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WMU mourns the death of former president John Bernhard

Jan. 12, 2004

KALAMAZOO--Dr. John T. Bernhard, who was president of Western Michigan University from 1974 to 1985, died today in Kalamazoo. He was 83.

Bernhard lived in Kalamazoo and returned to teaching, following his tenure as president. He retired as a WMU professor of political science in 1990, ending a distinguished and colorful career that ranged from working as a political and public relations assistant to the late Howard R. Hughes to serving as a member of the Utah State Senate for five years and the president of two large universities.

Throughout his WMU presidency, Bernhard enjoyed a reputation for strengthening "town/gown" relations. Among his legacies is the WMU Foundation, which he helped found to tap the support of the private sector and sustain the University during one of the worst economic periods in Michigan history--the early 1980s. His presidency was also a period of sustained growth for the arts on campus and he oversaw the establishment of the College of Health and Human Services.

"John Bernhard literally defined the term 'community engagement' before it became a common goal of higher education," said Dr. Judith I. Bailey, president of WMU. "Very early in my presidency, I learned of the remarkable relationship he enjoyed with the campus and community. Civility, compassion and commitment were his trademarks, and his legacy is one on which I am so proud to build."

The growth in private support became a hallmark of WMU's Bernhard years, which saw the successful completion of the University's first formal capital campaign, an $8.5 million effort; the 1982 completion of the Dorothy U. Dalton Center, an instructional facility for the performing arts; completion in 1983 of the John E. Fetzer Center, which serves as a campus conference center; and the establishment in 1983 of the Medallion Scholarship Program, one of the largest merit-based scholarship programs in public higher education. The Bernhard Center at the heart of the WMU campus was named for Bernhard by the WMU Board of Trustees in 1985 in honor of his accomplishments as president.

WMU Trustee Emeritus Maury E. Reed was a member of the search committee that selected Bernhard for the WMU presidency and served on the Board of Trustees throughout his tenure. She says his kindness, openness and respect for people were among the traits the search committee found most attractive and ones that characterized his years in office.

"His style was to lead by consensus," she notes. "For a leader, guaranteeing people input is a gift, a wonderfully respectful gift and one that is tough to give because it requires time and great patience. But he was absolutely sincere and genuine. He really personified what those words meant."

The New York native, born June 24, 1920, was considered a national leader in higher education. He served as chair of the board of directors of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities; member of the board of directors of the American Council on Education; a member of the Education Commission for the States; and chair of the Michigan Presidents Council of State Colleges and Universities. He also was a U.S. delegate in 1980 to the UNESCO Conference on Education in Bulgaria.

Bernhard earned a bachelor's degree in forestry in 1941 from Utah State University. He earned masters and doctoral degrees in political science in 1949 and 1951, respectively, from the University of California, Los Angeles. Before coming to WMU, he was president of Western Illinois University, served as director of a Rockefeller Foundation program in Brazil and held several staff positions at Brigham Young University.

During his presidency, he was active in the Kalamazoo community, and during the past two decades he continued his commitment to community issues. He and his wife, Ramona, were repeatedly honored by the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo for their support of the performing and visual arts. The pair served as volunteers with a number of organizations, including the Kalamazoo Civic Players, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, the Kalamazoo Institute of Art and the Gilmore Keyboard Festival.

In addition to his wife of 62 year, Ramona, Bernhard is survived by four children, eight grandchildren and one great grandchild.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17, in the Bernhard Center on the WMU campus. Memorial donations may be made to the WMU College of Fine Arts or the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, (269) 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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