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Banner image featuring assorted photos of Harry and Emilia Rathbun.

About Harry and Emilia Rathbun

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Rathbun Fund for Exploring What Leads to a Meaningful Life

In November 2006, the Foundation for Global Community, led by Richard Rathbun AB ’66, established established The Harry and Emilia Rathbun Fund for Exploring What Leads to a Meaningful Life at Stanford University.  This Fund honors Harry and Emilia Rathbun and their “meaning of life” legacy of helping students experience personal reflection, thoughtful discussion, and a deeper exploration of life’s purpose.

The Story of Harry and Emilia Rathbun

Harry and his family moved from Iowa into the Dakota Territory in the late 1880s and settled in Mitchell, South Dakota, where his father became an insurance agent, grocery store owner, and assistant postmaster. Harry was valedictorian of his Mitchell High School graduating class and urged his classmates "to seek to bring out the best that is in us; seek to become worthy citizens not only of our own beloved country, but of the world." Spoken as a teenager, this commitment to pursue one's highest potential would guide Harry Rathbun’s life.

Harry enrolled in Stanford in 1912 and earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in electrical engineering. After graduating, he became vice president of the Colin B. Kennedy Radio Company, an early radio design and manufacturing company. He worked for the Federal Telegraph Company and during the years of World War I assisted the U.S. Navy on the development of high-powered, radio-telegraph transmitters. After serving as vice president of the successful Colin B. Kennedy Radio Company for many years, Harry realized he enjoyed business more than engineering.  As he was unschooled in the aspects of the law he had encountered while in business, Harry returned to Stanford to study law and earned his law degree in 1929.

After a year as an acting professor of law, Harry was asked to take the position permanently, and remained a professor at Stanford for more than 45 years. He taught Business Law in the business school, and an undergraduate course, Introduction to Law, in the law school. He also taught for many years in Stanford's Executive Development program, and in the Sloan Program, lecturing in business law and business ethics.

Many Stanford alumni would say that experiences with Harry and his wife, Emilia, deeply influenced their lives in positive ways. The Rathbuns were very much partners in the endeavor of examining what it takes to live a meaningful life and exploring deep and personal questions about moral courage and the pursuit of peace and happiness. Harry, brought the intellectual rigor, and Emilia, a native of Mexico, contributed a more colorful Latin, intuitive approach. They worked closely together, were involved with students and academics, and eventually engaged the broader Bay Area community. Their two children both graduated from Stanford (Juana Rathbun Mueller, AB ’54, AM ’55, and Richard Rathbun AB ’66).  Richard, former Chairman of the Board for the Foundation for Global Community, believes Harry was a conservative intellectual, interested in examining the "empirical evidence," while Emilia, on the other hand, was always pushing toward the outer boundaries of what they were exploring together.

Countless Stanford students passed through the living room in the "professorville" home of Harry and Emilia Rathbun, including John F. Kennedy (during his one year at Stanford), Dianne (Goldman) Feinstein AB ’55, Sandra Day O’Connor AB ’50, LLB ’52, Graham Greene, Bill Wilson (the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous), Njoroge Mungai AB ’52, MD ’57 (who later became a minister in the Government of Kenya), David Packard AB ’34, PhD ’39, Bill Hewlett AB ’34, PhD ‘39, and Russell and Sigurd Varian. There was talk of history and of the future, of nuclear weapons, wars, and always, the desired condition of peace and nonviolence.

There were discussions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Taoism, and other similar ideas and subjects. People also considered the work of Teilhard de Chardin, Abraham Maslow, Carl Jung, and many others. Discussions were infused with excitement as people explored different frontiers of thinking and expressed new ideas about topics that went far beyond the comforts of Palo Alto and Stanford University.

Sandra Day O’Connor, one of many students touched by Harry said, "It was Harry Rathbun who helped shape my life and pointed me in the direction of my profession. He taught undergraduates, and he also held seminars at his home to discuss personal ethics and goals, and how each of us can make a difference in this complex world of ours. He was brilliant and he was inspiring. I decided to attend law school because he demonstrated so clearly that the law can be an instrument of social good. I surely would have chosen a different path but for Professor Rathbun."

As a faculty member, Harry Rathbun was quite popular with students. It seemed they could really relate to Harry, perhaps through his strong interdisciplinary background, which was also complemented by practical professional experience. “Prof,” as Stanford students fondly called him, deeply influenced the lives of many students. Regularly, students would talk with Harry about their future. So many students would come to him filled with angst before Commencement that Harry decided to put aside his final course lecture in law and talk instead about meaning, happiness, and values that might lead to a fulfilling life. The lecture provoked an enthusiastic response from the students, and he decided to do the same the following year. Over time the word spread, and he soon delivered his annual "last lecture" to a standing-room-only crowd. The lecture was eventually moved to Memorial Auditorium, at that time the only facility on campus that could accommodate the number of students wanting to attend.

Harry grew to become legendary for his “meaningful life presence” and his “last lecture.” The students of Stanford named Professor Rathbun "Great Teacher" in 1950 as part of a survey of outstanding teachers conducted by LIFE magazine.

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