By Chuck Wasserstrom
When the notion of pursuing the open chancellor position at UTC was first broached, his initial thought process was something along the lines of … What the heck, why not interview for the job? Your hat has already been tossed in the ring, so what do you have to lose?
He knew it was a long shot, but he went for it. And to this day, so many people on campus and in the Chattanooga community are thankful that Dr. Fred Obear decided to pursue the position.
The year was 1981, and Obear had been working for Oakland University for more than 20 years. A native of Massachusetts with a New England accent to prove it, he first landed at the southeast Michigan school, located about 30 miles from Detroit, as an assistant professor of chemistry. He worked his way up the ranks both academically – becoming a full-fledged professor – and administratively, rising from dean of freshmen to assistant provost to associate provost to vice provost to acting provost to vice president of academic affairs and provost.
Oakland University, though, was going through some leadership changes, and Obear started thinking about looking around. He had 11 years of serving as the school’s senior administrative officer on his resume, and it was time to spread his wings.
Right around that period, a little bit of fate – or a chance meeting, if you will – took place. Obear’s career path was literally about to change on a running path.
Oakland University was part of an American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) inter-institutional exchange program involving several other schools – including the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga – in which the AASCU brought together similar institutions to learn from each other. Faculty, staff members, and administrators visited the other universities within their AASCU group to learn from each other.
And it was on one of those get-togethers that Obear and UTC made a connection.
“I hosted the other schools at Oakland when they came up there,” Obear said, “and one of the members of the Chattanooga group was a fellow by the name of Tom Waddell – a chemistry professor at UTC. My background is in chemistry too, so we kind of hit it off. He was a runner, and I was jogging at that time as well, so the two or three days that we were together at the Oakland University campus, Tom and I ran together each morning.”
Obear learned from Waddell that UTC was in the beginning phases of a chancellor search following the resignation of James Drinnon. But Waddell didn’t share one nugget with Obear.
“As it turned out, he was also a member of the search committee at UTC looking for a new chancellor,” Obear said. “I didn't know this until years later. He put my name in.”
Several weeks after their shared quality running treks, Obear received a letter in the mail, basically stating “You've been nominated for chancellor. Are you interested in this job?”
Obear did some research and couldn’t get around the concept that the University of Tennessee had a tendency to hire from within the system. “Not necessarily the campus, but they didn't go outside of the UT system that much for appointments,” he said. “I thought this was a real long shot. I didn't know that Tom was the source of putting my name in.”
Obear discussed the UTC position with his wife, Trisha. After 20-plus years at Oakland, they were pretty entrenched in the local community; their oldest son, Jeffrey, had just started college, and they had two high school-age children – Debbie and James. Would they really consider a move? Or, more precisely, did they really think a Tennessee school would choose a native New Englander with Michigan roots as its chancellor?
“Well, Trisha and I talked about it, and we agreed that the interview experience would be really good for me – so why don't I activate that and just see what happens,” Obear said. “I thought there were a couple of candidates from Knoxville in the finalist group, and there was one candidate from UTC in the group, and I just assumed during my interview here that I'd find out how interviews like that went and gain some experience with it.
“I went through the whole interview process, and lo and behold ended up – surprisingly to me – with the position. When president Edward Boling from the UT system called me and invited me to Knoxville to meet his staff up there and said that I was his choice for this appointment, I was bowled over. I was absolutely thrilled.”
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Little did Fred Obear know that when he first arrived in Chattanooga, it would become his new permanent home. He came to UTC nearly half a life ago, and he remains a popular figure around town.
When he first set foot on campus, the first thing he needed to do was gain acceptance and grow the institution. While he never was going to be a Tennessee native, Obear did need to learn the Tennessee way – and he quickly was indoctrinated by a member of the search committee.
“There was a woman on the committee by the name of Betty Whaley, who later became president of the UT Alumni Association. She was a University of Chattanooga alum,” Obear said. “Betty was supportive of my being appointed, but she was a little concerned about my northern roots.
“I remember to this day her admonishing me with the statement, ‘Fred, I want you to know that we get just as much done in the south as you got done in the north – except we do it a whole lot less frantically.’ I thought, ‘What a wonderful way to describe it.’ And I joined the non-frantic group, willingly and eagerly. It was a wonderful, wonderful comment from her.”
Being the new kid in town, Obear was tasked with moving a stagnant university forward. A lot of changes needed to be made – and he was extremely equipped to lead that change. Luckily for Obear, the UTC community was ready for a transformation.
“I have to say it was a very easy transition coming here,” he said. “People were so welcoming down here. The campus was in a little bit of turmoil at that point, and there were some strained town relations. As this was 1981, we were five years away from our 100th anniversary, and the charge that (UT president) Ed Boling laid on me was to reconnect everything internally and externally. We needed to build a support base externally in the community leading up to that anniversary celebration, and a major capital campaign was going to be a part of that. And we needed to put things in shape internally – to strengthen university governance and to refine and focus the university mission. So there was a lot to do.
