In Memoriam

Robert F. Etheridge
Vice President Emeritus for Student Affairs

That day in January, 1978, the snow was falling heavily, driven horizontally by gusts up to 70 mph. Before the storm ended, snow would cover everything to well over two feet, with drifts more than head-high. It was the great Ohio blizzard, when the temperature fell to more than 20° below zero, and not only were roads closed, but Miami shut down for the first time in most memories. Two young women, student teaching somewhere beyond Hamilton, called the University in distress. They were isolated, and how would they get back to Oxford? The call was forwarded to Robert Etheridge, Vice President for Student Affairs. Bob and Veda had just bought a Chevy Blazer, 4-wheel drive, high off the road, and Bob, confident of his vehicle and his skill and always loving a challenge, set out with Dean of Men Bill Hollingsworth on a successful rescue mission.

If you knew Bob solely through his professional work, his accomplishments in academia, the honors and recognition he received for that work, you might not know the side of the man that sent him confidently off through a blizzard. As a boy, he worked long, hard hours on the farm, lifting and throwing hay bales through steamy, exhausting Illinois days. He was a star athlete in high school, a basketball player and named to the all-state football team. He was recruited by the University of Illinois to play football—a plan aborted when he was called to military duty and entered the Navy. Accepted for flight training at age 17, he became a pilot, the start of a life-long love of the Navy and commitment to the NROTC. These experiences forged a warranted and easy self-confidence in his ability to meet whatever challenge arose.

Bob had been valedictorian of his high school class, and when the war ended, he chose college rather than continuing in the Navy. Benefiting from the G.I. Bill, he enrolled at Southern Illinois University, and it wasn’t long before he was joined there by the young woman he always thought of, forever referred to, as “my bride.” Veda Hallam, his hometown sweetheart, had been enrolled at Murray State, but transferred to Southern Illinois, and on Christmas Day 1947 they were married. When he spoke at his retirement reception, he said the one person he must name was “my sweetheart, my bride, my lifelong companion, Veda. She has been my center and my mainstay through the lean years of graduate school, the exciting days of raising our family, the trials and travails of a career. . . . During the happy days of our retirement, I hope to find the way to tell her how much I owe her and how much I love her.” To know him even for a short time was to see the depth of that love.

Bob was an honor student at Southern and earned two bachelor’s degrees while playing guard on the Saluki football team. Not surprisingly, he impressed those at Southern with whom he studied and worked, and was encouraged by mentors to pursue a master’s degree and to make a career in student affairs. The field engaged him, offering opportunities to put his abilities, knowledge, vision, and compassion to work in ways that would benefit students. Following eight years at Southern, he, Veda, and their sons, Rob and Mike, went to Michigan State, where he earned his doctorate.

And then in 1959 he came to Miami, initially as Dean of Men. The following July he became the first Dean of Students, then Executive Dean of Students, and in 1967 Vice President for Student Affairs and Professor of Education.

The office was to mail a package of something—what it was, now forgotten—to 30 or so people in Oxford. “That’s going to cost a ridiculous amount to mail,” said Bob. “I could deliver it for less on my bike—and faster, too.” “No you couldn’t. Not at a VP’s salary.” “Indeed, I can—and will.” And did, in notably less time, even, than he’d predicted—and, yes, for less than the postage would have been.

His was a heavy and old and awful bicycle (one speed, maybe?). But he was the “Green Dean,” committed to a green campus with no paths if green fences could prevent them, and wouldn’t use a car when a bike would do. He’d ride it from home to Roudebush and leave it in the rack. Who would want to steal something like that? But somebody did. And lo and behold, a week or so later the bike was spotted, the culprit caught, and a very abashed young man was facing the Vice President whose bike he’d stolen. No heavy punishment, but admonishment, a modicum of fear induced, now go and do better. And the young man did do better.

