In celebrating the life of Bradley’s seventh president who died on April 21, five of his colleagues fondly remember JERRY ABEGG ’47 HON ’93 as a Hilltop icon. While leading the University from 1970 to 1992, President Abegg promoted major initiatives by introducing strategic planning and shared governance and by spearheading the construction or renovation of 17 campus buildings. The president emeritus and Bradley Centurion touched countless lives and left a legacy that remains to this day.
Dr. Max Wessler ’52
Professor emeritus of mechanical engineering
My first association with Mr. Abegg was a bit intimidating. It was in a freshman surveying course in 1948. Sgt. Abegg might have been more appropriate. He was a good, no-nonsense teacher — formal, firm and very clear about his expectations. We became colleagues in 1956, and I found him to be friendly and companionable. We shared a deep passion for and commitment to our University.
Through his service at Bradley, he unselfishly partnered with its people and the community to retain that indefinable essence that makes the University so special. As the new president, he led through a time of serious financial exigency and made some very tough decisions. It was a time of some faculty recissions and the elimination of football — not all popular decisions, but necessary, nonetheless. I am sure this was a hurtful time for him personally.
Jerry wasn’t all business. At basketball games, he was often on his feet leading the cheering and shouting. I recall in the early ’60s at the Engineers’ Ball, he and Barb joined in the twist, the latest dance craze. They made a great hit with students who called for repeats in succeeding years, until Jerry became dean in 1963 and then declined, apparently feeling the twist was not in keeping with the dignity of his office.
While provost, Dr. Kal Goldberg once told me, “I worked with Jerry, not for him.” Jerry left the University better than when he started. He epitomized the best in the Bradley family.
Ed King ’54, MA ’62
Executive director emeritus of housing, residential life, and student judicial systems
I first met Dr. Abegg in 1957 when he was an instructor in the college of engineering. He and his wife Barb would bring their children to Hewitt Hall’s swimming pool, which we affectionately called the bathtub, where I was a lifeguard. Jerry was an easy man to visit with and a very patient instructor for his children.
By 1960, life had changed dramatically for both of us. Jerry was appointed chair of the engineering school, and I was dean of men. We served on the campus community commission, and he was deeply concerned about the balance of student life on campus. Jerry always listened as well and suggested improvements in our system.
In 1969, students took over the Student Center in protest of a tuition increase. By the time the ordeal was resolved, I had handed out the discipline to the students, and Dr. Abegg was named acting president. Those were extremely tough times for many universities. Not only did many students protest the Vietnam War, they also demonstrated in the student free speech movement. President Abegg could not have taken over at a more difficult time. Enrollment dropped. Budgets were cut, and no one received a raise.
Within a year, President Abegg was appointed full-time president, and he became the calm in the storm. Under his leadership, the University quickly increased its enrollment, became financially solvent, and started its first major fundraising drive. Because of Jerry Abegg’s leadership then, the University is in the great shape that it is now.
Shirley Dawdy Meils
Office manager, Bradley Technology Commercialization Center
I was 18 when I first walked into the president’s office to interview with Dr. Abegg. This was my first job interview, and when I heard his booming voice, I almost turned around and left. He met me with a warm handshake and gentle smile. For my next 21 years at Bradley, I was blessed to have the best mentor and friend anyone could imagine — a man who gave his heart and soul to a university he truly loved.
Working as Dr. Abegg’s administrative assistant, I learned what it meant to be honest, committed, and fair. He showed me how to treat people with respect no matter what position they held. As Dr. Abegg walked across campus, he would make a point to stop and talk with anyone who crossed his path. He was so approachable, and people valued that trait about him.
One special memory I have is Dr. Abegg’s slide rule. I was intrigued to discover that it was his calculator. I soon learned an engineer never would be without a slide rule. He would smile when he took it out of his desk drawer because he knew what I was thinking — how in the world do you use that thing?
President Abegg provided me the foundation of my career at Bradley University. I have a huge hole in my heart with his passing.
Gary Anna ’75
Vice president for business affairs
It is impossible to convey the experiences that I have shared and the related feelings accompanying my work and personal association with Dr. Abegg. As I write about Jerry, three weeks after his death, tears are uncontrollably streaming down my cheeks. He was a special person. Unselfish, principled, honest, and kind are all too shallow adjectives. Jerry “got it.” He made a few decisions that usually are “poison pills” for presidents, but he always tried to do the right thing — not for himself, but for Bradley.
While walking on campus one day, he pointed to a survey marker and described how he surveyed that section of campus and placed the marker as a young civil engineer. I appreciated his engineering background further when enjoying his uncanny accuracy in reading greens on the golf course. Although he didn’t always make the putt, he never misread the green!
He loved his family and loved his cabin in Door County. His getaway there, with his wife Barb, helped him keep his perspective during the second half of his 20-year presidency. After retirement he had a number of ways to keep abreast of our progress. Recently I sent him a 1958 picture of the campus and compared it with today. As an alum, a colleague, and a friend, I was able to thank him for his efforts to advance the University. His response made it clear that he was quietly proud and pleased.
Assistant vice president for university relations
Most days, you’d see President Abegg dressed in a tweed sport coat, knit tie, and Hush Puppy shoes. It was a warm and inviting look that seemed to capture his genuine and engaging personality. He, like the door to his office, was always open. He was there to listen to faculty and staff alike, make tough decisions, and gently but firmly lead Bradley forward.
I had the privilege of working with President Abegg through the Campaign for Bradley, the University’s first major capital campaign in the 1980s. It was a success, raising more than $31 million. The real reason for its success was Jerry Abegg. Donors trusted Jerry Abegg implicitly and completely. If Jerry Abegg said Bradley needed a music center, a new art center, an expanded library, a remodeled student center, and an updated business building, then it must be so. Bradley alumni and supporters were there to carry Jerry’s vision forward. And they did.
I’ll forever miss his booming voice, his great laugh, and the twinkle in his blue eyes that would light up when he heard about a new Bradley accomplishment. Jerry Abegg brought out the very best in those who shared his dream for his beloved Institution.