By Casey Hilder
Celebrating the storied lives and unyielding support of one of Memphis' most prominent philanthropic couples
The 152 days between the death of Rudi Scheidt on April 12 and Honey Scheidt on Sept. 11 of 2019 was likely the longest period the couple had been apart in more than 60 years of marriage.
Now, together again, the couple is remembered by many for their transformational giving to the University of Memphis, with a persisting appreciation for arts and culture on a grand scale.
“It was such an honor to meet both Rudi and Honey from the very moment I came to the University of Memphis in spring of 2017,” said Dr. Anne Hogan, dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts. “I have been so deeply impressed by their indefatigable support of the arts here at the University of Memphis and in the community at large.”
Rudi Egon Scheidt was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1925. He immigrated to San Francisco at the age of 11, fleeing the rising tides of fascism and anti- Semitism in pre-WWII Central Europe. He met his wife, Helen “Honey” Hohenberg, in New York City while working for Shell Oil Company. The pair married in 1954 and moved to Memphis soon after, which led to Rudi taking a job with Honey’s family-owned Hohenberg Bros. Cotton Company, where he would eventually work his way to the position of CEO and chairman.
Since then, Rudi and Honey Scheidt have donated millions of dollars to various causes and have become well-known advocates of all things artistic through a strong presence on the board of directors for organizations such as Opera Memphis and the Memphis Music Commission.
At the University of Memphis, few have made an impact on the quality of art education quite like Rudi Scheidt, who elevated the music program in a big way by providing financial resuscitation for the opera program and transforming the then-Department of Music into the eponymous Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music with a $3 million gift bestowed in 2000.
“The School of Music could not have asked for better friends than Rudi and Honey Scheidt,” says Dr. Kevin Sanders, director of the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music. “Their unbounded enthusiasm for the mission of the school and their support of our programs over the years empowered students to pursue their dreams. Their legacy will continue to live on.”
For students, faculty and staff of the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music, the impact the Scheidt family has made over the years is immeasurable.
“Every student who passes through our program is affected by the tremendous generosity of the Scheidt Family,” said Dr. Randal Rushing, professor of voice and former director of the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music.
Rushing has been with the UofM since 1990 and credits the contributions of the Scheidt family for helping the School of Music minimize job losses and direct impact during the 2008 financial crisis.
“As a faculty member, associate director and director of the School of Music, I had the opportunity to see just how much Rudi and his family have given over the years and what an impact that’s made,” he said.
In addition, Rushing acknowledged that financial gifts from the Scheidt family attracted higher-quality undergraduate and graduate students to the opera program. This allowed for an expanded breadth of repertoire, as well as helping facilitate things like extra scholarships and funding for instruments, student travel to various auditions and countless young artist programs, which in turn greatly enhanced the reputation of the school.
“There are experiences and things that our students have participated in that simply would not have been possible without the help of the Scheidt family,” Rushing said. “Their contributions have affected hundreds and thousands of lives, both directly and indirectly.”
One such life is that of former student Marcus King (MA ’10, Vocal Performance). King entered the UofM as a solo classical music major and met Rudi Scheidt a few years into the program at a Metropolitan Opera National Council audition held on campus.
“He would attend those competition shows often, and that’s when he first heard me sing,” King said. “He was very impressed and very supportive. So much so that he would personally offer scholarship money for me to study abroad in 2008, which really changed my life.”
The newly discovered baritone performer would soon find himself on a month-long trip to Italy, which was his first of many trips outside the United States as a professional opera singer.
“I had never been out of the country at that point in my life,” King said. “Today, I’ve spent plenty of time out of the country, mostly as a performer. But it all started with that first trip.”
King has since made a career of it, returning to Italy to sing, spending a summer performing in Austria, participating in two operas in the UK, touring Japan for a month and even appearing at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall as a soloist. He now works as an adjunct professor of voice at Rhodes College.
“I’m very fortunate that the people at the University of Memphis, and the Scheidts in particular, saw that potential in me and allowed me to pursue my passion in a way I never thought possible,” he said. “Even after graduation, he was a very supportive individual and I loved seeing him and Honey around town at various operas and donor events. He was an advocate for me, and I will be forever grateful for that.”
Ben Smith, opera stage director with the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music, recalls that his conversations with Rudi would always circle back to his consistent belief that the School of Music had enormous talent in its halls.
“I came to the University of Memphis in 2015 knowing that opera was a big part of the mission here at the School of Music and that Rudi’s support was a big component of that,” he said. “He truly believed in the quality of our students and faculty. One of his biggest personal missions was getting the word out about our top-notch performances and repertoire.”
The Scheidts worked to achieve this by attending every UofM concert they possibly could.
“Not only were they financial supporters, but they really showed up for everything from opening night of opera season to lunchtime jazz concerts on a Wednesday afternoon,” Smith said.
The couple could be found at most shows sitting about a third of the way back from the stage, on the right side.
“That was always Rudi and Honey’s landing place in Harris Hall,” Rushing said. “It’s a great place to sit. If you’re watching a concert pianist, you can see the piano player’s fingers working the keyboard.”
The Scheidts’ beloved opera performances, which have since become a hallmark of the University of Memphis’ music program, are poised to become greater than ever with the construction of the Scheidt Family Music Center, a brand-new, state-of-the-art performance hall under construction on the north end of campus. The building is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2022.
“For the first time ever, we’ll be moving into a proper theater with the appropriate fly systems for changes of scenery,” Smith said. “This will be a proper theater with purposeful design that allows for a real-life opera feel. It’s a total game-changer that will allow us to produce shows and explore new repertoires at a greater level than we have previously.”
Ned Canty, general director of Opera Memphis, remembers Rudi and Honey for their jovial, upbeat personalities, emblematic of what he sees as “two people who lived life right.”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever met two people who loved singers and singing quite as much as the two of them,” he said. “There was just this warmth and support for the art that has always been inspiring to me. If I can reach his age and look back on life and be able to say I’ve done 10 percent as much for the city I lived in as Rudi and Honey Scheidt, I would call that a life well-lived.”