7/31/2008 Jason Klinger

Keith Spalding: A Liberal Arts Lion

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Keith Spalding was a man who knew how to get things done. 

During a 20-year tenure that started in 1963, the 11th president of Franklin & Marshall College doubled the student body, tripled the size of the campus and quadrupled the endowment. He ushered in academic programs in the arts, American studies and the history and philosophy of science.

Those accomplishments alone make Spalding one of the College’s most celebrated leaders. But Spalding, who died May 28 at the age of 87, was successful in many intangible ways.

“Keith Spalding was a transformational figure. His optimism, his hard work and his vision set a remarkably high standard for higher education leadership. He was a champion of the liberal arts and a fervent believer  in the value of liberal arts colleges to the nation and the world,” said President John Fry. “During his presidency at Franklin & Marshall, he showed what it takes for a small regional college to grow into a national leader. Today, his example both inspires and instructs us. It is my great privilege to serve the institution that Keith Spalding helped to build in a community that he loved.”

Spalding reinvigorated the College’s mission to deliver a high-quality liberal arts education. He believed Franklin & Marshall’s job was to create free thinkers who would be prepared for anything life might throw at them after they left the confines of campus.

“You’re going to be able to read The New York Times and understand it better,” he told the College’s student newspaper, The College Reporter, in 1983. “You’re going to take some joys at looking at a painting that you wouldn’t have. You’re going to understand what the president is saying when he comes on television to make a speech. You can make a judgment that you couldn’t have made if you didn’t know some of the things that happened in the past. You’re going to be able to analyze problems that are new to you in a way that you wouldn’t have been able to.”

The one-time Marine Corps fighter-bomber pilot brought stability to a campus in tumult. In 1962 President Frederick DeWolf Bolman Jr. fell out of favor with the Board of Trustees and resigned after six years. The Board immediately elected Anthony Roberts Appel ’35. The faculty, enraged by the hasty selection, protested so vehemently that Appel resigned just six days after his appointment. Dean G. Wayne Glick temporarily filled the role until Spalding was hired in February 1963.

Before coming to F&M, Spalding was an assistant to President Milton Eisenhower at Penn State University and Johns Hopkins University. He was secretary of the university at Johns Hopkins when F&M tapped him as its next leader. Students quickly embraced him and, in time, the faculty warmed to him even though he was not an educator.

“It should be noted how well and how wisely he conducted himself and his presidency during those difficult and confused years generally known as the ‘Late Sixties,’” said Robert Barnett, emeritus professor of classics. “On one side he had quite a few faculty members—myself included—agitating for radical curricular and administrative reforms and, I’m sure, a number of members of the Board expecting and urging him to take stern measures against the ‘radicals.’ Somehow, he was able to create an atmosphere that, with time, allowed collegiality to return and the College to continue its drive toward national recognition.”

Spalding advocated for and presided over coeducation. He announced his intention to open the College to women in 1968 and the Board gave him its full support. In 1969 the College admitted its first female students. Also in 1969 the College ended its longstanding affiliation with the United Church of Christ.

President Emeritus Richard Kneedler ’65, who led the College from 1988 through 2002, served under Spalding in a variety of roles. “He was a serious man, a very bright man, a private man,” Kneedler said. “But he almost always had a twinkle in his eye.”

He also had a wry sense of humor. Norman Taylor, Charles A. Dana Emeritus Professor of Economics, recalls someone once asking Spalding, “How does one train to become a college president?”

“In my case, my experience in World War II as a dive bomber helped,” Spalding coolly replied.

That coolness would be put to the test in the 1970s. Facing the specter of a sizable budget deficit, Spalding assembled more than 100 trustees, alumni, faculty members, students and administrators for a three-day retreat in the Pocono Mountains. He laid out the grim facts, then challenged the group to help him reverse  the financial erosion.

“That retreat changed the culture of the College,” Kneedler said. It created a sense of teamwork and instilled in everyone a sense of responsibility for the College’s financial health. “He was a centrally important figure in the all-time history of this College.”

Beyond his leadership and management skills, Spalding had a knack for building relationships. He was instrumental in recruiting trustees such as Stanley J. Dudrick, M.D., ’57, P ’88.

“I could not believe that I possibly had anything of value that I might contribute to the Board, but he persisted in his quest even after his retirement,” Dudrick recalled. “I will ever treasure his kindness, confidence, vision and perseverance, but above all, his most generous and gracious gift to me, which was the opportunity to serve my alma mater in this most gratifying manner for the past 23 years. He truly enriched my life, as he did for so many others. I shall miss him, but will never forget him.”

Prior to his career in academic administration, Spalding served as assistant news editor of the New York Herald Tribune and later as editor of the Tribune’s news sales service. In 1978 a writer for the College Reporter asked Spalding why he gave up journalism for a career in higher education.

“You get tired of just telling about what happens and instead you want to make those things happen,” he said. “One excellent way to make those things happen is through education.”

A native of Kansas, Spalding graduated from the University of Kansas with a B.A. in psychology in 1942. He completed graduate work at the University of Wichita’s English department and at the University of Iowa’s programs in journalism and political science, in addition to receiving numerous honorary degrees.

Spalding was married to the former Dorothy (Dot) Lint, who died in 1984 and with whom he had five children. He is survived by four of his children and five grand-children. A memorial service will be held Oct. 2 at Franklin & Marshall. 
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