Robert H. Bishop, Miami’s first president, said to the graduating class of 1840, “Young men may be, and they often are, rash and headstrong, and of course, wrong. But give them a reasonable time to consider the matter and use the proper means, and they will come to the right position a great deal sooner than the most of old men will.” More than a century later, Robert F. Etheridge wrote to a friend back home in Illinois, “In working with students for these past twenty years, I find that if anything they are becoming more responsible, more informed, even more committed to the society of which they want to be members than they ever were when I was an undergraduate. I have each day experiences with student leaders which prompt me to express an unqualified faith in the future of our society if we will only try to listen to our young people and work together with them to form an even stronger and more desirable way of life.”

That was hard for many of us to keep in mind in the spring of 1970 when turmoil hit Miami as it did so many campuses. As Bob wrote of it nearly two decades later in response to being asked what had been the most difficult ethical dilemma he had faced, “Many of the protests were welltaken, but . . . in spite of the desire to hear the students out, there had to be a decision to preserve the functions of the University. . . . It boiled down to [the] question, ‘Which is more important—the institution or student expression?’ I opted to preserve the idea of the University and issued the order to suspend 176 students on April 15, 1970.” That was a grief for him, because he recognized that most of the involved students were acting not out of destructive intent but uncritical idealism.

Bob was not satisfied with directing a division in ways which met students’ needs, but chose to participate personally. He sought and welcomed time with students. His approach with them was simultaneously hospitable and Socratic, the former to put them at their ease, the latter to cause them to think through concepts on their own. The result was that students talking with him received much more than a response to immediate problems; they gained the kind of understanding which comes by thinking things through for themselves. He also believed this worked both ways, that it was essential for him and all student affairs staff to spend the time with students to understand not only individuals but changing student generations.

There were about 6,000 students when Bob came to Miami, and the number grew to 16,000. More significant than growth were the changes in the nature, needs, interests, and concerns of students. He was sensitive to the changes from their onset, and often anticipated them, and encouraged appropriate response. Examples include coed dining halls (odd now to think dining was ever not coed!) in his early days and coed halls in his later ones; Recreational Sports, which he supported almost single-handedly in the early days and which, thanks to his advocacy, led to the creation shortly after his retirement of an exceptional facility; a Learning Assistance Program for those seeking to improve academic performance; a women’s center; a minority student center; a gynecology clinic. He oversaw the development of one of the best residence hall programs in the country, providing a strong freshman year which supported the academic area. And he was ever Miami’s foremost advocate for students, emphasizing that it was students who are central to the University and for whom the University exists, and insisting that student participation in University governance is both right and necessary and that the student voice be heard. As a member of the President’s Cabinet, he made sure student positions and concerns were considered, and he was an effective advocate for adding student members to the Board of Trustees.

“Good Morning, Navy Unit.” “Hello, this is Bob Etheridge. May I speak with the Captain?” “Capt. _____” “Hello, Captain. I’m calling to ask if there is some way I can assist the Navy? . . . Well, we saw your distress signal—yes, the flag outside Millett is flying upside down—and I called to see how I can help.”

Bob’s love for and commitment to the Navy, which had begun before college, continued through his Miami years. He was Miami’s representative to the Association of NROTC Colleges and Universities, serving six years as president, and was one of the ten members of the Secretary of the Navy’s Advisory Board on Education and Training. While valuing and supporting the military academies, he also believed it important that a portion of the officer corps come from a traditional higher education background. To this end, he initiated the concept of a core curriculum for NROTC students and ultimately saw its adoption by the Navy. At the time of his retirement, Bob was presented the Distinguished Public Service Award, the highest civilian honor given by the Secretary of the Navy. One of his joys was that his younger son, Mike, now a captain with Delta Airlines, began his flying career in the Navy. And, yes, there are many of us who still remember with a smile the excitement of the day Mike “buzzed” Oxford.

