Dr. Ray R. Ehrensberger, 92, founder and chancellor of University College

February 17, 1997|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

Dr. Ray R. Ehrensberger, who carried the University of Maryland to airmen and ensigns and sergeants from Greenland to Vietnam, died Friday at his home in College Park of an apparent heart attack. He was 92.

Dr. Ehrensberger was a founder of Maryland's University College (UMUC) -- later called the "University of the World" -- at a time when some fellow professors looked down on the idea of teaching nontraditional, part-time students. But he won support for offering college courses to military personnel from the university's president and board of regents.

A tall man with a shock of white hair and an imposing presence, Dr. Ehrensberger was known affectionately as "Big Daddy." As chairman of the speech department at College Park, he could speak the language of the military as well as the language of academia.

He was the first dean of University College and logged more than 5,000 hours of air travel in 27 years of supervising the program. Reader's Digest magazine dubbed him "The Flying Dean" in a 1965 article.

Dr. Ehrensberger retired in 1975, having supervised a program that grew to 160 military installations in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. A report this year showed University College enrolls approximately 70,000 students a year.

Dr. Julian S. Jones III, vice president for institutional advancement at UMUC, recalled, "There was a lot of scorn for people like Ray Ehrensberger in the '40s and '50s, because the time of part-time students hadn't arrived."

Dr. Ehrensberger was the first director of the European division and "set the basic direction of that program and the foundations, and they haven't changed in 50 years," Dr. Jones said.

A legendary raconteur, Dr. Ehrensberger also inspired stories among the people who worked with him. For example, in 1970, staff officers convinced Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, to revoke the military passes that gave University College's instructors access to bases, posts and supplies at military exchanges. The argument was that the civilians interfered with military operations.

Dr. Ehrensberger flew in on one of his frequent visits to his far-flung campuses and learned of the problem. He called his friend, sat down with the general over cigars and liquor, and explained that University College couldn't function without the passes. They were restored.

Another favorite story: In the early 1950s, Dr. Ehrensberger and an Air Force acquaintance were on a military transport plane over the Mediterranean, when smoke started pouring into the cabin and the crew prepared to ditch the plane. Dr. Ehrensberger looked at their two briefcases and said, "I've got $1,000 in mine." The friend said he had a bottle of whiskey in his briefcase.

4 "I'll trade you even," Dr. Ehrensberger replied.

But the trade wasn't consummated, because the crew brought the fire under control, the plane landed safely, and the dean went on to meet with his faculty.

A 1970 visit to Vietnam was particularly poignant for his son, Ray Ehrensberger Jr., who was serving in the Air Force. "That was quite a surprise, to get a call from your commander saying, 'Your father will be here in a few hours, and you're to meet him [at Da Nang].' I'll never forget that," he said.

Dr. Ehrensberger cared about people, said Elinor "Ellie" Seidel, his assistant for 13 years. "I don't think he ever hurt anyone. If he found someone on the staff who didn't work out, he'd try to recycle them somewhere else," she said.

Mrs. Seidel said she had "the best job in the world," because of Dr. Ehrensberger's leadership and sense of humor.

They kept in touch after retirement, she said, and a packet of newspaper clippings about her beloved Terrapin basketball team arrived at her Florida winter home the day Dr. Ehrensberger died. He had sent them to help her keep in touch with the team.

University College President T. Benjamin Massey called Dr. Ehrensberger a "colorful leader, a rare talent" and "an articulate spokesman for the adult student."

Dr. Ehrensberger was born Dec. 7, 1904, in Indianapolis. He earned a bachelor's degree in speech from Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Ind., in 1929, a master's degree in history from Butler University, Indianapolis, in 1930, and a Ph.D. from Syracuse University in 1937. He also did graduate work at Indiana University and the University of Wisconsin.

He taught at Doane College in Crete, Neb., and headed the speech department at Franklin College in Franklin, Ind., before coming to Maryland as an associate professor in 1936. He became department head in 1939.

Dr. Ehrensberger was instrumental in setting up speech classes for military personnel at the Pentagon in 1947.

Dr. Ehrensberger took a leave of absence to direct the U.S. embassy's binational center in Ankara, Turkey, in 1951 and 1952, then returned to Maryland to become the first dean of University College. He became University College's first chancellor in 1970.

Dr. Ehrensberger received the military's highest awards for civilians. He received the Air Force Exceptional Service Award in 1967, the Army Decoration for Distinguished Civilian Service in 1972 and a Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service in 1975.

In 1969, he received Maryland's Distinguished Citizen Award for his contributions to higher education. He was a member of seven honorary and social fraternities, and of the College Park Rotary Club.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife of 57 years, the former Helen L. Myers; and a daughter, Betty Khateeb of Falls Church, Va.

The family plans a memorial service. Donations may be made to: the Ray Ehrensberger Scholarship Fund, University of Maryland University College, University Boulevard at Adelphi Road, College Park, 20742-1607.

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Pub Date: 2/17/97

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