Last month Lawrence Schall, the president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, read about the funeral of one of the 17 victims of the shootings in El Paso Aug. 3. The husband of the woman killed, Margie Reckard, didn’t have other family, so he invited anyone who wanted to come to her burial service to attend.
That afternoon Schall and his wife Betty got on a flight at the Atlanta airport and were among more than a thousand people who showed up to mourn.
The spur of the moment decision and the impact that it had on the 65-year-old educator was the subject of an op-ed that he authored for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently. He wrote about the tremendous turnout for the funeral of a woman that most there did not know.
“I am both frightened for and embarrassed for my country and its leaders,” he wrote. “This night, I couldn’t have been more proud of its citizens.”
The blunt and emotional statement by Schall, who grew up in a well-to-do Jewish home in Wilmington, Del., is typical of the Oglethorpe president. In his 15 years at the helm of the university, he has mixed a passionate commitment to social justice and liberal ideals with a hard-nosed, conservative approach to fiscal management and educational leadership.
Fifteen years ago, when he first came to Oglethorpe, the university, which had a long and distinguished history, was mired in debt. Spending was outstripping revenues by $3 million a year. The campus might have been a shambles and the cash register was empty, but that didn’t matter to Schall.
“My wife and I come here almost every night and on the weekends, and we’d weed and mulch and she’d made curtains. We went to Goodwill and bought furniture for lounges. Just to give people a sense that somebody cared about the place and that you didn’t drive on campus and the first thing you saw was overflowing trash cans and weeds.”
Those hardscrabble days are long gone. Since he took over in 2006, he’s raised $130 million in new endowment money, completed a $50-million fundraising campaign two years ahead of schedule, built a new student center and added five global study campuses in Barcelona, Cape Town, Greece, Paris and Rome. He’s also helped to establish the Atlanta Laboratory for Learning, which has become a center for experiential education.
Last month the Atlanta Business Chronicle named him one of Atlanta’s most admired business leaders.
It’s an impressive record of achievement for someone who started his career as a civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia, and today volunteers as an attorney with the Georgia Justice Project to help rehabilitate prisoners after they’ve served their time.
But he was just following in the footsteps of his Dad, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School and a top corporate litigator for DuPont. His father found time to be president of the Human Rights Commission of Delaware, lead the Jewish Federation of Delaware and serve as head of his Reform temple in Wilmington.
Today the son of the Delaware Jewish community leader has been instrumental in drafting and circulating a letter on gun control that has been signed by more than 600 college presidents; and he’s active in providing scholarships for young Hispanic immigrants that are here under the so-called Dreamers program.
At the end of this school year he’ll be retiring, and he’s hired a career coach to help him decide on his next challenge. With the memory of El Paso still fresh in his mind, he doesn’t think there will be any shortage of opportunities.
“I’m an optimist by nature,” he says, “but I’m not an optimist about America at this point. There’s this divide that’s been opened up that may take a generation to heal.”