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E.K. Fretwell

E.K. Fretwell arrived at UNC Charlotte in 1979 with a national reputation as an educator. In his 10 years as chancellor, he conferred that national reputation on the one-time commuter college in the rolling countryside northeast of the city.

Fretwell died Thursday afternoon at The Cypress. He was 88.

UNCC's first chancellor, Dean W. Colvard, had laid the groundwork for a solid regional university. Fretwell, fresh from an 11-year stint as president of the State University of New York College at Buffalo, hoisted his lanky, 6-foot-7 frame atop that foundation and planted the flag for an urban university, with an expanding emphasis on the liberal arts.

"E.K. was larger than life physically and metaphorically," said Doug Orr, president emeritus of Warren Wilson College, who served as Fretwell's one-time vice chancellor for development and public service at UNCC.

"Charlotte was not well-known, but E.K. was," Orr said. "As soon as he got here, he was asked to chair one board after another."

Fretwell saw UNCC as a growth stock.

"UNCC had grown fast," he told a reporter in 1979, "but it still had plenty of potential."

During Fretwell's decade in Charlotte, both U.S. News & World Report and Money magazine cited UNCC as an unheralded bargain. Enrollment climbed from 8,705 students to nearly 13,000 by the time he retired. Today, more than 26,000 attend the university.

"He wanted to cast a wider net in public service," Orr said. Those services include the Urban Institute, the International Studies program, a developing University City and an expanding athletics program.

He took major steps toward diversity, as well.

"During his tenure," says Carol Correll, administrative assistant with UNCC's Office of the Chancellor Emeritus, "the international student population grew to 3 percent of undergraduates, which, at the time, was the highest of any UNC system institutions, including Chapel Hill and N.C. State."

He also transformed the radio station, WFAE-FM (90.7). When Fretwell arrived, it was a 10-watt, student-run operation. The chancellor sought financial support and got the station affiliated with NPR.

Degree in English

Elbert Kirtley Fretwell Jr. was born in New York City on Oct. 29, 1923, to Elbert and Jean Hosford Fretwell. He attended New York City's Lincoln School and graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut with a degree in English.

After getting a master's in teaching from Harvard, he rolled up his sleeves and stepped into the classroom – seventh- and eighth-grade social studies in Brookline, Mass., followed by two years of 12th-grade and community college English in Evanston, Ill. The latter stint won him a John Hay Whitney fellowship, awarded each year to 20 outstanding high school teachers.

That same year, 1951, Fretwell married the former Dorrie Shearer, a professional soprano, (she died Dec. 30, 2011, only months after they celebrated their 60th anniversary), and the couple moved to New York City, where two years later he earned his Ph.D. at Teacher's College of Columbia University.

He served as university dean for academic development for three years at the City University of New York before assuming the presidency of the College at Buffalo in 1967.

A 'railroad fetish'

No matter where Fretwell headed, his interest in trains followed.

The story goes that Fretwell left his wife on their honeymoon to ride a train making its final trip. The bride gamely drove alongside the tracks, picking him up when the ride ended.

"He came as close to having a railroad fetish as you can have," said Dennis Rash, who served on one of the chancellor's planning committees. The two became hiking buddies, and Rash, now retired executive-in-residence at UNCC, said Fretwell's cap of choice for hiking was always a railroad engineer's.

"He liked nothing better than for you to say, 'Let's go hike down Johns River Gorge or Linville Falls,'?" Rash said. "He was fascinating to hike with because of his interest in the environment, his vision about the topography and his constant stream-of-consciousness conversations. It usually took about a nanosecond to get him on trains."

Early years at UNCC

Fretwell's easy-going charm served him well during his early years at UNCC, when he had to negotiate with some disgruntled faculty members who felt the university's emphasis had switched from teaching undergraduates to pursuing research.

"UNCC was meant to be ultimately a research university," Orr said. "Some of the grumbling was coming from the old-timers. The younger members, fresh off dissertations, were expecting to combine research and teaching."

And according to Orr, after Fretwell arrived, faculty discontent with a few administrators had reached "a boiling point."

Fretwell bit the bullet. He called each of these administrators into his office and announced he was making changes. The result was to consolidate three academic divisions into the College of Arts and Sciences.

"As a professor's son and an English major," said Orr, "E.K. never wavered in his commitment to a strong liberal arts core as UNCC grew toward research university status."

Orr said one of Fretwell's great gifts was his articulate and nimble manner on his feet.

"He was a wonderfully approachable guy," said Dan Morrill, longtime UNCC history professor. "He had tremendous people skills. He made you feel as if you were his best friend. He didn't come across the way you'd think a chancellor would. He came across more like a bartender."

White-sneakered traveler

After his retirement at age 65 (for his retirement party on campus, he wore his green UNCC jacket and matching green tie with polka dots), Fretwell served as interim president of the University of Massachusetts and later as interim president of the University of North Florida.

Retirement also allowed the Fretwells to indulge their love of travel.

On a six-week, round-the-world trip to represent UNCC at major higher education conferences, Fretwell's luggage was lost somewhere between Charlotte and Korea. Unable to locate his 13-D shoe size in Korea, Fretwell continued to wear his white sneakers for the duration of the trip.

"I thought about getting them bronzed when the trip was over," he told a reporter later.

The Fretwells were the parents of four children, including Charlotte lawyer Jim Fretwell.

"I have tremendous affection for E.K.," Orr said. "He helped put us on the international map."

- Dannye Romine, The Charlotte Observer

Published in Charlotte Observer on Oct. 19, 2012
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