Saturday, April 19, 2014
Richard J. Spath's career arc went from college instructor to college president, and he was equally adept and comfortable in the classroom and the college boardroom.
Richard J. Spath
Each day the newsroom selects one obituary and seeks to learn more about the life of a person who has lived and worked in Maine. We look for a person who has made a mark on the community or the person's family and friends in lasting ways.
Mr. Spath grew up in Ohio and, after serving in the Army Air Corps in World War II, got his degree and began his teaching career at John Carroll University in Cleveland. He eventually became dean of the graduate school there and, even though his background was in the classics, he worked to elevate the college's science department, said his daughter, Susan Spath.
"He always had that wide perspective," she said. "He had the big picture in mind."
Susan Spath said her father attended several summer programs that sought to bring together professors in the humanities and those in the sciences, leading to his interest in making sure John Carroll University was strong in both disciplines.
While he recognized the importance of technological advances, she said, he also felt society needed humanities to remain grounded.
"He saw them both as important, but definitely saw that the humanities were important to deal with issues of meaning" and man's place in an increasingly technological world, she said.
In 1967, Mr. Spath got the opportunity to become president of St. Francis College, which is now the University of New England, and he jumped at it, his daughter said. In the mid- and late 1960s, cities were becoming increasingly congested and contentious places to live, Susan Spath said, so "the idea of moving to the coast of Maine sounded attractive."
One of his first acts was to make St. Francis a coed school, although Susan Spath said she doesn't recall whether that was her father's initiative or a move that was already under way by the time he became president.
Four years after coming to Maine, Mr. Spath was named president of the University of Maine at Fort Kent, and his daughter said a key focus was making sure the school was responsive to its host community "while at the same time being a real university."
During his 15 years as president of the University of Maine at Fort Kent, Mr. Spath oversaw the addition of bachelor's degree programs in environmental science, nursing, business management and behavioral science, along with minors in Canadian-American studies, social science, theater and computer science. He also helped establish Madawaska House as a Franco-American Bi-Cultural Center and a new sports center.
Susan Spath said her father, who used to keep score at basketball games while at John Carroll University, insisted the court in the sports center be made of real wood.
Mr. Spath also helped develop the academic plan when the University of Maine at Portland-Gorham was transformed into the University of Southern Maine in the late 1970s.
After he retired as president of the University of Maine at Fort Kent, Mr. Spath became the first "University of Maine Professor," which allowed him to go back to the classroom, teaching writing and English literature.
He retired a few years later and, after remarrying 12 years ago, he and his wife, Gail, moved to North Conway, N.H., where they enjoyed hiking in the White Mountains, Susan Spath said.
Even though he spent a lifetime in academia, "he was never arrogant in the least," Susan Spath said. "He was a great scholar and administrator, but never arrogant."
"He was a warm and funny guy at home," she added. "He liked good jokes and he had a really good sense of humor. He was a very gentle, sensitive person and a very good father."
In his retirement, he enjoyed gardening but kept up with his reading. Susan Spath said he mentioned recently that he was having trouble understanding the poetry of W.H. Auden and they were making plans to discuss it soon, but he passed away Nov. 6 at age 89.
Susan Spath said she's sure her father would be happy if people would donate to the University of Maine at Fort Kent in his memory.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org