Faculty, friends and students filled the atrium of Fromm Hall on Nov. 16 to witness its dedication to Robert E. Fordham, executive director of USF’s Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning. The Institute is a “University within a University,” as their website describes. The dedication saw around 600 attendees estimates Fordham’s successor Derek Leighnor. “In all it was a light, joyful occasion just as Robert would have wanted,” Leighnor said. When Fordham passed away on Oct. 12, the Institute and broader USF community lost the dedicated caretaker of the original and oldest program of its kind.
Fordham joined the team of the Institute in 1986, ten years after Alfred and Hannah Fromm established it. The Institute’s board of directors selected Fordham to replace Hannah Fromm, his close friend and mentor, as executive director after her death in 2003. The Institute offers college-level classes in the arts, humanities and sciences for retirees over the age of 50, for no credit and only a few hundred dollars. There is also a scholarship fund that allows people to pay what they can, if not the whole price.
Fordham’s successor Derek Leighnor called the Institute “Robert’s baby” for the 31 years Fordham was there. Assistant director for program resources Carla Hall agreed. “He was incredibly dedicated to the Fromm Institute,” she said. “He offered stability to people with a very highly structured and well-tuned program. People could expect great service, great classes, feeling respected.”
As a personable, creative and multi-talented leader, Fordham was an essential character in the operation of the Institute. He was responsible for hiring professors and was incredibly proud of his faculty, as Tyrone Cannon, his husband and university library dean described. “Both nationally and especially in the Bay Area, the program enjoys an excellent reputation,” Cannon said. “Recruiting and finding faculty was never a problem.” Fordham also raised funds to obtain the space in which the Institute now resides.
Fordham did many odd jobs to preserve the Institute, recalled Herbert Gracias, the Institute’s specialist in instructional technology and media. Gracias said Fordham “always had to put out small fires.” Fordham was able to operate as the liaison between the program staff, faculty, board and University, while maintaining an open-door policy with his faculty and students. “That helped the program a lot because people felt comfortable coming here,” Gracias said. His staff dubbed him the “Mad Hatter” – able to wear a hat for every responsibility.
“It was Robert’s mission to make the Fromm Institute a more integrated part of our campus,” said senior nursing student Rose Mannas. Mannas was the recipient of the Fromm Institute Scholarship, an award established by Fordham and funded by Fromm students through their purchase of tickets to special holiday lectures. The recipient is a USF undergraduate student studying gerontology (the process of aging), and in return for the grant, the student works on a project involving the Fromm Institute. Mannas decided to create the inter-generational club “Generation to Generation,” whose members are both Fromm and undergraduate students. “This club would not be in existence without the influence of Robert,” Mannas said.
Beyond his capability as a leader, Fordham was loved for his character. “He never thought twice when he would give,” Assistant Director Hall said. Fordham would buy his staff lunch every Friday, no questions asked, his staff remembers. Hall added, “He loved to talk and tell stories and really get to know people. He really loved to spend time, quality time.”
Dawa Dorjee, the Institute’s program manager for student services, still remembers the warmth he felt from Fordham’s welcome when he was hired on as an immigrant. Dorjee said Fordham was “a very open-minded leader.”
The Fromm Institute Student Association plans to install a remembrance plaque in Fordham’s name near the Berman Room in Fromm Hall, according to Lois Roach, the President of the Student Association.
This article has been updated to reflect the correct date of Robert E. Fordham’s passing.