Edward Kaelber, seen here in his office at College of the Atlantic, was the founding president of COA and guided the school through its first 12 years.Edward Kaelber, seen here in his office at College of the Atlantic, was the founding president of COA and guided the school through its first 12 years.Edward Graham Kaelber became COA’s first president in 1970 after leaving his position as associate dean at Harvard School of Graduate Education. He recruited faculty from places such as Harvard and Yale, started building an effective board of trustees, and helped draw in COA’s first class of 32 students in 1972.

“No one else could have brought us into existence. He challenged us with a vision that we are still striving to carry out,” said COA writing professor Bill Carpenter, a founding faculty member who came to COA from the University of Chicago. “Ed was the prime mover and universal ancestor of COA. He was the epitome of the servant leader. He put forth the original ideas of the college in a way that made them seem like our own.”

Kaelber had a catchphrase he would often employ in the early days of COA. Whenever asked about the health of the college, he would respond, “The omens are good.” His vision was unerring. Through those first dozen years, when the college was far from a sure thing,College of the Atlantic founding president Edward Kaelber on stage during COA Commencement in 2015, when he was Grand Marshal.College of the Atlantic founding president Edward Kaelber on stage during COA Commencement in 2015, when he was Grand Marshal. he kept staff, students, and faculty hopeful, focused, and inspired to give their best.

As the first leader of an experimental educational startup, Kaelber had his work cut out for him. He focused from the beginning on building community — both within and outside of COA’s campus boundaries — building consensus, and creating a challenging, engaging atmosphere of rigorous academia and experiential learning.

COA’s self-designed major in human ecology — the study of the relationships between humans and our natural, social, and built environments — demanded an interdisciplinary, hands-on curriculum, and its small faculty size lent itself to similar demands, Kaelber told the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2012. COA “could never support departments full of faculty members. So it focused on teaching rather than research, and its interdisciplinary approach became as much strategic direction as necessity,” he said.

“The idea was, if it’s a really important problem, no single one of you is going to solve it,” Kaelber said. “You have to figure out how to talk to other people to solve it. It was radical at the time.”

Even when the pedagogy was met with skepticism from the mainstream academic community, Kaelber persisted with the vision, and built a solid base for the college by assembling “a strong board of trustees, which included, among others, Elizabeth S. Russell, a geneticist from nearby Jackson Laboratory; Ted Sizer, the education reformer from Harvard; and René Dubos, the Pulitzer Prize-winning microbiologist often credited with coining the phrase, ‘Think globally, act locally,’” The Chronicle reported.

Kaelber’s skills relating to others and presenting a clear vision were a big part of what allowed him to bring the college as far as he did, COA Rachel Carson Chair in Human Ecology and former academic dean Rich Borden said.

Edward Kaelber, depicted here in a recent painting by early College of the Atlantic faculty member Roc Caivano, was active and involved in many aspects of life on Mount Desert Island, a place that he loved.Edward Kaelber, depicted here in a recent painting by early College of the Atlantic faculty member Roc Caivano, was active and involved in many aspects of life on Mount Desert Island, a place that he loved. Credit: Painting by Roc Caivano“Ed was a genius at human relations. His intuitive sense for bringing people together — and making them feel valuable — was extraordinary. So was his capacity for making ideas ‘believable.’ When he talked about the future, somehow you just knew it would happen,” Borden said.

“During the last few years of his COA presidency, Ed pulled me aside at a dinner party one evening to ask if I would chair the academic affairs committee. I initially resisted on grounds of ignorance about college administration. Ed made an unforgettable reply. 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. Years later, I discovered that this was the same advice he had received from Francis Keppel, his mentor at Harvard.”

Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who graduated from COA in 1979, said that she feels fortunate to have been a student while Kaelber was president.

“He was kind, smart, insightful and always felt like a steadying presence in a very new and evolving institution,” Pingree said. “It took a lot of vision and courage to start up a college in a small, remote community on the Maine coast, especially one with such a different approach to education. As someone who benefited from it directly, I’m grateful for Ed’s leadership in the endeavor. His founding role laid a path for COA’s many years of success, as well as the incredible impact the college has had on its students and community.”  

Edward Kaelber is remembered for his uncommon wisdom and steady leadership of COA during the College's early years.Edward Kaelber is remembered for his uncommon wisdom and steady leadership of COA during the College's early years.Kaelber, who lived near the college for 25 years after he stepped down as president,
maintained close relationships with Borden, other faculty, alumni, and COA leadership
throughout the years. COA Board of Trustees Chairman Phil Moriarty continues to hold him in especially high regard.

“Ed Kaelber was an extraordinary educational visionary and pioneer,” Moriarty said. “College of the Atlantic will be forever indebted to him for his wisdom and leadership in founding and guiding us during our infancy.”

Kaelber was essential to the initial success of COA, president Darron Collins ’92 said, and his continued, informal advisory role with college leadership helped maintain that success for many years. His vision and leadership set COA on the right course from the beginning, he said.

“Ed Kaelber was an incredible human being who, more than any other person, shaped the path for this college,” said Collins. “Although we are a forward-looking institution, this path—Ed’s path—informs what we do now and what we’ll be doing decades from now.”

After leaving COA in 1982, Kaelber turned his energy toward making a difference in the larger Maine community.

He helped found the nonprofit Maine Community Foundation in 1983 and served as their first president until 1988. Upon retirement, he continued to be very active and involved in many
aspects of life on Mount Desert Island, a place that he loved.

“Ed’s openness to the ideas of others, his ability to reach out to a wide range of people and to get them involved, his unstinting support of those who worked for him, his public acknowledgement of the work of others in furthering the college and foundation, and, above all, his unassuming demeanor—made him loved and respected,” said COA writing program director COA founding president Ed Kaelber, center, with College of the Atlantic President Darron Collins ’92, left, and former COA President Steven Katona at Commencement 2015.COA founding president Ed Kaelber, center, with College of the Atlantic President Darron Collins ’92, left, and former COA President Steven Katona at Commencement 2015.Anne Kozak. “I am grateful for having known and worked with him.”

Kaelber is survived by his first wife, Patricia Kaelber; his daughter, Christie Lee of Charlottesville, Va.; his daughter and son-in-law, Deborah and John Worth of Earlysville, Va.; his step-daughter and step-son, Leslie and Sam Cauldwell; six grandchildren, and one great-grandson. He was preceded in death by his wife, Ann Sewall, and son, Mark Kaelber.

Christie Lee, the oldest of his three children, told the Portland Press Herald that, “she admired her father’s courage to put into action the things he felt were important, such as education and helping Maine businesses grow.

“‘He really felt strongly about doing good in the world,’ she said. ‘Dad actually did it … He was very approachable and very well liked.’”

Kaelber’s daughter Deborah Worth said that her father was remarkable for being as interested and involved in the little things in life as with the big things that he was so well known for.

“Taking us on walks to identify mushrooms, and becoming so genuinely excited when we found a chanterelle that we could take home to put in our eggs. Knowing, to the day, when it was the right time to pick the fiddleheads. Having us help him with his lines when he was acting in a community play. Reciting Emily Dickinson and Ogden Nash from memory to any and all who would listen,” Worth said. “He took such genuine delight in the world around him.”

COA will host a celebration of Kaelber’s life during alumni and family weekend in October 2018. A family memorial service is being planned. Condolences may be shared at hillandwood.com.