Butler bids farewell to Fong family

He’s here for business. He’s armed with giant oval grampa reading glasses, his trusty sidekick and a tall, black Pike Place Starbucks coffee. He’s here to talk politics, policies and infrastructure.

Well, he would be, if students weren’t so awkwardly waiting for the right time to approach the man himself.

For a man with a stature no higher than 5’6”, Butler University President Bobby Fong brings with him a certain presence.

Monday afternoons, when his schedule allows it, Fong sits and waits in the Starbucks on campus for an hour—chitchatting with his executive assistant, Ellen Clark—until someone comes to chitchat with him.

Nothing sets him apart from the rest of the business-suit clad faculty and staff members filling seats, talking, working, on this Monday afternoon. If it weren’t for the six foot tall “President’s Open Forum” sign, he’d be even harder to distinguish.

Seven students pass by without a glance in his direction. One student stops, whispers to a friend, and turns around, hesitant. Five more go by. Finally, after ten minutes, someone approaches.

The small-talk between the student and the president lasts for no more than five minutes. Such is life.

At the end of the hour, he packs his brown leather suitcase, throws away his cup and heads back to his office in Jordan Hall 101.

In August, that Starbucks table won’t be filled by Fong and Clark—he’s off to Penn.

Back in 1968, Fong’s classmates named him “Most Likely to Be President” during his senior year of high school. It made sense to his classmates, but even a month before graduation, his future was somewhat of a mystery to him.

Fong sent in applications to University of California-Berkeley and Stanford—16 and 49 minute drives, respectively, from his hometown of Oakland, Calif.—for “the convenience of the process.” On a whim, and because John Kennedy had attended, Fong applied to Harvard University, not knowing much about the school.

When he was offered a scholarship to pay for an undergraduate career at Harvard, his mother was concerned he wasn’t making the best decision and asked neighbors if the Ivy League school “was any good.”

“They told her if I got the money, maybe I should go, but that it was too bad I was not going to Cal,” Fong told a Butler reporter.

This year, Harvard accepted 6.9 percent of its applicants. UC Berkeley accepted 22 percent.

Upon graduation, Fong had made up his mind. He would stay near home and attend Western Baptist Bible College in his hometown for a year and then go finish out his undergrad studies at Harvard.

His mother was diagnosed with cancer that fall as Fong started at WBBC. In Feb. the next year, she passed away. Fong now says that he feels like it was a sign that he stayed near home instead of moving 3,101 miles to Massachusetts.

The next year, in 1970, Fong started his pre-med studies at Harvard. A difficult time in his sophomore year with Organic Chemistry convinced him to find something else he felt passionate about, so he chose English and literature.

His major switch got him thinking about his future and the possibility of becoming a professor.

When he noticed two of his senior roommates struggling to get letters of recommendation from professors that knew them well, Fong made up his mind once again.

“I wanted to prepare an institution where students would be known by name and face,” Fong said.

He met Suzanne Dunham in 1973, just months before graduation. She was a junior at Wellesley College, an all-girls liberal arts school half an hour west of Harvard.

The college groups often paired up to go on trips and outings because of the proximity.

During a combined bible study trip to Cape Cod, Mass., Fong was chatting up an ex-girlfriend when Suzanne passed by in a pair of short blue jean shorts and blue tee shirt. When Fong remarked on her legs, the ex decided to introduce them.

Fong decided after the first date that he wanted to marry her. So they did two months after Fong’s graduation.

“I always tell my kids and everyone else to not do what I did,” Suzanne said. “You shouldn’t marry right out of college. It’s a big risk. I’m so lucky—we’re so lucky—that it’s been so easy.”

When he graduated, he applied to Stanford with hopes to pursue a career as a lawyer. He also applied to University of California, Los Angeles to pursue teaching.

He was accepted into both schools, but UCLA seemed more practical since Stanford didn’t offer him money.

“He was dirt poor and terrified,” Suzanne said. “He just said, ‘Well, I guess this means that I’m going to be an English professor.’ It was that close of a decision.”

In 1978, when Fong finished with a doctorate in English with a focus on Victorian English, there were just four job openings in the country in his field.