Mailgram, April 8, 1983: “To our Vice President, Robert F. Etheridge. Congratulations on being named recipient of NASPA’s 1983 Scott Goodnight Award. Now the whole country knows what we have always known: that you are a dean for all seasons. While we cannot be [with you], you know that our appreciation, respect, and most of all affection are always with you. We are proud of you.” [Signed by his staff]

Major accomplishments through a long career earned Bob many awards: student affairs organizations recognized him with the Phillip A. Trip Distinguished Service Award and the Robert Shaffer Award, as well as the Scott Goodnight Award. His alma mater, Southern Illinois, honored him with its Alumni Achievement Award, and Michigan State named him first recipient of the Outstanding Alumnus of the College and University Administration Program. Miami’s Alumni Association recognized him with the AK Morris Award and a Lifetime Honorary Membership in the Miami University Alumni Association. And in 1991, the Etheridge Center for Reflective Leadership was established at Miami in his honor.

A notable aspect of the leadership he exercised was his repeatedly emphasizing that many of the honors given him were the result of the work of his staff—and he wasn’t giving a sound-bite when he said that. Bob believed in and supported his colleagues. He took pride in the Student Affairs Division, its staff and programs. He expected staff to be as dedicated to students as he was, and to that end he encouraged personal and professional growth. If you had an idea for a worthwhile program, he’d do his best to get support for it. And if you ran into trouble while doing right, he’d support you. As he put it, “I’d rather have to pull back on the reins occasionally than have to boot someone to get them going.” And it may sound like a Boy Scout, but he truly was honest, loyal, kept his word. If he sometimes seemed gruff, underneath was a man who really cared about people, enjoyed helping them, and had his biggest problem as an administrator when he knew that an action he had to take would cause someone hurt. In his retirement remarks, he referred to the Student Affairs staff as “my other family.” His retirement was a loss of a family member for us.

Construction was about to start on the Etheridge home in the woods at #1 Iveswood. Down came a tree, and down with it came an unexpected flying squirrel nest. Bob and Veda rescued one of the babies, they fed it, and Bob carried the tiny thing around in a shirt pocket, taking it out occasionally to stroke and reassure it. Large hand, tiny squirrel. Eventually the squirrel returned to the woods.

Deeply caring for the young, nurturing them, seeing the best in them, wanting them included in Miami decisions and also prepared for the world after Miami, unshakably believing in them, that was Bob. As one former student body officer recalled, “Student activists saw Bob Etheridge as the University’s chief rule enforcer and the person charged with keeping students in line, as our primary nemesis. . . I began to realize how wrong we had been almost immediately. . . It wasn’t till much later that I began to realize just how rare someone like Bob Etheridge was, how unusual it was to find someone when you are just starting out who is willing to let you walk the wire on your own, while keeping the safety net taut underneath you in case you fall. All of us should be so lucky to have someone like Bob Etheridge come into our lives, even if only for a year. At the time, I didn’t know how good I had it. . . . But every Miami student during and since Bob Etheridge’s tenure benefited from his enormous accomplishments and his huge heart.”

And another remembered, “He was always unfailingly polite and respectful of what we were saying and a good listener, but I still recall fondly the way his eyebrows would rise up when he heard something ‘interesting.’ [Hauntingly like his dad, son Rob will lift a brow in that same quizzical way.] The University was a better place because of him, and my life is richer for having known him.”

And a final memory from a former student body officer: “Yesterday, our family drove our oldest child to college in Ohio. It is poignant for me to remember how fortunate I was to have traveled so many miles . . . with Dr. Etheridge alone, just talking about the school he loved and absolutely anything that was going on around us, from sports to the military services. We also talked about values and moral considerations in politics and professional life. It’s amazing to this day how often I think of him and those drives, how he shaped my thinking without directing it, how he encouraged me to consider and respect competing points of view. I imagine there was great satisfaction for him in seeing young minds grow in this way. There are generations of us, students who he guided and who model his leadership today. I am so grateful to be one of them.”

Time passed and the house was finished, and Bob and Veda, sitting on their deck with flying squirrels around them doing their swings and leaps to the feeder, would think with satisfaction that most likely one of the fearless acrobats was their rescued youngster.

Respectfully submitted by Rosalyn Erat Benson, Gion DeFrancesco, Geoffrey D. Fishburn, and Michael J. Griffith