7/31/2008 Libby Sternberg

A Gift of Meadow, Grove, and Stream

Carolyn and Robert Wohlsen '50 enrich the College's sustainability efforts

The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy or too impatient, wrote Anne Morrow Lindbergh in 1955. Patience, patience, patience is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith.

Robert S. Wohlsen '50 might add appreciation of solitude to Lindbergh's list of lessons from the sea. The contentment of being in the middle of nowhere while on a ship still touches the retired chairman of the family-owned Wohlsen Construction Company when he thinks back on his years in the Navy at the end of World War II. The vast splendor of slate gray sea and silk blue sky enriched his love of one of nature's great gifts — a rejuvenating effect on mind and soul and a sense of perspective on humanity's place in the universe.

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Wohlsen never forgot those lessons. He mixed with them the values passed down from his parents and community, eventually putting thoughts into action by preserving a piece of natural habitat in his own back yard of Lancaster County. It is land, rather than sea, that he ultimately offered to the greater community, letting them share a piece of the contentment he had experienced throughout his life in natural environments.

In 1969 the Wohlsen family launched the Millport Conservancy, a 100-acre wildlife refuge in Warwick Township that includes a nature trail, the 19th-century Millport Roller Mill, auxiliary buildings and surrounding farmland. Over the years, it has showcased local and regional artists and hosted programs designed to draw attention to local wildlife and habitat preservation.

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Now Wohlsen and his wife, Carolyn, have passed this priceless gift to Franklin & Marshall College along with a $6.6 million contribution, the second-largest private donation in the College's history.

The Wohlsens' total donation is multifaceted, reflecting their commitment to land preservation and its complementary studies: a gift in excess of $4 million to support the work of the new Carolyn W. and Robert S. Wohlsen Center for Sustainable Environment and to increase the Millport Conservancy Endowment; an estimated $2.6 million in assets, dedicated to the Millport Conservancy; and the Conservancy itself, to which no specific dollar amount is attached.

On a spring day shortly after the Wohlsens' gift was announced, the conservancy was a lush landscape of indigenous trees, flowing brook and warbling birds. A mown path led wanderers through marshy forests, while the babbling Lititz Run beckoned neophyte fly fishers to try their skills. One could experience a sense of solitude in its musky green growth, even though homes and farms were but a short walk away.

The gift of the conservancy is beyond measure. Yet Wohlsen himself speaks of it as if he were the recipient and the College the benefactor.

"This ensures that our vision of strongly promoting ecology will be preserved," Wohlsen said. "Generation upon generation can continue to appreciate the Conservancy."

The Conservancy, he said, was fortunate to have a vibrant volunteer force helping with its many outreach programs, but it needed more leaders to manage its resources. The College will be able to provide those resources as well as a wider program on environmental and land-preservation issues.

This sentiment was eloquently expressed when the donation was announced on May 1. At that gathering, Carol B. de Wet, professor of earth and environment, pointed out that the Conservancy was "a gift of place for us all — a place to measure folds in Cambrian limestone, to reflect on a ferns unfurling, a place to track bird migrations, or write poetry, or learn from Amish neighbors."

She went on to quote Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight, To me did seem Apparelled in celestial light

The quotation is apt. The Wohlsens' preservation of the conservancy ensures that meadow, grove, and stream will remain as magical and inspiring as they were when Bob Wohlsen was young.

The Path to F&M

Wohlsen was raised on F&M's campus. His family lived at 452 Race Ave., now the Provost's House, donated to the College by his father, Albert. Robert eventually attended Franklin & Marshall Academy and later earned a bachelor's degree from the College, graduating in 1950.

Before he earned that degree, his life was interrupted by war. Fifteen at the time Pearl Harbor was attacked, he still remembers what he was doing on that life-changing Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941.

"I loved to drive," he said, "so I would sit in my father's car and pretend I was driving. I'd sit there and turn the radio on. That's how I heard the news — on the car radio. I went in and told my parents. I told a friend and he told his father. He was quite upset because he had sons of military age."

Wohlsen, however, was still too young. He went to Valley Forge Military School after attending the Franklin & Marshall Academy, landing in the Navy in 1943. He served on a destroyer escort and troop transports, eventually making about 10 crossings of the Atlantic with the happy task of bringing GIs home from the war.

