Bobby Fong most enjoyed hearing the life stories of students, alumni and community members. If they were fortunate, Bobby, a powerful storyteller himself,would share with them stories of his childhood in Oakland’s Chinatown. As a son of Chinese immigrants, he recalled asking his second grade teacher to explain the game of baseball. As the story goes, the teacher told Bobby that if he wanted to understand American life, he needed to learn about the sport. He did so with a passion.
Many of the recollections of Bobby Fong, who died of a heart attack early Sept. 8, highlight his interest in connecting with others, his humor, his leadership, his integrity and that trademark passion for baseball.
Alan Novak, chair of the Ursinus Board of Trustees, shared with Bobby a love of baseball. But he was most impressed by Bobby’s ability to lead with quiet confidence.
“Bobby was such a humble man,” says Novak, “and one of uncharacteristic strength and spirituality. He was a strong leader in quiet way, very thoughtful, but he had a self-assurance that was unshakeable. He certainly was the right fit for Ursinus and was so proud of what the college is accomplishing.”
During his rare down time in Collegeville, Bobby ran into a local newspaper editor at a baseball card show. The editor was invited to the Fong home to see Bobby’s collection. He soon learned how Bobby and his sister used to buy milk and baseball cards, and how baseball was an equalizer in the greater society. Bobby regularly went to these shows with an alumnus. It was one of the myriad times Bobby found common ground with Ursinus alumni and enjoy their company. They enjoyed his just as much.
Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Terry Winegar notes that students also made connections with Bobby. “The moment I remember that best reflects the Bobby Fong that I knew was when I met with first-year faculty and asked about their classes,” said Winegar. “One of them told the story of asking students if they had memories of Bobby and every student in the class relayed a personal experience with him. It was in this way that I think of Bobby as remaining a teacher throughout his career as an academic administrator.”
Winegar says he admired the way Bobby, even as an administrator, stayed true to his academic roots. “What I valued most about Bobby Fong as a college president was that he never stopped being an academic. He approached each situation as a scholar, asking probing questions and expecting cogent and enlightening answers, and as a teacher, imparting his experience and wisdom in a way that offered, but did not require that you accept. Bobby Fong was an unflinching advocate for liberal education. He believed that a liberal arts education in a residential learning community was the best preparation for a life time of learning, citizenship and service.”
Alison Byerly, President of Lafayette College, said she was impressed by his deep humanity.
“As a fellow liberal arts college president, and the daughter of a former Ursinus College faculty member, I was deeply saddened to learn of Dr. Fong’s passing. Having met him several times and followed his career with interest, I was impressed by the combination of intellectualism and deep humanity he brought to his understanding of undergraduate education,” she has posted on the Ursinus web site.
Bobby was a good listener, said Associate Professor of Biology Rebecca Lyczak. She will remember Bobby for his thoughtful approach to every issue, she said. “It was always clear that Bobby respected each member of the faculty and staff, and was willing to consider each person’s point of view,” said Lyczak. “He was a president who truly listened, who fostered an environment of trust and understanding.”
Bobby recognized individual and collective strengths of the faculty, she said, and fostered their work as teachers and scholars. “Bobby clearly articulated the liberal arts mission of Ursinus, and challenged us all to do our best work to realize that mission for our students,” said Lyczak. “He was approachable and kind.”
With Bobby’s passing, the college has has lost a friend and a champion for education, said Biology Professor Becky Kohn. “As college president he influenced the lives of students, faculty members, staff members and administrators,” she said. “He believed in our ability to make a difference in this world, just as he did so himself.”
Bobby worked side by side with faculty to provide the best possible education for students, Kohn said. “While I expected to continue working with him and learning from him for years to come, I am grateful for the time he spent with us at Ursinus. As we continue our work, we will be informed by the friendship and kindness Bobby showed to all of us.”
Professor of Theater Domenick Scudera said that when Bobby learned about Ursinus Theater’s upcoming production of an original adaption of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ he “rushed over to me to share his enthusiasm for the project. As an Oscar Wilde scholar, he was excited and eager about the work that we were doing. His passion for Wilde was one of the traits I admired about him most. Although he was an expert administrator and spent his days doing all things presidential, he was also a man who understood and appreciated the arts. I was most appreciative of his support for Ursinus’ theater and dance programs, support that was not perfunctory. He and Suzanne were frequent theatergoers to our productions. It was evident when he saw a performance that he was ‘present,’ an active audience member. He always had kind words to share after a show. Although the ‘Dorian Gray’ company is most saddened that he will not be in a seat at one of our performances, we feel a renewed energy to rehearse and perform the show with the same passion that he had had for this work.”
Although his term as president was tragically cut short, Bobby has left a legacy, said Dallett Hemphill, Professor of History and American Studies. Hemphill was a member of the presidential search committee for Bobby.
“Although we had a number of very strong candidates we all agreed Bobby was the best,” said Hemphill. It was exhilarating introducing him to the campus community and sharing his inspiring story, she said. “Bobby brought to Ursinus the qualities he exhibited his entire life. He led our community as he did those he led before us–by earning our respect for his character. Bobby won that respect through the gracious way he treated everyone he dealt with, from students, to faculty, to staff. When Bobby smiled his wonderful smile and said “hello Friend,” as he greeted everyone, you felt like he meant it.”
While never wavering in his commitment to liberal education, Bobby made faculty think about it in two new ways, said Hemphill.
“First, his interest in students’ welfare was not confined to their four years at Ursinus but extended to helping them find fulfilling life work after graduation. Second, his concern for humanity made him nudge the community towards education that engages the needs of the world. These were the caring goals of a lovely man. We should honor his memory by keeping up the good work that he encouraged.”
Sustainability Program Coordinator Brandon Hoover wrote that he felt privileged to have worked with Bobby and had meaningful conversations with him. “I will remember many things about Bobby, but as I reflect on his legacy the two things I continue returning to are humility and wholeness,” says Hoover. “Bobby was humble in his position as President. He treated people as an equal, and from my experience, valued opinion and ideas, no matter how similar they were to his own. This humility served him well as an educator. In his position as President Bobby advocated for the education of “whole people,” not just of the mind. He recognized the transformational power of education, for individual and society, and called others with him to serve in their community, nation, and world. His loss is a communal loss, not just for Ursinus, but the community of educators he has impacted.”
Though his time at Ursinus was cut short, many across the campus and beyond have a recollection of a conversation between themselves and Bobby Fong. Cathy Kernen, President of the Collegeville Economic Development Corporation said the community was feeling a profound sense of loss following Bobby Fong’s untimely death.
“He and Suzanne made it a priority to support the Collegeville Farmers’ Market, the non-profit Collegeville Economic Development Corp. (CEDC), and most of all, the entire Collegeville community,” said Kernen. “Because of Dr. Fong’s commitment, a strong partnership now exists between the campus and the community. That legacy will live on after him, along with the memory of Bobby as both a valued leader and as a warm, caring individual who made every person he met feel special.”
“Bobby was a warm, humble man who made me feel completely at ease in his presence,” said Tony Lobo, Associate Professor of Biology. “He had wonderful stories about almost any topic, which he would always tell with a twinkle in his eye. I am grateful to have known him, and I will miss his smile and his laugh. I may even find myself rooting for the Yankees now and then!”
Students, alumni, faculty and staff, and friends are invited to share their remembrances and condolences.