“I think one of the accomplishments we achieved was growth in both size and diversity at the university. I had as my focal point – with faculty and community leaders and legislators and trustees and so forth – that what I hoped we would do would be to grow in quality and responsiveness each year. And I wanted to increase student quality. We raised admission standards, we improved retention and graduation rates, and we added more – and I think better – faculty as well.”
The student population when he became chancellor was a little over 7,000. The number was in five digits by the time his tenure ended. Increasing the university’s diversity played a significant role.
“We were the first campus in the state to reach its desegregation goals for both graduate students and undergraduate students and for faculty and staff,” he said. At the time he arrived at UTC, all of the campuses in the University of Tennessee system, as well as the campuses in the state border regions group, were under a desegregation court order. “I'm proud to say it went extremely smoothly here in Chattanooga. We set out to get to the goals before anybody else in the state did.”
His many highlights as chancellor included introducing undergraduate programs in physical therapy and legal systems. Graduate programs expanded in English, nursing, business, public administration, and environmental sciences.
“Oh, those were exciting times,” he said. “There were a few naysayers in there, and there were some who thought we should stay a totally undergraduate institution – sort of like a public version of a private liberal arts college. But we were strong in professional programs. Even though UC started as a liberal arts college, it always had a teacher education component, and then later the business and engineering and health science programs were added.
“It was a fun time because these things all had to go through the faculty governance system, and they were the people who were resistors to change. I always joked about one faculty member in the history department – he will go nameless because I don't want to embarrass him – but I used to say if I could get him to come out against it, I knew I could get the vote for it. And he was a strong proponent for a kind of university that we were not. That was the other thing I think we did early on in my tenure, and that was to clarify our mission of what we call a metropolitan university.
“We're not just an urban institution; we serve students from rural areas – and we serve communities that are rural – but we are located in the city of Chattanooga. We like that metropolitan university concept, which isn't so much a description of geography as it is a philosophy. I think it's how you interact with your community. And we needed to strengthen the ties to the Chattanooga community – particularly with that development challenge coming up with the 100th anniversary.
“As we increased admission standards, instead of losing students who formerly would have been admitted, we replaced them with students coming into these new programs. So we didn't lose enrollment by increasing admission standards, which was a bit of a hard sell before the faculty senate. They asked, ‘Is that really going to happen?’ But it did happen.”
Obear’s tenure also set the wheels in motion for institutional expansion. He began the battle to give tuition breaks to students in nearby neighboring states who lived within the metropolitan Chattanooga area. He also started the push to make UTC a destination for out-of-state and international students, laying the groundwork for the growth of on-campus housing options.
“Being an urban campus, we had great difficulty trying to expand the footprint of the campus because we were so close to downtown – and everything was built up or owned by somebody else,” he said. “We did pick up some things during my tenure, but we needed additional land purchases – and that has gone on since then.
“Urban campuses can be landlocked, and we have downtown Chattanooga to the west of us. To the east of us, we had the Fort Wood area, which is on the historical register, so there's no way to touch that. And to the north of us, there were three cemeteries and the Tennessee River. I used to joke that it would be easier to move the Tennessee River than the three cemeteries. So the only expansion for the campus was south … and we have now moved south. It's been wonderful to be able to pick up all that property.
“The chancellors who followed me – Bill Stacy, Roger Brown, and Steve Angle – really took the ball and ran with it and did some wonderful things here. They've all done a great job with continuing the development of UTC.”
Obear’s original plan was to serve as UTC’s chancellor for 10 years. Presidents of the UT system repeatedly asked him to stay put, though, and he continued in his role for an additional six years until Stacy was hired in 1997.
Sadly, Obear’s tenure did come with some personal loss. Trisha Obear suffered an aneurysm in late December 1993 and died unexpectedly at the age of 56. In her honor, he established the Patricia Draper Obear Distinguished Teaching Professorship.
It wasn’t the first time he honored a family member. His mother, Dorothea, was a frequent campus visitor before passing away during UTC’s centennial-year celebration; he established the Dorothea Woods Obear Scholarship in the Honors College in her memory.
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A few years after his first wife passed away, just as he was finishing his chancellor duties, Obear reconnected with a former elementary school classmate who he first met during the 1944-1945 school year. It sounded like something out of a movie script as he described the reconnection.
“Interesting story … my family moved to the town that she lived in just north of Boston,” Obear said. “She lived on Second Street and I lived on First Street in the little town of Chelmsford, Mass.
“I joined Ruth's fourth-grade class halfway through the year – and we went through grades four, five, six, seven, and eight together. Then we went to different high schools. We never dated or anything in high school.
“We stayed in touch over the years. Our families knew each other, and when I would go back, I would go over and see her folks. I had been the paperboy in the neighborhood, so I knew a lot of the people there.
“She got married and spent a lot of time overseas. Her husband was an executive with Eastman Kodak in the international division, so they spent a lot of time in South Africa and England.
“We just stayed in touch – our communication was mostly Christmas letters, that sort of thing – and reconnected several years after Trisha died. We started communicating and seeing each other, and we decided that we both didn't like living as single people. So in February 1998, we got married.
“I’ve found that it works both ways. I’ve said about my first marriage … out of a wonderful marriage, you become best friends. And in my second marriage, we’ve brought best friends into the marriage at the beginning. It works either way. So I'm a lucky guy.”
