Waiting to Shine: The Rudi Scheidt Story
Rudi Scheidt, one of Memphis’s most prominent citizens, is an immigrant. He was born in 1927 in Germany. While growing up he was bullied for one reason—he is Jewish. When he was eight years old, other boys working as a gang tried to break his arm. He ran and only got away because his mother’s hairdresser picked him up, put him on the back of his scooter and took him home.
Rudi’s father applied for a visa to America, a process that took two years. The family managed to escape Germany in 1936, before the full-on brutality of the Nazis who were already in power with Hitler as chancellor.
The Scheidt family first came through Ellis Island and then settled in San Francisco. Rudi learned English and did extremely well in school. He joined the ROTC and became an officer. Finishing high school at 16 and college at UC Berkeley when he was 18, he went to work for an oil company in New York City. There he met Honey Hohenberg, from Memphis, and they fell in love.
After moving to Denver for a couple years, Rudi and Honey came to Memphis, and Rudi began working for the Hohenberg Cotton Company.
In the 1970s, after President Nixon opened up trade with China, Hohenberg developed strong business ties that helped expand the Memphis cotton markets. Through the years, Rudi became deeply committed and tied to Memphis.
At the University of Memphis, the Music School is now named for Rudi because of his great philanthropy. He and Honey are Memphis icons. Think what we would we have missed if the Scheidt family had not been allowed to immigrate in 1936! Very few Jews escaped the death camps in subsequent years—partly because American immigration became even more strict toward Jews fleeing Europe.
I write about Rudi partly because his story is so remarkable, and I think many people are inspired by his journey. I also believe there are so many other talented immigrants in today’s world who are waiting to shine the way Rudi has. They just need a chance to follow their passion.
Rudi and Honey Scheidt are honored as Outstanding Philanthropists at the Crystal Awards Luncheon at the University of Memphis on National Philanthropy Day, Nov. 15, 2013. Image credit: Temple Israel
In my work at Church Health, I routinely see patients who are working in minimum wage jobs who had been professors, lawyers, and engineers in their home countries. They have come from Ethiopia, Honduras, Venezuela, Yemen, and Mexico and often have witnessed unspeakable things. They fled to America in search of safety and with a hope to start again. I never hear complaints, only desires to work, create, and thrive in this new home.
I have no real appreciation for what it would be like to flee my own country, but I imagine it would be horrible. I do know that my faith calls on me to welcome the stranger in our midst. I think we in Memphis are glad that Rudi came to America and found his home in Memphis. I hope we will be as welcoming to the next generation of immigrants who will help us live into being a place of kindness and the City of Good Abode.