Sullivan County Historical Society History Maker Award 1999
Walter A. Rhulen (1931~1998)
Early in this century, Max Rhulen found himself at age four in the strange world of New York City. He had been born in Russia, but his father Harry decided to move the family to America to escape the poverty and prejudice of Russia and the threat of having his sons drafted into the Czarist army.
His mother wanted her family to assimilate as quickly as possible and Max and his three brothers responded to her encouragement and worked hard to find their niche in this new world.
The family did not like New York City and about 1911 decided to move to Woodridge where they lived on the farm of Harry’s sister-in-law, a Mrs. Golub. While attending Monticello High School, Max met Eve Margolin, the daughter of Lewis and Anna Margolin, who owned the Kiamesha Lodge and Country Club which had evolved from a small farm and was located at the present site of the Hebrew Day School. After graduating, they both continued their education: Max attended New York Law and Eve was one of two women graduates of St. John Law School’s first graduation in 1928.
They married, but the Depression eventually persuaded them to return with their two children, Joan and Walter, to Sullivan County where both of their families still lived. In 1932 Max borrowed $500 and purchased a small insurance agency which he called the Rhulen Insurance Agency. They also had a third child, Peter, who was born in Monticello. Walter’s sister Joan remembers their home in the 1930’s and 1940’s as a happy and eventful place alive with the challenge of developing a new business and the excitement of finally moving into their own home on Park Avenue in Monticello. The children were also learning about responsibility to the community. Walter’s grandfather Lewis Margolin, had broken ground for the new Monticello Hospital and his father Max served as its President for sixteen years.
Walter graduated from Monticello High School and the University of Connecticut and also attended the Hartford School of Insurance. After serving in the army for two years during the Korean War, he returned to the county to work in the family business. In 1959 Judith Schmid, brought up in Switzerland, came to this country to work as a ski instructor at the Concord Resort Hotel. Her first evening in the county she had dinner at the Old Homestead Restaurant and by a strange turn of fate, the first person in Sullivan County she shook hands with was Walter. Four months later they were married and in due time had four children: Suzanne, Harry, Erik and Anthony. Their marriage was an exceptionally happy and mutually supportive one.
By 1959 Walter had formed the Electronic Tabulating Corporation and the following year was named President of the Rhulen Agency. The Agency steadily grew as did the family’s confidence to face greater challenges. In 1977 the family created the Frontier Insurance Company which found new markets by targeting groups with special insurance needs such as summer camps, race horses, karate classes, etc. which the larger companies avoided. Expansion continued steadily and today Frontier has some 1,500 employees: about 650 in Rock Hill and the remainder in various offices across the country. Walter’s ability was widely appreciated. He was a director of the American Insurance Association, Vice-President of the Insurance Federation of New York and was awarded the Professional Liability Underwriting Society’s 1994 PLUS 1 Award. During the years when the county’s traditional resort industry was shrinking, Frontier Insurance was a bright light in the county and the decision of Walter and the family to keep the headquarters of Frontier in the county was certainly a major contribution both to the economic life of the county and to the county’s morale.
In reflecting on Walter’s special qualities as a business leader, his son Harry who succeeded him as the CEO recalls that his father had a “truly entrepreneurial feel,” that he stayed with things he understood clearly and that he had the capacity to see what was going to happen before it happened. Where this “feel” came from is, of course a mystery. On a practical level, his advice to his children was to stick with what they knew. Because he stayed with what he knew he had a “tremendous air of credibility and confidence” and was quite comfortable talking with employees on a peer-level and as partners in helping to attain the goals of the company.
Walter was more than a businessman; he felt a strong commitment to the county and following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather he was concerned about the county medical facilities. As Dr. Gavis remembers, it was a wintry night in 1964 when a house call became the occasion for a discussion between Dr. Gavis, Bernard Levine, a trustee of Maimonides Hospital in Monticello and Walter. From that conversation the conviction grew that in order to provide the best possible service to the community the smaller hospitals in the county had to join forces and create one hospital large enough to serve the entire county. A great amount of work ensued and Walter accepted the chairmanship of the fund-raising committee. Several years were required to raise two million dollars in pledges and a $26 million dollar loan, but by 1977 the Hospital opened its doors. Looking back, those persons involved in the hospital’s early years recall with respect and gratitude the leadership and commitment which Walter brought to those difficult years of the hospital’s formation.
He provided similar leadership to the Sullivan County Community College Foundation. By the early 1980’s it was clear that the college like all institutions of higher learning, had to create an endowment fund which would provide annual income for scholarships and special programs. Harold Gold, a College trustee, approached Walter who agreed to serve as the first chairman of Campaign to raise significant funds for the Foundation. In part because of the respect in which Walter was held and the confidence that anything he chaired would succeed, scores of community leaders accepted the challenge to go out into the county and solicit support for the Foundation. The first campaign in the 1980’s was the Half-Million dollar Challenge which met its goal. In the 1990’s Walter chaired a second effort, the Partnership for a Brighter Future, with a goal of $750,000. Today, the Endowment has assets of $1,700,000, and this year gave approximately $100,000 in scholarship aid to some one hundred students as well as contributing to student activities and new instructional technologies.
Several years later, Walter was called upon to play a different role in county life. In part, because of financial strains resulting from the decline of the tourist industry, there were increasing expressions of dissatisfaction with the traditional arrangement in the county which designated the fifteen town Supervisors as the County Board of Supervisors. Many believed that the arrangement which went back to the earliest years of the county was no longer adequate and that a person elected town Supervisor on the basis of local issues was not the person to manage the complex matters of county government. Walter was elected Chairman of a thirty member Charter Commission Panel to investigate possible changes in county government. The task of the Commission was difficult: research into the various types of county government was required and there were strong differences of opinion both on the panel and in the community. Eugene Blabey, a member of the Commission, recalls that Walter’s leadership was “strong but not oppressive” and that he played a “very skilled diplomatic role” in helping the Commission gradually reach a consensus. Once the Commission had completed its work, Walter, though very busy with Frontier matters, was generous in giving many evenings to meetings with community groups to explain the purpose and background of the proposed changes. Finally, the proposed charter was approved at the polls by a substantial majority of the voters and today the town supervisors manage town business while an elected nine-member County legislature handles the business of the county.
Walter’s death at age 66 was a great loss to the county. It was unexpected, since he had placed great emphasis on physical fitness and good health habits. His memorial service was held in the Field House of the Sullivan County Community College to accommodate the many people who gathered to hear tributes from Walter’s friends and colleagues. His legacy survives him: in the creation of a viable and attractive business in the county, in the employment of hundreds of county residents, in his efforts to improve a variety of human services in the county and in his own immediate family which has been brought up to assume responsibility both for the business and for the community. As an expression of respect, this year the Society honors this remarkable man with its 1999 History Maker Award.