Former UMBC president Michael K. Hooker, 53, dies

Academic `visionary' had run four colleges

June 30, 1999|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Michael Kenneth Hooker, the 53-year-old academic visionary who recast the University of Maryland, Baltimore County as a recognized research institution, died yesterday of lymph system cancer at UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he had earlier headed the University of Massachusetts, UMBC and Bennington College.

"He found a strong institution that needed to believe in itself," said UMBC president Freeman A. Hrabowski. "We worked very hard to get the light shining on this university. He saw the university's potential, the strength of the faculty."

Mr. Hrabowski said his predecessor, while drawing UMBC out of the academic shadows, also established ties with the business community.

"If this state is in a high-tech boom, you have to credit Mike Hooker," said J. Stanley Heuisler, former Columbus Center director. "He loved big ideas and was an incredibly curious man who focused his ideas into action."

Mr. Hooker, the philosopher son of a Virginia coal miner, was appointed president of UMBC in 1986. When he left in 1992, the school was attracting more students with better academic credentials from a more diverse geographic area.

"He did a lot to make UMBC the exciting place it is today," said University System of Maryland Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg. "He always had ideas. He brought extra pizazz and excitement to any gathering."

When Mr. Hooker came to Baltimore in 1975 as an assistant philosophy professor at the Johns Hopkins University, it was not his first experience with the city. In the 1960s he had worked in Southwest Baltimore as a member of Volunteers in Service to America. As a young man, he hitchhiked and rode freight trains across the country. For summer jobs, he worked in the oil fields of Texas and New Mexico. He rode bulls in rodeos.

Within a few years of arriving at the Homewood campus, he was named dean of undergraduate and graduate studies.

"Michael was extremely gifted, with an excellent mind," said Hopkins president emeritus Steven Muller. "He had a most attractive appearance and it became apparent he was also very ambitious."

In 1982, at age 36, he was drafted to become the eighth president of Bennington College, a liberal arts school in Vermont.

Described as having a magnetic personality, Mr. Hooker also was interested in personal growth. He studied yoga, became a vegetarian and made studies of the spiritual forces in his life.

"He was a man absolutely committed to being the best human being he could be," said Jessica Dibb, founder of the nonprofit Inspiration Community in Owings Mills, where Mr. Hooker studied for several years. "In spite of his brilliance and precociousness, he was at heart a humble person."

Added Heuisler: "He was a true visionary -- and a person who wasn't ashamed of that -- and he wasn't afraid of the sometimes difficult but diffident response the establishment gives you."

In 1992, a group of African-American students at the University of Massachusetts -- whose five campuses he headed until 1995 -- complained that as a white man, he couldn't sympathize with them.

"Maybe not, but no one was born poorer than I," he replied.

Born in Richlands, Va., in the southwestern section of the state, he was the son of a coal miner and the grandson of a farmer. He was the first member of his family to attend college. When he was a child, his parents would drive him to the local school and park the car in front of the main academic building. There they would tell their child to aspire to become a college president.

In 1969, he graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and enrolled in the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he earned master's and doctoral degrees in philosophy in 1972 and 1973. He taught philosophy at Harvard University before coming to Baltimore.

"I'm a student of contemporary culture," he told The Christian Science Monitor in 1986. "Not only do I like shopping malls, but I love to pick up fundamentalist preachers on the radio. It tells me so much about society and about people -- what they're thinking."

In a 1983 Evening Sun interview, he listed his ambitions: to become the president of a major university and "to make a mark there"; to run a major corporation and "in my more mature stages, to enter public service."

A memorial service will be conducted at 11 a.m. Friday at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

His marriage to the former Anna Hostettler ended in divorce in 1993. He is survived by his wife, the former Carmen DeFrates of Chapel Hill; a daughter, Alexandra Hooker of Baltimore; two step-daughters, Jennifer and Cyndi Buell of Charlotte, N.C., and his mother, Christine Hooker of Roanoke, Va.

Pub Date: 6/30/99

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