Frederick William Rathjen, historian and educator, was born on January 25, 1929, in Clarendon, Texas. He was the only child of Frederick William and Mary (McGee) Rathjen. A German immigrant, the elder Rathjen worked as a shoemaker. A Texas native, Mary Rathjen was born in San Marcos. In 1940 the Rathjen family relocated to Corpus Christi. In the late 1940s Fred enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin. As a student, Rathjen was active in the University Singers, the Corpus Christi Club, and Gamma Delta (a social organization made up of Lutheran students). Majoring in government, he received his B.A. degree in 1950.
With the beginning of America’s involvement in the Korean War in 1950, Rathjen postponed any plans for graduate school. He enlisted in the United States Navy and served from 1950 to 1954. While on active duty, he married Elizabeth (Betty) Schweikert on June 28, 1953. The couple had two children, Eric Jonathan and Kurt Norman. With the end of his military commitment, Rathjen returned to Texas.
Rathjen reenrolled at the University of Texas at Austin in 1954 to pursue graduate degrees in history. As a graduate student, he was influenced by Horace Bailey Carroll and Walter Prescott Webb. Carroll served as both a mentor and friend to Rathjen. From Carroll, he learned the importance of local, state, and regional history for serious academic study. Rathjen took Webb’s courses based on his books: The Great Plains (1931) and The Great Frontier (1952). Rathjen wrote “Four Score Years of Ranching on the Edwards Plateau: The History of Schleicher County, Texas” for his master’s thesis and was awarded his M.A. in history in 1956.
Rathjen accepted a teaching position as an instructor of government and history at West Texas State College (now West Texas A&M University) in Canyon in 1956 and remained there until his retirement in 1990. At West Texas, Rathjen earned a reputation from students as being “challenging but fair.” In Canyon, he continued to research and write Texas history. Early in his career, he authored two articles in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly: “The Texas State House: A Study of the Building of the Texas Capitol Based on the Reports of the Capitol Building Commissioners” in 1957, and “The Physiography of the Texas Panhandle” in 1961. College officials also allowed Rathjen the time to pursue his Ph.D. at the University of Texas. Both Carroll and Webb had planted the seeds in Rathjen for additional research on the Texas Panhandle. After Carroll’s death, Joe Frantz took over as Rathjen’s dissertation director. Rathjen finished his dissertation, “The Texas Panhandle Frontier,” and received his Ph.D. in 1970. The University of Texas Press published a revised version of Rathjen’s graduate study as The Texas Panhandle Frontier in 1973. In 1986 Rathjen and Byron Price published The Golden Spread: An Illustrated History of Amarillo and the Texas Panhandle.
After more than thirty years of service, Rathjen (who became head of the history department) retired from West Texas State University in 1990 and was named professor emeritus in 1992. In retirement, he remained active. In 1996 Rathjen served a year as the president of the West Texas Historical Association (WTHA). Rathjen, a longtime member of the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), was an advisory editor and contributor to The New Handbook of Texas in the 1990s, and he served on the TSHA board from 2001 to 2005. From 1991 to 2000, he served as the editor of The Panhandle Plains Historical Review. Texas Tech University Press published a revised version of The Texas Panhandle Frontier in 1998. For this study, the WTHA awarded Rathjen the Rupert N. Richardson Award as the best book on West Texas history for 2000. In 2008 Rathjen and Peter Petersen, a history professor and colleague at West Texas, co-authored A Century of God’s Grace: A History of Lutheranism in the Texas Panhandle 1908–2008. The Texas State Historical Association named Rathjen a Fellow in 2007, and the West Texas Historical Association made him a Fellow in 2009. Away from academics, Rathjen found enjoyment in hiking, fishing, hunting, and the time he spent at his family ranch near Cotulla. He also loved classical music and opera and even occasionally participated in performances with Amarillo Opera.
At the age of eighty, Frederick Rathjen died in Amarillo on July 19, 2009. At the time of his death, he was survived by his wife Betty, and two sons, Eric and Kurt. A Lutheran, Rathjen was buried at St. Paul Lutheran Cemetery near Canyon.