Ungar sees college as familiar setting

Goucher: The Voice of America director says he sees parallels between the college he will head and the nurturing Pennsylvania community in which he grew up.

May 30, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Sanford J. Ungar reached a college presidency by a route that strayed far from the conventional road, the one that begins with a doctorate and leads through department chair, dean and provost.

He has been a dean - of the School of Communication at American University - but he has no doctorate. His entire career has been connected with journalism, not academia. Still, when he becomes president of Goucher College in a month, Ungar says he will be returning to familiar ground, going home to a community like the one that nurtured him.

He sees in Goucher something of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., of the 1950s and 1960s, the family and clan and community that raised him and sent him off to Harvard, to London and Paris, to South Africa and Kenya, to the Washington Post and National Public Radio.

"When I was growing up, if you fell down, there were six people there to pick you up," Ungar says. "I'm not just talking about an extended family, but friends and acquaintances and others.

"It was an extensive support network," he says. "I've never seen anything like it in the developed world."

Ungar says the effects of this are still with him. He has spent the past two years as director of the Voice of America, the government-funded overseas radio operation, heading a work force of more than 1,000, most of them gathered in a corridor-filled government-issue building just southwest of the Capitol.

"It makes you treat the place you are working as a community," he says, speaking in his office that overlooks the Mall. "I think I probably know more people that work in this building than most heads of government agencies. I have some sort of relationship with the people who clean the building.

"I want these relationships to be built on the fact that we respect each other. That's something I feel very strongly about.

"And that's one of the main things I like about Goucher - it's a community, a community that works, that isn't dysfunctional," Ungar says. "People are not just going about their own business, they care about each other."

Ungar thinks a lot these days about the care that nourished his roots, about the circumstances of his birth. He talks unabashedly about a fact that some might bury with the family secrets - he was conceived to replace a brother who died in World War II.

"Some people get uncomfortable when I talk about this," he says. "But it doesn't bother me. It has just always been there, a part of my life."

He is working on a book about the brother he never knew, who nonetheless has been his constant companion.

Calvin, known as "Sonny," died in 1944 at age 20, a navigator on a plane shot down in Italy. Sandy was born 11 months later. His father was 49, his mother 43.

"He was talked about every day," Ungar says of his brother. "There was a big portrait of him in the house. Some people even called me by his name."

This heritage gave Ungar an odd generational outlook for a baby boomer - parents who could have been his grandparents, older sisters who could have been his parents.

But he thinks it gave him something more. "I was born to make people feel better," he says. "I think that stayed with me. That's the way I approach situations."

Ungar's father ran a small grocery store in Kingston, across the river from Wilkes-Barre. Whatever chance he had for financial success was wiped out in the Depression. He died when Ungar was 11, and Ungar's mother went to work as a salesperson.

Ungar was plucked from Kingston High School by the Central Pennsylvania Harvard Club and sent to that university. From there, he went to the London School of Economics on a scholarship sponsored by the Rotary Club. In London, he met a South African who arranged a summer internship on a Cape Town newspaper.

"That changed my life," he says of that summer. "For one, it gave me a lifelong interest in Africa."

He was in Paris working for United Press International in the spring of 1968, where he covered the student uprising that proved to be a prototype for the rest of that decade in the United States. He went to Kenya for a brief visit with his girlfriend Beth - now his wife - who was teaching there and stayed for six months, writing for Newsweek and other publications.

He worked for the Washington Post in the early 1970s, and cobbled together a number of other journalism jobs - writing for the Atlantic Monthly and the Economist, editing Foreign Policy.

Some broadcasting work for NPR led to his being named co-host of "All Things Considered" in 1980. He is probably best known for the two years he spent in that job.

In 1986, he became dean of the School of Communications at American University, a job he held until 1999, when he moved to the VOA.

Along the way, he has turned out a constant stream of books and articles straddling the worlds of journalism and academia. From his year in Paris, he co-authored a book on the events of 1968.

His work at the Post led to books on the Pentagon Papers and the FBI. His longtime interest in Africa produced a book on that continent.

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