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S. Douglass Cater, 72, president of Washington College, '82 to '90


Former Washington College President S. Douglass Cater died at the bucolic Chestertown campus yesterday, one day before the inauguration of the college's new leader. Mr. Cater, who also was an author and former government official, was 72.

Mr. Cater, who headed the college from 1982 to 1990, had suffered from pulmonary fibrosis for several years. He died at approximately 10:30 a.m. yesterday while surrounded by his family.

Retired to his hometown of Montgomery, Ala., since 1991, Mr. Cater had stopped in Chestertown in August while traveling with his wife to Vermont when he fell seriously ill. He had stayed at the campus guest cottage since then.

Mr. Cater is credited with relentlessly prodding the four-year school to a higher prominence in the region and the nation, bringing nationally known figures to its board of trustees and much-needed dollars to its coffers. He spearheaded a campaign to raise money -- a task he called "the last of the genuine blood sports" -- netting approximately $43 million.

Associates described him as a man with an incisive mind and a fierce temper, both of which he used to promote his campus. He was responsible for much-needed construction on the campus and started academic initiatives such as an honors program and a public affairs program.

"He was both sizzle and steak. He brought a lot of zip to the place, and he bragged about it," said English professor Robert Day, who is also the director of the O'Neill Literary House. "His line was, 'I'm a storyteller for Washington College and I've got a good story to tell.' "

Mr. Cater was succeeded by Charles Trout, who resigned a year ago after a struggle over leadership with faculty members. In a statement yesterday, President John S. Toll, who is to be formally vested with his office's powers this morning, called Mr. Cater "the ardent champion of an 'endangered species,' the small liberal arts college."

While Mr. Cater wrote numerous opinion pieces defending colleges from the attacks of conservative critics during the 1980s, he did not start his career as an educator. Instead, his star ascended as a classic Washington insider, beginning as a Harvard-educated journalist, then becoming an award-winning political analyst and trusted aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Under Johnson, he focused on civil rights and educational issues.

He was involved extensively with the Aspen Institute in Colorado and in the late 1970s, served for several years as vice chairman of the London Observer, England's oldest newspaper.

In addition, Mr. Cater wrote several books on politics and journalism before bringing his contacts and concentration to Chestertown. Despite its proud two centuries of tradition, the school had been suffering in enrollments and finances before his arrival.

"The college wasn't that well-known, it wasn't that successful, but Doug brought it into the new century and gave it stature," said longtime trustee William B. Johnson. "He did that through his personal relationships between people he knew and very, very hard work. He was a man to be proud of.

"He was very pushy, he was persuasive, and he just refused to take no for an answer," Mr. Johnson said. "We had some very good presidents before, but Doug eclipsed almost all of them."

Silas Douglass Cater Jr. was the son of Nancy Chesnutt Cater and Silas Douglass Cater Sr. He is survived by his wife, Libby Anderson Cater; his brother, William B. Cater; and four children: Silas Douglass Cater III; Rebecca Sage Cater; Libby Morrow Cater; and Ben Cater. He is also survived by four grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held on campus tomorrow at 4 p.m. in the school's Casey Academic Center Forum. The family will receive guests in the garden of Hynson Ringgold House immediately after the service.

Family members suggest contributions to the Society of Junior Fellows at Washington College in memory of Douglass Cater.

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