Lycoming College service remembers former president
Having overseen the expansion and construction of much of the current Lycoming College campus, Bishop D. Frederick Wertz is referred to as “The Builder” in the college’s history. But for those who knew him, he built much more than structures – he built direction for the college and character in those he came in contact with.
Stories of interactions and how he has impacted the campus, past and present, were shared Friday as the Lycoming College community gathered to remember and celebrate the life of its 10th president, who passed away Oct. 16. He served as college president from 1955 to 1968.
Wertz, who became the president of the college 58 years ago this week, was a man with a vision when taking over from the Rev. Dr. John W. Long, the college’s longest-serving president.
Dr. James E. Douthat, who retired as college president this past year, stated Wertz’s goal for the college as simply “to create a liberal arts college of general excellence.”
But Douthat stressed that Wertz’s success in building up the campus was not simply taking advantage of opportunity, but was built through strong focus and leadership.
That leadership was in full effect for Rev. Dr. Bruce Fisher, a 1956 graduate of Lycoming, even before Wertz took the presidency at the college.
As Wertz was preparing to take over the position, he asked Fisher to speak on behalf of the students at his inauguration ceremony. Fisher was honored but wondered aloud why Wertz wouldn’t have the president of the student body speak instead.
In response to Fisher’s inquiry: “(Wertz) leaned in and looked at me with those penetrating eyes and said, ‘I want you to speak on behalf of the students.’ That was it. I almost saluted him,” he remembered.
It also was during the tenure of Wertz that 13 buildings, including a majority of the campus’ residential halls, and the Quad were constructed.
And it was through one of those buildings, the student center, which would be named after Wertz years later, that saw him give a space for students to gather and interact. Gregory Vartan, president of the college’s student senate, explained that, like it did when it first was built, the student center continues to empower students.
But not only did he create buildings, but he also was responsible for programs that had great impacts on the students who participated.
It was only two years into his tenure as college president that Wertz made the “bold move” to plan a trip for the school’s choir to London.
Rev. Dr. John F. Piper Jr., emeritus professor of history and dean of the college, called the trip “one of the most memorable” in the college’s history.
Dale Bower, a 1959 graduate, who was on the trip, recalled the 24-day trip included 28 performances. He noted that for many, it was their first time on an airplane – a somewhat terrifying experience.
But for Wertz, the trip wasn’t one where he only observed the activities. He also joined in. An opportunity for square dancing arose, Bower explained, with Wertz calling out the dance.
Bower noted that at reunions years after, Wertz not only remembered names, but engaged the graduates in discussions that saw him recalling small details about each individual.
“His memory was phenomenal,” he said.
It was around the same time in his tenure as the trip that Wertz also revitalized the Chapel Speaker Program at the college. The series included Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Ruth Perry Hodge, a 1958 graduate, called meeting King “one of the best days of my life.”
As one of only two African-Americans in the college’s choir, having the opportunity to meet King was a remarkable experience. And it was possible because of Wertz.
In quoting one of her favorite sayings, “I’m drinking from my saucer because my cup has overflowed,” Hodge gave her appreciation to Wertz.
“Bishop D. Frederick Wertz is part of that overflow and I will always be grateful,” she said.
Wertz’s impact on the campus still can be felt, from buildings to the path he set the college onto.
“Lycoming was given a far different future through the efforts of D. Frederick Wertz,” Douthat said.
He noted that in Wertz’s final visit to the campus about a decade ago, he sat on the porch on the Wertz Student Center, telling stories of his time at the college and the construction of buildings. It was at that time, that Douthat said the true vision of Wertz could be seen.
“It was as if he was rebuilding the campus with those strong and firm memories,” Douthat remembered.