Remembering President Mel Vulgamore

His 14-year tenure during the ’80s and ’90s was marked, above all else, “by a total devotion to and passion for all things Albion”

August 18, 2016

By Jake Weber

Albion College’s 13th president, Dr. Melvin L. Vulgamore, passed away August 12 in New Hampshire at the age of 81. The last in an unbroken line of presidents who were also ordained ministers, Vulgamore graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University and Harvard Divinity School, and completed a doctorate at Boston University.

He is survived by his wife, Nan Oyer Vulgamore; daughters Allison Vulgamore of Philadelphia and Sarah Vulgamore of Lenox, Mass., and two grandchildren. (An obituary was published August 14 in The Boston Globe.)

Placing a high priority on both the appearance and functionality of the campus’ living and working spaces, Vulgamore’s administration from 1983-97 saw the construction of the Dow Recreation and Wellness Center and the Kellogg Center. Bobbitt Visual Arts Center, Goodrich Chapel, and Robinson and North halls were refurbished (North was renamed Vulgamore Hall in 1997), as were Wesley Hall, Seaton Hall, Stockwell Library, Kresge Gymnasium and the Observatory, which became home to the Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program.

Former trustee Carolyn Aishton Ouderkirk, ‘64, recalled that this concern for the physical plant led Vulgamore to address a problem that had plagued the community and the campus for many years. “Having been a student at Albion in the early 1960s, I remember, as I’m sure every other student at the time remembers, the horrendously poor quality of the water in the town and at the College. It smelled and tasted of sulfur.”

Ouderkirk related that Vulgamore, along with then-Mayor Lois McClure-White, worked with a lobbyist to procure federal funding for a new well in Albion. “Talk about a major accomplishment,” Ouderkirk said. “Every water fountain and faucet at the College should have a plaque on it in Mel’s name.”

A Commitment to Civic Engagement

President Vulgamore in a 1994 portrait.

Vulgamore oversaw the institution of Albion’s First-Year Experience program, recognized nationally at the time as an innovative educational initiative. With Michigan State University President John DiBiaggio, Vulgamore co-founded Michigan Campus Compact (MiCC), an organization devoted to fostering civic engagement, service learning and volunteering among college students. Today, MiCC has 68 members, part of a nationwide group of more than 1,000 colleges and universities. Albion’s Sleight Leadership Program, established in the early 1990s, further strengthened Vulgamore’s commitment to a student body active in civic engagement.
“What I remember most about Mel is how erudite, vibrant and persuasive he was,” Ouderkirk added. “In conversation, he seemed able to elaborate on any topic that came up and win just about any argument.”

Vulgamore’s communication abilities resonated far beyond campus, helping quadruple the College’s endowment during his 14-year tenure. Vulgamore also helped encourage then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to visit and address the campus.

“Mel Vulgamore was a man of faith who maintained a strong vision of the importance of residential colleges and a liberal arts education,” commented former political science professor Myron Levine, who now teaches at Wright State University. “He was also committed to community and to community-service learning. It was a pleasure teaching for him.”

Supporters of the arts in Ohio and Virginia before coming to Albion, Mel and Nan Vulgamore were equally supportive of both on- and off-campus organizations. Vulgamore’s presidency saw the establishment of the Philip C. Curtis Visiting Artist Endowment, along with an exhibit from Albion College’s prints collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

‘Unmitigated Joy’ Around Students

The Vulgamores during 1989 Homecoming.

Not a football Saturday went by where you couldn’t find President and Mrs. Vulgamore rooting on their beloved Britons. “I think he had a rather big soft spot for our [1994] national champion football team, or maybe it was because the British Eighth used to let Nan know she looked ‘mah-velous,’“ said Megan Royle Carrella, ‘95.
“What I loved most about President Vulgamore was his unmitigated joy at being surrounded by and involved with students,” she continued. “He always took time to talk to students; he was genuinely interested in their lives and academic pursuits on campus. Whether it was a football game, a theatre production, Lessons and Carols, student council meetings or Greek Week, he was there. And he loved every minute of it.”

When the focus turned to the inner workings of the institution, former trustee Ed Jenkins, ’57, said “Mel was very knowledgable about college administration, yet he was also receptive to all the policy issues the trustees brought forth. He was very good to work with.”

