Opinion » John Rember

Hendren Stories

Remembering a president

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Last week Julie and I were in St. Michael's Cathedral in Boise, attending a memorial service for Bob Hendren, a former president of the College of Idaho. We were there to remember Bob's strength and tenacity, and to acknowledge that without him, Julie and I wouldn't be together.

Bob had taken charge of the college in 1987 when it was about to go bankrupt. He cut staff and reorganized departments. Faculty members left for colleges with less precarious futures. I was hired to replace a couple of them from the English Department.

After teaching four classes of composition for a month, I was summoned to Bob's office. He greeted me with a handshake, closed the door and motioned for me to sit down. I thought I was in trouble, but he told me he had heard from the students I was doing OK.

He then proceeded to ask me what I thought of other faculty and the staff, and how the college was being run. I was as circumspect as I could be under the circumstances. "I try not to judge people before I know them," I said.

"Not everybody on the faculty feels that way," he said.

It was true. I had been shocked by the amount of vitriol and academic snobbery directed toward Bob by some faculty members. They were openly contemptuous of his education, his drastic economies, and they made fun of his speech and his occasional unfortunate pronouncements on gender politics. They called him "the furniture schlepper" behind his back and, for all I know, to his face.

There's no snob like an academic snob, and no mockery quite as cutting as academic mockery. Over time I began to see how much courage it took for Bob to work every day with people who were, more than anything, waiting for him to make a mistake.

He did make mistakes. He got rid of people he should have kept and hired people he shouldn't have. He ended profitable graduate programs when they conflicted with his vision of a true liberal arts college. He never got over thinking that faculty members were his employees.

But the man could work. He put in many 16-hour days in his office at the college, and gradually turned it around. He cajoled, threatened and begged money from donors, and at the end of his tenure there left an endowment of $60 million, up from nothing.

Over the years I came to admire his grit in the face of opposition, his love for the college, his solid character and blunt pragmatism. Like a lot of self-made men, he could be hard on the people around him. Once he told me that he used to fire one of his furniture store workers every six months or so, just to shape the others up.

"Let me know when my turn is coming up," I said.

"That won't happen," he said.

About that time I fell in love with Julie.

I went to Bob's office and closed the door. "We've got a problem," I said. "I've fallen in love with a student."

"Who is it?" he asked.

"Julie Mitchell," I said.

"That's wonderful," he said. "When you get married and have a couple of kids, we'll have a hold on you for life."

But it was only a year later when Bob took me out to lunch at the Arid Club and fired me. "You're not getting a contract next year," he said.

"OK," I said. "I've never left a job that it didn't feel like graduation day." And then we talked about my new future. He recommended starting a storage business on my family's land in the Wood River Valley.

"Lots of divorces up there," he said. "People have made a great deal of money with storage units here in Boise."

We finished up lunch and returned to the college, where I taught my classes with a sense of freedom I hadn't had before. I had thought that I would end up as a demented Mr. Chips, doddering around the campus clutching yellowed lecture notes. Suddenly, the future was like a spacious new storage unit.

It has stayed spacious. I did get a contract that year, and for many years after. But the semester I was promoted to full professor Julie and I moved to Sawtooth Valley. Within three weeks, we both had new jobs—neither of them in the storage business—and we've been here ever since.

After Bob retired, we didn't have much contact. Once, a mutual friend called and said Bob wanted to know how Julie and I were doing.

"Happy," I said. "Love. Laughter. Enough money." I didn't say that Bob had been instrumental to our happiness, but I wish I had.

At St. Michael's I was struck with one more memory. Thirteen years ago, Bob called me after he had seen my father's obituary. It was short and to the point, due more to the Statesman's extortionate obituary rates than to my pithiness as a writer.

"When the time comes, you can write mine," he said.

Here it is, Bob. It doesn't do justice to your life, or the many people who owe their jobs or happiness to your will and sharp edges. It's only a couple of stories about the man I saw when I looked at you, but I'm glad I have them to tell.