Former Bennington College leader dies

Posted

Wednesday, September 26
BENNINGTON — In 1946, Bennington College invited Frederick H. Burkhardt, who died earlier this week at 95, and his first wife, the late Margaret Mary Ross, to the college from Wisconsin.

The faculty wanted Burkhardt, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin, to become the college's next president, but after his first night on campus, he decided the job wasn't for him.

"Maggie, you know it's a very pleasant place, but I don't see myself somehow as a college president," he told his wife at the Overlea Inn in North Bennington, a house he would later buy and his daughter, Jane, currently owns.

The next day, when Burkhardt arrived on campus, the students and faculty were holding a large meeting. A student, Paula Weldon, had recently gone missing, and the students were organizing a search. Although the mystery of Weldon's whereabouts remains unsolved to this day, Burkhardt was so impressed with the community support, he decided to take the position.

Paula Weldon era

"It was simply a wonderful experience, despite the circumstances," Burkhardt's memoir, "My Life in Learning," reads. "What was amazing was that the students and the faculty considered themselves to be a part of the same body ... I thought it must be a really amazing place if it is capable of getting students like this; it's really democracy at work."

On Sunday, Burkhardt, who was president of Bennington College from 1947-49 and 1952-57, died at his home on Monument Avenue.

"Fred was a visionary leader, deeply committed to Bennington's role in educating active and engaged citizens," current Bennington College President Elizabeth Coleman said Monday. "While he will be sorely missed, his legacy as a leader and scholar endures."

When Burkhardt began his tenure as the college's third president in 1947, at 35, he was the youngest college president in the nation, earning him mention on the television show, "What's My Line." Burkhardt said there are three types of college presidents, ones who focus on the trustees, ones who focus on the students, and his type, the ones who focus on the faculty.

"If you had good students and a poor faculty," his memoir reads, "it would be a poor college because the students would fail to progress."

Notable faculty that served under Burkhardt include the father of modern management, Peter Drucker, influential psychoanalyst Eric Fromm and former United States Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov, Coleman said.

In his years there, Martha Graham was also running her modern dance workshop at the college and Buckminister Fuller built a prototype of his Dymaxion house, an energy efficient structure.

"Fred Burkhardt led Bennington during a particularly vibrant period in its history," Coleman said.

Burkhardt, an avid Red Sox fan, began a poker night with faculty on Thursdays, where contrary to undergraduates' beliefs, the faculty did not discuss college business. Author Ralph Ellison sat in, but did not play, one Thursday; over time the nights created strong friendships between faculty members.

One Bennington College faculty member remembered Burkhardt's tenure in a 1969 Banner article: "He was known for his candor and fairness. Everyone knew if you went to him, you got a square deal," the faculty member said.

Although not a faculty member, Robert Frost hung around the college during Burkhardt's tenure. After finding out Burkhardt was the college president, Frost said to him: "Oh, Bennington, I always say that 'I stamp my foot and up came fire and flames and fumes and Bennington College."

Coleman said many of Bennington's well-known alumni also attended the college during Burkhardt's time.

"During his tenure, Fred helped shape the education of thousands of Bennington students, many of whom have become great American innovators," Coleman said.

Students in Burkhardt's time included pioneering educator Sally Liberman Smith '50, abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler '49, whose work is currently on display at the college's Usdan Gallery, and Academy Award-winning actor Alan Arkin '55.

Arkin was one of the college's "drama boys," males who attended the college before it officially went coed in 1969. Although never co-ed under his tenure, Burkhardt did discuss the idea of a coed college, ultimately deciding against it.

"After some discussion, I became reconciled to the single sex status mainly because, I became convinced that the girls at Bennington were clearly more mature than the boys at Williams. It is clear that men at college age are far more juvenile than women. I didn't want to spoil the stew," his memoir reads.

Arkin drove teachers mad with his arrogance, according to Burkhardt, and Arkin himself, years after he attended the college in a radio interview. After many complaints from the drama teacher, Burkhardt, a Brooklyn native, decided to give Arkin his, "Brooklyn Treatment."

"Using the toughness and street attitude I had acquired in my youth, I told him off in terms he could easily understand and he calmed down a bit," Burkhardt's memoir reads.

One of his favorite students at the college was Miriam Marx, daughter of the legendary comedian Groucho Marx. She also ran into trouble with Burkhardt, eventually resulting in her expulsion from the college.

College legend has it that Miriam quartered a horse in her dorm room, a story Burkhardt couldn't confirm but could believe. "I wouldn't put it past her," his memoir reads. "She was quite a sprightly character."

After the judicial committee gave her an ultimatum, one more incident and she would be gone, she immediately drove her car across the campus lawn. Burkhardt had no choice, Miriam was kicked off campus eight weeks before her scheduled graduation.

After Miriam told her father she had been asked to leave, the comedian's immediate reaction: "Are you pregnant?" Groucho asked her.

In his tenure, Burkhardt was recognized for bringing mathematics and science to the college at a time when it was believed women did not mix with the subjects. Despite a one-year leave when he was deputy director of public affairs for the U.S. High Commissioner of Germany in 1950, Burkhardt served as college president until 1957.

After Bennington, Burkhardt headed the American Council of Learned Societies for 17 years until his "retirement" in 1974.

It was in his retirement that Burkhardt worked on editing, "The Correspondence of Charles Darwin," with his second wife, Anne, a Bennington College philosophy professor for 32 years.

The 32-volume comprehensive study of Darwin's letters and work began in 1974, when Burkhardt moved to Monument Avenue to the former gatehouse of the Everett Mansion. Books are stacked in every nook of the historic home.

"He cared about books more than anything," Anne, 91, said Tuesday. She said he enjoyed reading the newspaper and turned to the comics first, where he enjoyed "Snoopy" and "Li'l Abner."

It was Darwin that captivated Burkhardt's life though. The self-proclaimed Darwinist said he had 15 of the 32 volumes completed in a 2005 interview with the Banner.

"I don't think I'll make it that far but I must say the whole project has probably been keeping me alive," Burkhardt said of the 32 volume project. "It's a great way to keep going."

Burkhardt's grandson, Jonathan Burkhardt, has been working on his grandfather's unpublished memoir, "My Life in Learning," for six months. A full obituary, chronicling Burkhardt's life beyond Bennington College will appear in a future edition of the Banner.


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