Ed Kaelber, who served as the founding president of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor and, later, as the founding president of Maine Community Foundation, died on Thursday, according to a statement released Friday evening by the college.
Kaelber was 94 years old.
Born in 1924 in Philadelphia, Kaelber attended Harvard College both before and after World War II. He was working as an assistant dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the late 1960s when a group of civic leaders in Bar Harbor got the idea of founding a small, environmentally-conscious college.
An enormous wildfire on Mount Desert Island in 1947 had devastated the town’s economy, which had been reliant on wealthy summer rusticators, and the creation of a local college was viewed as a way to help revitalize the town.
The group — among them Catholic priest and peace activist Father James Gower and local businessmen Les Brewer and Bernard “Sonny” Cough — hired Kaelber in 1970 and admitted COA’s first students (32 of them) in 1972.
In a 2012 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kaelber said the college was especially strapped for funding in its early days and opted for an unconventional approach out of necessity as much as inspiration. The founders decided to emphasize teaching over research, and interdisciplinary collaboration over specialization.
“The idea was, if it’s a really important problem, no single one of you is going to solve it,” Kaelber told the Chronicle. “You have to figure out how to talk to other people to solve it. It was radical at the time.”
Darron Collins, a 1992 graduate of COA and its current president, said Friday that no one has done more than Kaelber to shape the identity of the college, which has grown to now host 350 students a year.
“Although we are a forward-looking institution, this path — Ed’s path — informs what we do now and what we’ll be doing decades from now,” Collins said.
Kaelber retired from COA in 1982 and a year later became the founding president of Maine Community Foundation, a position he held until 1988. Maine Community Foundation is a statewide nonprofit that helps people invest charitable resources in the future of Maine, according to a statement on its website. Since its founding, the foundation has distributed more than $310 million in grants and scholarships throughout the state.
In an interview posted on the foundation’s website less than a month ago, in honor of the foundation’s 35th anniversary, Kaelber said the organization was seen not just as a way to provide financial support to Maine nonprofits and programs, but as a way to bring interested people from all across the state together with a common goal of boosting Maine communities.
“I like to think in one way or another I’ve helped a lot of people, and I feel good about that,” he said. “I think I’ve helped the state of Maine. But when I say ‘I,’ I have to put that in context: I mean it was me and the people I was able to get to join me. None of it could I have done alone.”
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