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Robert H. Chambers III was the seventh president of Western Maryland College.
Robert H. Chambers III was the seventh president of Western Maryland College. (Baltimore Sun)

Robert H. Chambers III, whose tenure as the seventh president of Western Maryland College was marked by a renovated campus, increased enrollment and expansion abroad, died Jan 15 at John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Indio, Calif., of complications from an intestinal ulcer. He was 75.

The Gainesville, Fla., resident had been on vacation when stricken, family members said.

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"Bob's legacy is that our physical campus was transformed significantly under his leadership. The expansion of our Hoover Library, which is our centerpiece, is one of our real hallmarks," said Roger N. Casey, who has been president since 2010 of what is now McDaniel College.

"He was a real extrovert, and he loved people and being around people," said Joan Develin Coley, who was provost under Dr. Chambers and later served as president of McDaniel from 2000 to 2010.

"He enjoyed being president of the college and was like Bill Clinton, who enjoyed being president. He loved the hand-pressing, and it really showed. People liked being around Clinton and they liked being around Bob," said Dr. Coley. "He had a great sensibility about the college."

The son of Robert H. Chambers Jr., former co-owner of Camel City Laundry, and Hildred McDonald Chambers, an office manager at the Winston-Salem Credit Union, Robert Hunter Chambers III was born and raised in Winston-Salem, N.C.

After graduating in 1958 from R.J. Reynolds High School, where he had been class president and kicker for the varsity football team, he earned a bachelor's degree in economics and business administration from Duke University in 1962.

He married his high school sweetheart, the former Alice Grant, that year, and they lived together in New Haven, Conn., where he completed a bachelor's degree in divinity in 1965 as a Rockefeller Fellow at Yale University. He then moved to Providence, R.I., where he earned a doctorate in American civilization at Brown University.

Dr. Chambers began his academic career in 1969 as dean of Yale's Davenport College and assistant professor of English and American studies at Yale, where he had the opportunity to work with one of his mentors, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Robert Penn Warren, author of "All the King's Men," among other works.

During his senior year at Yale, cartoonist Gary Trudeau shared a floor with Dr. Chambers in the residential college of Davenport.

"This meant I saw a lot of not just my dean, but also his wife, Alice, and especially his little daughter Lisa," said Mr. Trudeau. "It was a lovely experience, like being adopted into another family, laughing and cooking, and doing laundry a few feet away."

He described Dr. Chambers as an "ebullient and outgoing presence" who was interested in what his students were doing both academically and personally, while giving "a perfectly credible impression of an authority figure. It probably helped that he had a Beatle haircut and looked about 12 years old."

"I've known Bob since he was a young dean at Yale when he was at the beginning of his career as a university administrator," recalled former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who was a Yale student in those days.

"I remember that he always seemed to view university life with a sense of wonder and that we shouldn't take it for granted. It was a privilege, not an entitlement," said Mr. Schmoke, who is now president of the University of Baltimore. "He was a very inspiring person, and I was honored when he asked me to be a trustee of Western Maryland College years ago."

From 1972 to 1973, he was a visiting fellow at Clare College, University of Cambridge, in England. In 1975, he was named dean of Bucknell University's College of Arts and Sciences in Lewisburg, Pa., where he was also professor of English.

During his tenure at Bucknell, he edited a volume of critical essays titled "Twentieth Century Interpretations of 'All the King's Men.' " While on sabbatical in 1982, he was a visiting scholar at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.

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In 1984, Dr. Chambers was named the seventh president of Western Maryland College. The school's board of trustees changed the name to McDaniel College 18 years later.

"Bob was the first president who wasn't a Methodist minister to head the college," said Dr. Coley.

When Dr. Chambers visited the college for the first time, he told The Baltimore Sun in a 1984 interview, "I thought the place felt right. It may sound silly, but colleges have a feeling about them."

He added: "It also gives me an opportunity to go out on the stump and say, 'It's a new place, a new era. Western Maryland College is an act waiting to go on stage.' "

Indeed it was, as Dr. Chambers pushed for the renovation of every major academic building on the college campus, including Hoover Library, and the construction of the Eaton Hall of Science and an addition to Levine Hall.

Enrollment increased from just over 1,000 undergraduate students to 1,500. He spearheaded the effort that established a McDaniel campus in Budapest, Hungary, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year.

"Bob turned us into an international college, and he brought the Ravens training camp here in 1995," said Dr. Casey.

"He had a real feel for the addition to the Hoover Library and hired an award-winning architectural firm to do it. He had a touch that wouldn't let the campus look common. That was different from the way it had been," said Dr. Coley.

"He raised the campus to a new level. Everything he did was quality, and it showed. He wanted to raise our sights of who we were, and he did that very well," she said.

After graduation, Mr. Trudeau and Dr. Chambers kept in touch.

"Bob accomplished a great deal during his tenure, was justly proud of it, and enlisted me to spread the word. I volunteered my characters from 'Doonesbury,' and some very talented graphic artists took it from there, using them on envelopes and brochures sent out to prospective students for several years thereafter," said Mr. Trudeau.

"Applicant interest shot up and enrollment swelled, for which, of course, Bob gave me full credit, feeling that Mike Doonesbury made Western Maryland's marketing material stand out," he said. "The truth, of course, was that on many levels, Bob was making the college shine, the students were happy and engaged, and word was getting out."

Dr. Chambers never lost his love of being in the classroom and taught an English seminar course, often on Robert Penn Warren. "He very much loved teaching and writing," said Dr. Coley.

Before he left Western Maryland in 2000, he had set the wheels in motion that changed the name of the college and completed a $40 million fundraising campaign.

"That was a significant campaign for a campus of our size," said Dr. Casey.

"I am proud of where the college is today," Dr. Chambers told The Sun at the time of his departure. "You can't point to a part of Western Maryland that isn't stronger."

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"There's no question that he left the college a far more dynamic, socially rich and architecturally handsome place than he'd found it," said Mr. Trudeau.

After leaving the college, he went to work as a senior consultant for Marts & Lundy Inc., a major international firm assisting colleges, universities and preparatory schools with their fundraising needs.

While on leave from Marts & Lundy from 2004 to 2005, he was provost and dean of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne in Australia. He retired from Marts & Lundy in 2007.

Dr. Chambers was a world traveler who had visited 70 countries on six continents and the 48 contiguous states. He hiked 530 miles across northern Spain in 2000, and as a 40-year runner, had logged some 18,000 miles.

His personal library included 4,000 books. He also collected antique clocks, coffee mugs and Elvis Presley memorabilia.

Dr. Chambers wrote occasional book reviews for the literary journal The Critical Flame and for The Beachwood Reporter.

Plans for a celebration of Dr. Chambers' life to be held in Winston-Salem on May 17 are incomplete.

Survivors include a son, Grant Chambers of San Francisco; a daughter, Lisa Chambers of New York City; a brother, Ralph "Mac" McDonald Chambers of Greensboro, N.C.; and his companion, Jennie Mingolelli of Indio. His marriage ended in divorce.

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