they cared about was talent."

Rhodes left Peabody in 1969 before finishing a degree.

"During my second year here, my brother was killed in Vietnam," he says, "My world fell apart, and I stopped coming to classes. But my piano teacher, Walter Hautzig, was wonderful to me. He was so supportive. I couldn't imagine a better place for a student, gay or straight."

Despite advances in gay rights over the years, Rhodes expects his Peabody bequest to maintain its relevance when it goes into effect after his death.

"There will always be bigotry and hatred as long as humanity exists," he said. "I don't see the school ever lacking for someone who will need [the scholarship]. But I hope I'm wrong."

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