Between Fred and Ruth, they have five children and nine grandchildren in their blended family.
* * * * *
After 16 years as chancellor, Obear planned on staying in Chattanooga. To do that, though, he first needed some time away.
Obear had spent his last few years on campus without Trisha – “I was working not as a team of two, but as a team of one, and quite frankly it wasn't as much fun to do it alone that way … going back to that big house at night, rattling around in it” – so he decided to take a year away from UTC and head off to Washington, D.C. His idea for a one-year sabbatical was to lead Smithsonian Institution walking tours – and then get himself retooled to come back to UTC in a teaching/fundraising position.
Shortly after arriving in D.C., the AASCU – which is headquartered in the nation’s capital – found itself one officer short. And a person coming off a long stint as chancellor just happened to be in town.
“They asked me to serve for a year at AASCU as the interim academic and international programs vice president,” Obear said. “And that was the year that Ruth and I rekindled our relationship. We got married during that year, and she moved out to Washington with me for the last three months I was there.
“Then I came back to Chattanooga in the summer of ’98 and started up that half-time teaching, half-time administrative position – and continued that for seven years.”
That’s when UTC reached out to him for a huge favor. Bill Stacy was stepping down as chancellor. Obear was asked by UT system president John Peterson to return as interim chancellor for the 2004-2005 school year while the university conducted a search for Stacy’s successor.
“I was enjoying retirement,” Obear said, “but when they came to me …
“A couple of funny things were said when I agreed to come back as the interim. Jim Ward, who's a wonderful professor of history at the university – and a somewhat irreverent guy … when he heard that I was coming back, he looked at me and said, ‘Well, Fred, maybe you'll get it right this time.’
“A lot of people joked that the reason I got the interim appointment was that we were here in town and we couldn't hide. But it turned out to be great. Ruth and I had fun with that interim position. That was her first time in the role of First Lady for the university, and I have to tell you … at the end of the year, I was ready to go back to retirement, but she was not. She was having a great time. She really enjoyed it. She said, ‘Why don't you just stay on?’ You know, ‘Been there, done that, time to move on.’”
Since his chancellor days, Obear has been involved with a pair of consulting firms – the Penson Center for Professional Development, which is part of the AASCU – and Capital Formation Counselors, a consulting and strategic planning group for large family-owned privately held corporations that want to make generational transfers. He also is a member of Chattanooga’s Rotary Club and continues to serve on local not-for-profit boards.
Obear also is a trailblazer of sorts, making Chattanooga his “after chancellor” residence. His two successors, Bill Stacy and Roger Brown, followed suit.
“Steve Angle, our current chancellor, has three retired chancellors in town – and he can call on us at any time to represent the university when he can't be in two places at the same time. I jokingly say I do weddings and funerals,” Obear said. “But that's at his beck-and-call, though. We stand out of the way, in the background, only to be available when he thinks it's appropriate so that we're not getting in his way at any time.
“We're fortunate that we're able to do these things. Chattanooga's a great spot, and we decided that this is where we would stay after retirement – and so did Bill Stacy, and so did Roger Brown. Poor Steve has three of us around here.
“Truthfully, it’s important to me that I’m still connected to the university. I serve on the Honors College Board. I've been working on some special projects that either the development people or the chancellor asked me to. And I've worked with the development people on some athletics fundraising. Athletics always needs money, so that's a constant here. I guess maybe I've moved from a specific role as a fundraiser for the University to a ‘friendraiser’ for the University, and I enjoy that a lot.”
Meanwhile, the Obears can be frequently found in the stands rooting on the Mocs at many sporting events. Their enthusiasm for UTC athletics has earned them much recognition and admiration; they have won the athletic department’s Harold Wilkes Award and the Greater Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame’s Fred Gregg Jr. Memorial Award in recent years.
“Ruth and I also have a place down in Florida, but we're only down there two or three weeks at a time,” he said. “So we go to all of the athletic events that are in town and usually one or two out-of-town ones. We've been supporters of the men's and women's basketball programs, the football program, and we love the tennis matches, golf, and things like that. If we’re in town, we’re going.
“We even know most of the players. We were just reading an article this morning about all the new players on the men’s basketball team; there's something like 10 new players, and I said to Ruth, ‘We’ve got to get to know these kids. We don't know anybody on the team for next year.’ So we have plenty of new kids to meet.
“Ruth is an avid, good athlete, and an avid supporter of athletics. I just follow her to all these activities. And we have a good time doing it.”
And to think, he might not have become a Chattanooga legend if it wasn’t for a couple networking jobs around the Oakland University campus.
These days, Obear might be officially retired – but he’s far too busy to be called a retiree. He still maintains an office on campus and does plenty of volunteer work on behalf of the university – along with rooting on the Mocs, of course – and that suits him fine.
“I was recently asked, ‘Do you miss being chancellor?’ And I said, ‘No, not at all,’” he answered with a laugh. "I told that person, ‘Somebody once told me that being a university president is like being a captain of a ship, where everyone mutinies – but nobody jumps ship.’ I'm fine with what I'm doing now. I'm enjoying myself.”