Ed Kaelber, founding president of College of the Atlantic, died peacefully last week at the age of 94. PHOTO COURTESY OF COA

Visionary Kaelber remembered



BAR HARBOR — In 1971, Sam Eliot was part of a three-person crew sailing the Friendship sloop Amos Swan from Friendship to Southwest Harbor. The boat had recently been purchased by Edward Kaelber, College of the Atlantic’s founding president.

Kaelber died peacefully last week in a Charlottesville, Va., senior living center at the age of 94.

“The voyage almost ended before it began, due to a tidal rip and an inconvenient granite ledge,” Eliot said. “But we got past that and sailed toward Belfast for a while until two things happened. The fog began to thicken, and [we] discovered the sloop was missing three desirable tools: a chart, a compass and a working engine.”

That was a bit like the uncharted territory of their other endeavor, founding a college on Mount Desert Island. “In the early days, Ed was fond of saying ‘The omens are good,'” said Eliot, who was serving as vice president of the new college.

The initial board of trustees was chaired by Seldon Bernstein, then the associate director of The Jackson Laboratory. Other trustees included Les Brewer, Jim Gower, Tom Gates, Charlie Tyson, Betty Thorndike and Amos Eno.

Kaelber also recruited Elizabeth Russell, a senior scientist at The Jackson Laboratory; Theodore Sizer, the dean of the Harvard School of Education; Winthrop Libby, the president of the University of Maine; and Rene Dubos, a professor at Rockefeller University.

“Such a list tells us something about Ed’s powers of persuasion,” Eliot said.

Kaelber lived in Bar Harbor for more than 40 years and spent 12 years at the helm of COA.

Rich Borden, a current psychology and human ecology professor at the college, called Kaelber a “genius at human relations.”

“His intuitive sense for bringing people together — and making them feel valuable — was extraordinary,” Borden said in an email. “So was his capacity for making ideas ‘believable.’ When he talked about the future, somehow you just knew it would happen.”

Borden was pulled aside by Kaelber and was asked to chair the academic affairs committee at COA, a request that Borden initially resisted because he was not confident in his knowledge of college administration.

“Ed made an unforgettable reply,” Borden said. “The job required only one thing, he said, ‘to arrange affairs so that people will work together.’ It was the core of Ed’s organizational philosophy of education.

“Kindness was his central value and highest hope for humanity.”

“Ed was a friend, a mentor and a colleague all in one,” current COA President Darron Collins said Tuesday. “He knew and loved Bar Harbor and MDI so dearly.”

The foundation Kaelber laid for COA was based on timeless ideas, Collins said. Along with Kaelber’s many professional achievements, Collins said, “it’s important to remember him as a great father and human.”

In 1983, COA’s main structure with offices and classrooms was completely destroyed by a fire. Eliot recalls Kaelber visiting the property one year after he stepped down from his role as president to encourage the college’s leadership to push on.

“He arrived in Anne Peach’s office in Turrets, hugged her, and said ‘The phoenix will rise from the ashes,’” Eliot said. “As usual, Ed was right.”

Soon, the trustees moved to form the Phoenix Fund, which eventually raised enough money to build a campus that was “so infinitely better than what was there.”

Also in 1983, Kaelber founded the Maine Community Foundation, a nonprofit seeking to improve the quality of life for all Mainers. The foundation started with a $10 donation from New York businessman Robert Blum and has since grown to $530 million in estimated assets.

“Ed Kaelber was a remarkable leader in so many ways,” said Steven Rowe, Maine Community Foundation president and CEO, in a statement. “He had a unique talent to inspire others to join him in turning innovative ideas into reality. The Maine Community Foundation is just one example. Ed epitomized the foundation’s mission ‘to improve the lives of all Maine people.’”

Kaelber reflected on his contributions to the state in an interview with the Maine Community Foundation.

“I like to think in one way or another I’ve helped a lot of people, and I feel good about that,” he said. “I think I’ve helped the state of Maine. But when I say ‘I,’ I have to put that in context: I mean it was me and the people I was able to get to join me. None of it could I have done alone.”

Samuel Shepherd

Samuel Shepherd

Samuel Shepherd is a University of Maine graduate and a former Bar Harbor reporter for the Mount Desert Islander.
Samuel Shepherd

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