In Memory

Ray Ehrensberger

From the February 17, 1997 edition of the Baltimore Sun.

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

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

Dr. Ray R. Ehrensberger, who carried the University of Maryland to airmen and ensigns and sergeants from Greenland to Vietnam, died Friday, February 14, 1997 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. "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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12/19/15 03:56 PM #4    

Richard Clegg

Homophone, homophobe ... whatever ... being one myself (homosexual) I've had the great discomfort of dealing with a good many "phobes" over my many years.  If Mr. Curzon-Brown's accusation is true, I admire and compliment his calling a "phobe" a "phobe" at any level of infulence. I recall encountering one such phobe myself in the UMUC European Division (they're everywhere, they're everywhere).  I think I'll hang up now and see if I can contact Dr. Ehrensberger (if Sharon is accurate, perhaps he'll be a bit tipsy) on the other side via my celestial homophone.     Richard Clegg

12/20/15 11:41 AM #5    

John Nolan

The question I have is whay do we  have an "In memoriam" entry for someone who has been dead for 18 years  anyway?  I think its rather odd,  though even odder is wasting one's time casting aspersions ( true or otherwise- never even sa the man myself so have no opinion on that matter) about someone who has been  gone so long. Sorry, but it all seems rather strange to me.  

12/20/15 08:06 PM #6    

Chris Payne

I agree with John.I am sure all the right respectful things were said when this man was laid to rest in 1997. As for his being a 'homophone'(sic) or even a homophobe - de mortuis nil nisi bonum.

12/21/15 08:43 AM #7    

Penelope Roberts

Well said, Chris.

12/21/15 01:01 PM #8    

Richard Schumaker

Perhaps we need a "History" area of some kind?  I do find the historical information interesting. For example, one of us should relate the early days of distance learning in Europe, focusing on the pioneering work of John Floyd.  It's a shame that that is being lost in the sands of time.

12/21/15 01:03 PM #9    

Bill Kerr

Why would a historian wonder whether it made sense to keep a record of the past? 

Perhaps a committee needs to be formed to establish expiration dates for inclusion in the records. This could be based on numbers of years since the death and how many members actually met him or her. This would finally eliminate everyone from significance.  In the process we could establish a rule that nothing negative can be said about anyone, dead or alive. This would support each person's view of himself and make us all feel good. 


His death, which happen'd in his berth,
At forty-odd befell:
They went and told the sexton, and
The sexton toll'd the bell
(Please note homophone)

12/21/15 01:11 PM #10    

Jan Sacherer (Turner)

The fact that he lived and died in the past should also be taken into account when criticizing social attitudes. Maybe he was a homophobe or maybe he was just trying to protect UMUC at a time when the U.S. military was so homopphobic that suspected gays often met with "accidental" deaths. As recently as ten years ago, a DOD teacher was given 24 hours to clear off a military base in Japan once he came out of the closet. Other teachers protested but the Base Commander had absolute authority to end his job and his residence on base. Taken to a higher level, such incidents could well have led to the loss of our entire contract.

The first rule of behavior around the military is always that the individual is sublimated to the group. I knew gay people who spent an entire 30 career with UMUC living and working on military bases, and there was no problem because they remained discrete. Perhaps lack of discretion by the individual instructor here is the real problem, not homophobia on the part of our chancellor? Meanwhile let us all be thankful that times and policies have changed, and feel sorry for those who were harmed in the past, a more constructive attitude than criticizing the dead.

12/21/15 02:24 PM #11    

David Glaser

I knew Ray reasonably well.  His attitude toward men with beards was as strong as that toward gays.  When I was hired in College Park in the summer of 1968 I was taken to his office to meet him. He would not receive me because of the beard. That same fall in Thailand the base commander ordered me to shave or get off the base. Ray weighed in with a spirited defense of academic freedom, struck a bargin with Pac Af, ( our photos would be sent to future base commanders and they could refuse to accept us) and I stayed. The point is he was A man of his times and despite his limits always had the interests of the University and military as his first concern.


12/21/15 04:54 PM #12    

Penelope Roberts

This is an interesting discussion but it will probably be missed by a lot of people who either don't look up this particular person or who don't read the comments.  I for one would not like to see a time limit on memorial postings as people are joining all the time.  Letting death notices expire would create a knowledge gap that a site such as this is designed partly to mitigate.

I also think that we should not let our community sink into the muck that some on the internet find acceptable: shaming, vitriol, misogyny, anti-"subject/people of the day."  It seems to me that richard's reply was pretty good in terms of defusing the situation, and Chris' a close second.  Perhaps when necessary, comments can redirect to the discussion threads?


12/21/15 08:07 PM #13    

Chris Payne

Thank you, Penelope.

I read Ray Ehrensberger's biography with great interest. He was an important and influential man in the history of UMUC and adult education in general. That he was a full working professor a decade before I was born appeals to my sense of historical continuity. I like Richard's suggestion that such histories should not be lost.

Could we not modify this website to include a section where biographies like this one as well as  members' recollections of the UMUC story can be recorded for posterity? We do have, I know, many excellent historians who could organize and collate the material.

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