One job opening landed him in a teaching position at Berea College in Berea, Ky., 45 minutes south of Lexington, Ky. The college, which doesn’t charge tuition or fees to its students, was the type of place Fong wanted to stay.

But after nine years teaching Victorian English courses, he got restless.

“He’s a big-picture thinker,” Suzanne said. “He wanted to make more of a difference and he just wasn’t satisfied anymore.”

So he accepted a job serving as dean of arts and humanities at the conservative protestant-affiliated Hope College in Holland, Mich., in 1989.

During a search process to fill a teaching position in the humanities department in 1995, there was one candidate that stood out to Fong and the rest of the committee. Well qualified on and off paper, he was a shoo-in for the job. When Fong was told to not hire the candidate because he was a homosexual, Fong threw in the towel—telling them that he was in no position to hire anyone because he was no longer employed by the college. He packed his things and left.

“Everyone is a person,” Clark said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like or who you love, Bobby doesn’t care. You’re the same to him.”

Fong started the next academic year at Hamilton College in upstate Clinton, N.Y., a “town with more cows than people.” He served as professor of English and dean of the faculty from 1995 until 2001, when he entered his name for consideration for the title of president of Butler.

When the committee unanimously chose Fong out of the six finalists for the position, the decision to accept the job was difficult for the Fong family.

Taking the job in Indianapolis meant moving more than 11 hours from their upstate New York home.

The Fongs’s oldest son, Jonathan, was about to start his senior year of high school and wanted to stay and finish with his classmates.

“It was the most agonizing decision we’ve ever had to make,” Suzanne said.

The Fongs decided to let Jonathan stay with family friends during his last year.

With that decision made, they packed up and moved to the university’s presidential home at 525 Blue Ridge Road.

Fong was inducted as the university’s 20th president on June 1, 2001.

During his ten years at Butler, Fong has brought the university from drowning in deficit to balancing budgets. He’s overseen successful fundraising campaigns, the formation of a college and has seen more than 9,000 students graduate.

“We’re in a place now that not only are we able to balance budgets, but we’re actually making some money,” Fong said. “We kind of take that for granted sometimes.”

In an interview with the Indianapolis Star in 2001, Fong set out a list of goals—a list that included an increased endowment, improved alumni support and increase in donations and fundraising—all to be completed by the time his presidency ended.

Now, in 2011, all of those goals can be checked off.

Fong wrapped up a successful six-year capital campaign, Butler Rising that raised $154 million at the end of the 2008-09 academic year.

“There’s a sense of satisfaction looking back at everything,” Fong said. “It’s a sense of gratitude that I’ve had an opportunity to be a part of this.”

Besides the accomplishments on paper, Fong said he prides himself in the accomplishments of the students, citing the Butler chapter of Ambassadors for Change as one example.

“I was proud because it was just a group of students doing something for other people,” Fong said. “Seeing a group of students doing for others is just something that I can look back on and think, ‘This is just outstanding.’”

The family has seen some struggle since coming to Butler.

Suzanne was diagnosed with cancer in 2007. Time commitments kept Fong away during the most difficult times.

“I don’t think I ever went to a chemo appointment with him by my side,” Suzanne said. “I had to time everything so that I could drive to get what I needed and be home by the time I started to get sick.”

Obligations kept Fong in the offices on Christmas Days and birthdays. They missed part of Jonathan’s high school graduation and have only seen their youngest, Colin, run once in his nationally-ranked Bowdoin College medley track team.

“It’s a job and a half, to put it lightly,” Fong said.

What makes it worth it, Fong said, is watching students change, grow and graduate during their time at Butler.

Fong has never missed a commencement ceremony since he took the presidency. He recently just turned down a position on the board of trustees for a “large state board which doesn’t need to be named,” because it would mean missing this year’s May 14 ceremony.

When Fong leaves the campus for the last time on May 27 to accept a presidency at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Penn., he’ll leave with a sense of satisfaction.

“I’m really just grateful that I’ve been allowed such an opportunity like this,” Fong said. “It’s a sense of gratitude that I’ve had an opportunity to be a part of all of this.”

Fong’s presence has left an impact on colleagues, students, faculty and staff. At the last faculty meeting of the year, Fong received a standing ovation for more than four minutes.

“He’s going to be hard act to follow,” Clark said. “But we’re all excited for what’s to come.”


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