VOICES: Frederick Ritsch — Personal Remembrances
May 9, 2016   //   By:   //   Voices

After Rick Ritsch hired me as assistant dean of faculty in 1989, I went to several national and international conferences over the next few years. Often, other faculty members would look at my name tag and ask, “where is Elizabethtown College?” Rick Ritsch and President Gerhard Spiegler recognized that the College could not and would not advance without improving its scholarly reputation. Thus began their movement to recruit and retain faculty members who were teachers and scholars, active minds in the classroom stimulated by their research, representing the College in prestigious publications, performances and conferences. Rick Ritsch was unswerving in his efforts to build an elite faculty, even when inertia fought against it. He did so to the benefit of us all–faculty, staff, students and alumni.

Elizabethtown College continues on the course Rick charted nearly 40 years ago. Subsequent provosts and presidents recognized the value of having a world-class faculty, and we have sailed into larger seas because of it. Now, the College is entering the National Liberal Arts College category in competition with some of the top schools in the country. As a member of the College’s tenure and promotion committee in the past three years, the faculty members we are recruiting and retaining are truly some of the best–not just the best we can get–the very best in their fields. To become a full professor at E-town, according to the faculty handbook, one must have attained national or international recognition. We have plenty of those today, as well.

When Rick Ritsch steered us into these uncharted waters, many were uncertain whether the USS Elizabethtown would founder or remain afloat. Rest easy my friend, because our ship continues to sail full steam toward your destination–the port where an elite institution docks. ~~ Robert Wheelersburg


At the beginning of the fall 2015 semester, President Emeritus Gerhard Spiegler died, and I wrote a personal remembrance for E-town NOW. We’ve reached the end of the 2015-2016 academic year and, once again, I feel compelled to share more memories of the Spiegler administration. The sad occasion, this time, is the passing of Provost and Dean of Faculty Emeritus Frederick Ritsch.

Hired during the last year of Mark Ebersole’s presidency in 1984, Rick Ritsch was the College’s chief academic officer until 1996, covering the entire Spiegler administration. I was the associate dean for the first-year program and faculty development during Rick’s last year in office.

Thanks to Rick’s confidence in me, I owe not only my administrative calling but my entire E-town career to him. Had Rick and my friend, colleague and department chair Wayne Selcher not convinced President Spiegler to switch my contract from terminal status to tenure-track in 1988, I would have been forced to move on.

To explain, when I arrived at Elizabethtown in the early 1980s, the Board of Trustees had in place a rule that no full-time faculty member would receive a tenure-track contract until the total percentage of tenured faculty fell below 80 percent. This applied not only to the entire faculty but to departments, so if you were appointed to a three-person department like I was, and the other two members were tenured, you were out of luck. The policy was still in place when President Spiegler took office, but he signaled that he could make exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

When my case came to Dr. Spiegler’s desk, his initial inclination was to let my contract expire. “Political scientists are a dime a dozen,” he was reported to have said. Of course he was right, as he usually was. However, Rick and Wayne intervened on my behalf. I don’t know what they said, but it must have been persuasive.

Working for Rick was pretty stress-free. Like Spiegler, Rick was a delegator. He trusted my judgment and supported the incremental changes I made to the already-strong first-year program that my predecessor, Bob Wheelersburg, had developed.

And, Rick was a decider. He was not one to consult extensively or form a study committee. No doubt, this helped explain why he avoided burnout and lasted a dozen years in the job. He trusted his own judgment and, like Spiegler, he was right most of the time.

Oh, and he was a wisecracker and sometimes a trickster, too. As I began my associate dean duties, I applied for promotion to full professor. A few weeks later, Rick called me to his office for what I thought was an administrative issue. It turned out that the subject of the meeting was the promotion decision, and he shook his head, grim-faced, indicating that I had fallen short. When he saw my face sag, his eyes brightened and he grabbed my hand vigorously, saying “You got it!”

The Spiegler years were known for the great buildings—the High Library, Leffler Chapel and the Annenberg Center among them—and a vision of national importance, exemplified by the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. Underappreciated, perhaps, were the academic program changes that Provost Ritsch facilitated.

The Core program was revised to establish first-year seminars and first-year advising, Areas of Understanding, a Junior-Senior Colloquium (abolished in the early 2000s but recently revived in the form of a pilot Interdisciplinary Colloquium program), and writing-across-the-curriculum.

Hard as it is to believe, there were no academic minors before Rick Ritsch took office. Nor was there plus/minus grading or an Honors in the Discipline program. New majors in international business, professional writing and actuarial science were created. He initiated allied health agreements with Thomas Jefferson Medical Center.

There aren’t a whole lot of us left in active service whom Rick appointed and groomed, but the Betty Riders, David Downings, Jane Cavenders and David Browns he hired paved the way for the teacher-scholar model that President Ted Long and Provost Ron McAllister brought to fruition. With his support, the Faculty Assembly was established. All faculty members owe Rick Ritsch a great debt.

The last time I saw Rick was last October in Leffler Chapel at the concert for dystonia awareness that his wife and my colleague, the pianist Debbie Ronning, organized. Deb and her trio performed, and their daughter, Annie, who went to pre-school with my son, Nate, gave a wonderful presentation.

While the dystonia program was moving and informative, I couldn’t help thinking about the year I spent in Rick’s office—the sounds of classical music playing, pipe smoke wafting, our administrative assistant, Jean Beck, joyfully presiding and Rick cackling over the latest hare-brained scheme he just heard (or concocted).

Faculty demands for shared governance progressed in the 1980s and 1990s, ultimately bringing an end to the Spiegler era.

In the meantime, it was good to know that Rick was in charge. ~~ Fletcher McClellan

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