Wohlsen loved the experience of being on the wide and powerful sea and enjoyed not being able to see land, an ironic twist for this young man whose past and future were so rooted in the good earth.

Even more than a half century later, a wistfulness colored his voice when recalling the simple pleasure of sitting on the ship rails and talking in the middle of nowhere, not able to see anything.

This gave him a sense of perspective on a man's place in the whole of the natural world, and an appreciation for the replenishing aspect of nature. Those ideas and values stayed with him when he returned home to the family's construction business.

Although he had worked for the family business during summers, his career path started in earnest after the war. First, he had some unfinished business. Because of the war, Wohlsen had yet to earn his high school diploma.

"My first weekend home, I celebrated with my friends, who were out of the service already. I was still sleeping at noon the next day when my dad came home for a big meal. He yelled up to me, telling me there was a program at McCaskey High School where you could get your high school diploma," he said.

Wohlsen was able to finish his senior year of high school at McCaskey in about eight weeks' time. McCaskey was also the site of a G.I College, a program designed to allow former servicemen the opportunity to take college courses from professors at nearby F&M and other postsecondary institutions.

After a freshman year at the McCaskey site, Wohlsen considered an industrial arts course at Millersville University but landed back at F&M. He may have learned construction in his family's business, but he credits his liberal arts education and business courses for grounding him in the basics and opening his eyes to life's opportunities.

Somewhere around this time, he met and started dating Carolyn, who had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Nursing School in the Cadet Corps program. Just like Wohlsen, she would have been involved in the Invasion of Japan had the war not ended in 1945. They married and began a family while he was still in college.

The year he graduated from F&M, Wohlsen entered the family business, working at construction sites, as he had done when he was 15. This was part of the family's training regimen. Work in the field was essential to understanding the scope of the company's business.

Not surprisingly, for this man who enjoyed the wide, empty spaces of the ocean, Wohlsen remembers his pre- and post-war construction work in the field with fondness. He liked being outdoors.

"My first job was a house on School Lane. I had to grade and rake out the land," he said. "During the summers, I was on our one truck a lot."

But his days in the open were numbered. The needs of the company brought him into the office, where he kept payroll for seven years. He disliked the job so much he eventually delivered an ultimatum: Either you let me build or I quit.

They let him build. Or, at least, start estimating jobs. Now he looks back on the payroll and estimating experiences as invaluable when he eventually took the reins of the four-generation business.

A Family Legacy

Wohlsen Construction was founded in 1890 by Robert's grandfather, a carpenter, and is now a leading provider of construction services throughout the mid-Atlantic states. So many buildings in the area were built by Wohlsen that his 20-something granddaughter gets tired of hearing "that's a Wohlsen project," he said.

He has thought about the dichotomy between his life's work of building on the land and his desire to preserve natural spaces. Wohlsen Construction has done a good share of remodeling, and those projects came to his mind when asked about Wohlsen jobs of which he's most proud.

"I lean toward restoration and keeping the old," he said.

Many of Franklin & Marshall's buildings have been built or renovated by the Wohlsen company, including Appel Infirmary, Philadelphia Writers House, Schnader Residence Hall, Steinman College Center, Wohlsen Admission House, Klehr Center for Jewish Life (now under construction) and Central Services Building.

It is in that latter building that the new Carolyn W. and Robert S. Wohlsen Center for the Sustainable Environment will find its home. This crucial component of the Wohlsens' gift will ensure that the Conservancy is more than just a museum of wildlife. It will deepen the College's three environmental majors while influencing the larger community by coordinating efforts with the Floyd Institute for Public Policy and other College programs. It will become a hub of environmental discussion, study and activity.

Slated for renovation and full operation by fall 2009, the Center also will house the Wohlsen Construction Company archives, a treasure trove of old blueprints and other materials (including Herman Wohlsen's 1892 ledger) now stored at the conservancy.

President John Fry envisions the Center as the "go-to" spot for organizations and researchers beyond the College interested in land preservation, habitat restoration, watershed protection and similar activities. The first step will be sending faculty to similar centers to research best practices, doing an internal inventory of current programs and activities, and then refining a vision for the Center and implementing it.

When Robert Wohlsen looked out over the endless ocean more than 50 years ago, he might not have foreseen the exact shape of something like the Wohlsen Center or the Millport Conservancy. But his mind and heart were open to these "gifts from the sea," which he now has lovingly bestowed on the community that nurtured him.
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