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Former University President Robben Fleming dies at age 93

Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library
Former President Robben Wright Fleming is shown during a student demonstration in 1969. Buy this photo

By Stephanie Steinberg, Daily News Editor
Published January 11, 2010

Robben Wright Fleming, the University’s ninth president, passed away yesterday morning at The Care and Rehabilitation Center at Glacier Hills in Ann Arbor at the age of 93.

Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library
President Fleming with demonstrators on April 15, 1988
Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library
President Fleming with students in mid June 1969.

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Fleming served as University president for 11 years from 1968 to 1979 and as interim president in 1988 between the Harold Shapiro and James Duderstadt presidencies. During his first tenure in the post, Fleming had the difficult job of maintaining peace on campus amidst Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement — stoking turmoil on campus among students and faculty alike.

While many have drummed up the tumult that surrounded his years in the presidency, Fleming wrote in his autobiography that students remained unharmed and the period did not damage the University’s reputation.

“I am proud of the fact that we never had anyone hurt badly during the course of an incident, we had no residue of hate and bitterness arising out of our conflicts and the University remained the great institution that it had always been,” he wrote.

Fleming’s tenure at the University also saw major academic advancements with the formation of the Residential College and the expansion of the University’s Flint and Dearborn campuses to four-year universities.

The son of a storekeeper and a teacher, Fleming was born on Dec. 18, 1916 in Paw Paw, Illinois — a small rural town with about 500 residents at the time.

In his autobiography “Tempests Into Rainbows,” Fleming recalled that the population of Paw Paw included mostly merchants and retired farmers. The community was so safe that there was no need for a police force or a fire department, he wrote.

During his youth, Fleming, his brothers Teddy and Jack and the kids in his neighborhood enjoyed tinkering with cars in their neighbor’s garage.

“We could devote endless hours to playing in them and in taking various parts off and putting them back on,” Fleming wrote in the book. “Even the grease that we accumulated on our clothes was a satisfactory price to our parents for the hours of diversion we enjoyed.”

However, Fleming’s childhood was not always so carefree. Teddy, who was 13 months older than Robben, died from spinal meningitis weeks before his eleventh birthday.

As a way of remembering his brother, Fleming took up Teddy’s middle name, Wheeler. Fleming never legally changed his name, but he used the middle name Wheeler until he entered World War II when he was forced to use, Wright, his legal middle name.

Fleming graduated from high school as valedictorian of his class.

Fleming’s father had died from tuberculosis in 1933, and Fleming’s mother could not afford to send him to an expensive university. As a result, he decided to attend Beloit College in 1938, a small liberal arts college, where he received a scholarship and worked jobs mopping floors and waiting tables in the dining hall on campus.

As a sophomore Fleming met Sally Quixley, who also worked in the dining hall. Soon after, the two started dating.

“She was a beautiful, dark-haired, slender girl of five feet six and was in many ways everything I was not,” Fleming wrote in his book. “She played the violin beautifully, she sang in the choir, she loved music, she won the poetry reading contest her freshman year, and she was a very good swimmer while I had all the buoyancy of a rock.”

After graduating with a baccalaureate degree, Fleming decided to attend law school. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, where he paid the tuition by working long hours at the law library.

While at Wisconsin, he studied industrial relations and labor law and ultimately received his degree in 1941.

He then went to work as a junior attorney in the Corporate Reorganization Division of the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington. Sally soon joined him, and took a job as a secretary for an insurance company in Washington.