Jenkins further noted that when the Vulgamores left Albion, they moved to Washington, D.C., just blocks from the Library of Congress, so Vulgamore could get back to scholarly research. “He was an academic first,” Jenkins reflected. “But I think he thought his crowning achievement was working with students.”

“It is difficult to encapsulate the achievements of a president such as Mel Vulgamore,” said Jeff Carrier, professor emeritus of biology, who served as provost for a time under Vulgamore. Carrier noted that Vulgamore instituted “often overlooked incremental steps that cumulatively elevated the reputation of Albion College,” including targeted recruitment of National Merit scholars and other high-achieving high school students, and more rigorous hiring and tenure standards for faculty.

Vulgamore’s efforts “paved the way for successful capital campaigns that funded initiatives long after he departed as Albion’s president,” Carrier said. “I traveled with Mel on many visits to foundations and to potential donors. His total devotion to and passion for all things Albion was clearly evident in every speech and every conversation he had.”

More Remembrances of President Vulgamore

We encourage the Albion College family to share their memories of President Vulgamore by emailing [email protected] or by posting to the College’s Facebook page. A few recollections are shared below.

On October 5, 1996, my invocation at the fall meeting of Albion’s Board of Trustees concluded with the following words:

“So as the search for a new president goes on, we would pray for Mel and Nan:

• that they may see the fruits of their labors,
• that they may know the joy of a work well done,
• and that they have saved something of their best for last.

For if there be any who love Albion more, we don’t know who they are, or how it could be possible. So watch over them … over us … and over this college we hold dear.”

During a dozen years of serving the College, Mel and I became friends. We talked a little church and shared our affection for the theologian Paul Tillich. Mel created multiple opportunities for me to pray at Albion functions and supported Nan’s desire to assemble my prayers into a book. Together, Mel and Nan attended a surprise birthday party for my wife, Kris, and later hosted us in retirement. When I needed a preacher to co-officiate at the wedding of my daughter, Julie, she said, “I wonder if Dr. Vulgamore would come?” “Of course we will,” they said. Only this time, Mel prayed.

– Rev. Dr. Bill Ritter, ’62, senior minister (retired), Birmingham (Mich.) First United Methodist Church

I was part of the Sleight Summer Leadership Academy in 2000. As an English major with a concentration in Secondary Education, many of my classes were in Vulgamore Hall. I’m grateful for his legacy, and my thoughts are with his family.

– Julie Maxey Bell, ’04 (from Facebook)

Parents weekend 1987, I had the honor of introducing Dr. Vulgamore and Nan (famous for her hats) to visiting families at a Goodrich Chapel program. He was so gracious. Thinking of his wife and family.

– Laura Blyth Poplawski, ’89 (from Facebook)

So sad to hear of his passing. Back on New Year’s Eve 1991, I was working the late shift at Campus Safety and Dr. Vulgamore came in with a tray of goodies for everyone working that night. So very kind and generous.

– Michelle Giordano, ’91 (from Facebook)

Melvin Vulgamore must have been on the cusp of graduate school when the Class of 1961 arrived on campus in September 1957. A quarter of a century later, there he was as president of Albion College. I was then religion editor of the Detroit Free Press. He sought me out, and I had the privilege of introducing him to our publisher. I watched Mel charm him into having the newspaper pay more attention to the College. Six years later I was honored by being named a Distinguished Alumnus with President Vulgamore making a very complimentary presentation of the same. In due course I became a member of the Alumni Board. He never failed to show up for a time during our meetings to tell us of his next plan for Albion’s growth.

His was a very keen mind. Because he and I were both philosophers, we spoke betimes the same language. When, in 1993, I was instrumental in bringing Archbishop Desmond Tutu to campus, President Vulgamore asked me to present the archbishop for investiture as a Doctor of Laws honoris causa. Draped in my seldom-used academic regalia, there I stood between the archbishop and the president of my alma mater before a crowd in the Dow of more than 3,000 people—and that in the middle of a torrid July. For that great privilege, I owe the generosity of Melvin Vulgamore. May he rest in peace.

– Rev. Harry T. Cook, ’61, rector-senior pastor (retired), St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Clawson, Mich.