December 1, 2010

Former Colby president dies of heart attack

Colleague remembers Strider as 'one of the great'

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE — A former Colby College president, who is credited with earning the college a national reputation for academic excellence, died Sunday at the age of 93.

Robert E. L. Strider was on his way to a concert in Boston where he lived when he died of an apparent heart attack. It was a fitting end for a man who was enamored with the arts, said Sally Baker, who worked with him on the college’s Board of Trustees.

President from 1960-79, Strider led the college through tremendous growth. During his tenure, 11 buildings were erected, the endowment tripled in size and the academic offerings expanded to include courses on the environment, women’s studies and African-Americans, according to Morning Sentinel archives.

He also began the January independent study program, in which students can take on special projects or take classes for credit for a month in the winter.

Despite his successes, Strider’s popularity among the student body oscillated throughout his presidency, especially during the Vietnam War.

Like many colleges in the country, Colby became a stage for sit-ins and protests. In 1970, students took over the college’s chapel and demanded that more black students be admitted to the school. The same year, following the killing of student demonstrators at Kent State, Colby students and faculty went on strike.

Later, Strider told students that many of them hadn’t earned their degree because they spent more time protesting than studying.

Though the students at the time didn’t agree with Strider, just nine years later, when he retired, it was the students who chose him as their graduation speaker.

“In terms of looking back over a long period, people will agree he’s one of the great ones,” said Earl Smith, the college’s historian and a dean of students under Strider.

What may have been Strider’s most significant achievement as president came in 1962, when Colby received a $1.8 million grant from the Ford Foundation. Along with the money came the distinction of being one of 18 “centers for academic excellence.” That turned the regionally respected college into an institution with widespread renown.

“It was a breakthrough grant for Colby,” said Baker, the vice president and secretary of the college. “He put us on the national map in a way we hadn’t been before.”

Strider was first hired at Colby as the Dean of Faculty in 1942. Before that, the Shakespearean scholar taught for 10 years in the English department at Connecticut College.

Strider grew up in Wheeling, W. Va., the son of an Episcopal bishop. His mother died at his birth. He was the valedictorian of his high school class at Linsly Institute, and graduated cum laude from Harvard University, from which he later earned a doctorate in English.

While earning his master’s degree, Strider belonged to the Harvard Glee Club. Through singing, he met his wife, Helen Bell, a Radcliffe sophomore and member of the college’s choral singers. They married in 1941 and had four children, and later, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Colby’s Strider Auditorium in Ninetta M. Runnals Union was named for the couple, who promoted the arts both on campus and in Waterville. They started the Waterville Area Community Chorus and were also members.

In addition, Strider played roles in local musical productions and sang with orchestras in Portland and Bangor. In a 1961 review of a Portland Symphony Orchestra concert in the Maine Sunday Telegram, writer Marshall Bryant said the baritone’s solo was one of the “outstanding features” of the performance and described him as having a “fine voice of excellent quality, ample size and uncommonly fine diction.”

Following his retirement, Strider moved to Brookline, Mass., and became a dean of a new arts and sciences college at Wentworth Institute of Technology. After his wife died in 1995, he moved to a nearby retirement community.

Those who knew Strider said his intelligence and humor hadn’t waned as he aged.

Baker said he had a remarkable memory, which made him a great storyteller and a useful source of information about the college.

“I could still ask him a question about a detail of a board matter from 1960 and get a detailed, involved answer,” she said. “He was lovely to talk to.”

Smith said he was a great person to reminisce with, and he had done just that over dinner with Strider in the spring.

“His mind was as sharp as it ever was,” Smith said. “He was one of the most intelligent men you’d ever meet.”

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