Betty White’s ΦBK Connection

Ludden and White photo

By Audra Nemirow

While reminiscing about her late husband Allen Ludden, Betty White told People, “He was the most genuine man I’ve ever known. I first fell in love with his enthusiasm. He was interested in everything.”

Much of the recent publicity around the life of Ludden comes from his marriage to White, who passed away in December. They were married from 1963 until Ludden’s death from cancer in 1981. Ludden’s memory remained with White for the rest of her life; she never considered marrying anyone else, according to E! Online. But Ludden’s legacy is much more than his love story with a beloved star. He was a highly successful television personality with Phi Beta Kappa honors. 

Ludden, who received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from the University of Texas, was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 1940. The chapter at the University of Texas was organized in 1904, as the first (Alpha) chapter in the state of Texas. Ludden’s time at the University of Texas was marked with academic excellence, but his love of learning went beyond the classroom, as he participated in many theatrical productions.

After Ludden’s graduation, his liberal arts education would always play an essential role in his life and career, starting with his first job out of college: teaching English at Austin High School. His official teaching career did not last long. When the United States entered World War II, he enlisted in the Army. This did not mean that Ludden’s educational journey was halted, however. Rather, this experience acted as a kind of stepping stone for Ludden’s future success. His “previous acting and directing experience from college plays landed him an assignment with the Army’s Central Pacific Base Command,” according to the book Television Game Show Hosts: Biographies of 32 Stars

During the war, he was able to write and direct stage and radio plays to entertain the GI’s. The high school English teacher from Texas was suddenly working with the Hollywood actors who had joined the military. A connection he made with Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans led to a job after the war. He became personal manager for Evans, helping him organize his theatrical productions and lecture tours, and sometimes filling in for Evans.

Ludden was so impressive as a lecturer that he was soon offered his own radio show, Mind Your Manners, “a show where teenagers discussed current events and tips on how to properly behave,” according to Television Game Show Hosts. The show won an honorable mention Peabody award and soon moved to national syndication at NBC. Ludden would go on to an illustrious career in game show hosting, including the College Bowl and, most famously, Password, which ran between 1961 and 1975.

Password, is a “game based on word association,” according to Ludden’s New York Times obituary. Two teams, “consisting of one celebrity and one member of the studio audience, played against each other. One member of each team was given the secret word and then, either by synonym or wild suggestion, tried to cue his partner into guessing the word.” This is the show that brought him to White (they met when she appeared on the first season), and this is also the show that cemented his status as something special in the world of game show hosts. The New York Times called him a “classy, highbrow intellectual that also possessed a great sense of humor.”

Ludden’s success, at least early on, perhaps owes something to the “greater interest in education that the launching of the Soviet Sputnik had generated,” according to the New York Times. After all, the shows Ludden hosted challenged its participants, allowing them to showcase their minds. Password notably asked that its players demonstrate wit and intelligence. No matter the reason behind Ludden’s popularity, it meant that the public could benefit from his unbounded curiousity about the world and perhaps become inspired to pursue their own intellectual interests. Ludden lives on as the embodiment of the Phi Beta Kappa motto: “Love of learning is the guide of life.”

Audra Nemirow is a senior at Hofstra University, where she is majoring in film studies and production. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa there in May 2021. Hofstra University is home to the Omega of New York chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.