Liberal Education

Bobby Fong: Man on a Mission

Our family always referred to my father as a man on a mission. His life mission is one that you are all perfectly familiar with. He sought to better the world through the education and development of the students he was responsible for—both as a teacher and as an administrator. He believed to his very core that liberal education is the key to addressing the challenges our society faces. He went into college administration because he wanted to shape an environment that pushes all young people to realize their own potential—potential that will help resolve the challenges of tomorrow. He wanted his students to be comfortable with people from all cultures, from different religions, from all walks of life. He lived for the success of those whose lives he touched, and worked tirelessly for the betterment of his college and his community.

What you all may not know is how fundamental “missions” were to every facet of his life. I can’t count the number of times that we would go shopping, and without a word he would just wander away. His head high, he would stride with unwavering steps through the mall, deaf to the confused protests of his family, only to reappear later triumphantly waving that one specific brand of socks he had seen in Consumer Reports, grinning from ear to ear and glowing with the knowledge that he had set a goal and accomplished it.

That expression of triumph was reserved for the completion of missions. I remember seeing it anytime we got his favorite “Wellfleet Mix” ice cream on Cape Cod, anytime he completed a home improvement project (those tended to be somewhat daunting for him), and certainly when he mapped out all the rides at Disney World and rode every single one in a single day. It was the look he would have had when he finally tracked down the seven cards he needed for a complete set of Topps baseball cards.

One thing that always struck me about my father was that he never got that triumphant expression when he spoke of his work. There is no question that he had an amazingly successful career and had a positive influence on thousands of lives. Your presence here today is evidence of that. Yet he never exuded the same sense of accomplishment when I spoke to him about his success at work as when I spoke to him about his new pair of socks.

When we had conversations about the direction of the college, he would assume an air of belief and contemplation, but not of triumph. Any comments I made on his success would be met with a look of quiet pride, but also a tinge of uncertainty. He had a vision for the world he wanted to create, for the person he wanted to be and for the community he wanted to be a part of, and he was forever seeking ways to make that vision a reality. The aftermath of every step forward was speculation toward what the next step should be. Because of this, his mission was never ending. He knew his life’s goal was something he could never achieve as an individual, and he would admit this openly when I spoke with him.

Instead of focusing on his own accomplishments, he would usually steer our conversation toward the factors that allowed him to be successful. Of all the lessons he taught his two sons, there is one in particular that I want to share with you. As an advocate of liberal education, he frequently emphasized the importance of critical thinking. However, the underlying foundation of his character was not scholarship and critical thought, but rather tolerance and compassion. Christianity provided the structure for this foundation in his life. His faith gave him the strength to always put the needs of others ahead of his own, and to strive ahead when times were uncertain.

However, he was not one to force his beliefs on others. He frequently spoke about his faith because that was the cornerstone from which he built his own life philosophy. Yet he realized that the spiritual road he traveled is not one that we can all follow. So the lesson that he pressed upon us most adamantly is this: regardless of what you believe, regardless of whether or not you adhere to a religion, your actions should always be shaped by the needs of others, and never by your own desires. This is the way he lived, and it is the way he wanted us to live.

My father recognized that in order to address another person’s opinion, you must first understand it. And in order to understand that person’s opinion, you must appreciate the circumstances that create their point of view. This is why tolerance, the acceptance of others, and compassion, the ability to empathize with others, are the cornerstone of critical thought, and thus a cornerstone of liberal education as well.

This is the message that I want to leave you all with today. The secret to his success is that he loved you all just as he loved his own family, and he lived to see you succeed. If we as a community—his students, his colleagues, his friends, and his family—if we strive each day to recognize the needs of those around us, to make ourselves available to those who need us, to inform the way we learn and the way we live with opinions and beliefs that we don’t agree with, we will create the culture of higher learning he fostered his entire life. As long as the decisions we make are based on tolerance and acceptance above all else, then I know that wherever my father is right now, he’ll get that grin on his face, and that glow of triumph knowing his mission is accomplished.

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Colin Fong is the son of Bobby Fong, who was president of Ursinus College until his death in September 2014 and is the only person to have served twice as chair of the AAC&U Board of Directors—first in 1994 and then again in 2012. He served as a member of the board for thirteen years in all, spanning the presidencies of John Chandler, Paula Brownlee, and Carol Schneider. This article presents remarks made by the author at a memorial service held at Ursinus on September 20. 

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