BAR HARBOR — Ed Kaelber was a relatively young man when he became the first person to take the helm of an innovative new college on the Maine coast. The year was 1970, and Kaelber was leaving a plum position at Harvard University for a place that was so brand new, nobody had ever heard of it.

But Kaelber felt something about College of the Atlantic was worth the risk, and, 45 years later, he’s sure of it. This trans-disciplinary school, which began with 35 students and four full-time faculty members, has blossomed into one of America’s leading small colleges, noted for its innovative curriculum design and focus on experiential learning.

“One of the things we said early on was that if we start a college and we look back after 25 years or so and it was mediocre, than it wouldn’t be worth the trouble,” Kaelber said recently from his Bar Harbor home. “I think now that in many ways, it’s become first rate.”

This Saturday, Kaelber will act as Grand Marshal during COA’s annual commencement ceremony. Kaelber will lead a graduating class of 77 Human Ecologists, including two students receiving Master of Philosophy degrees. Kaelber said he was honored to be asked to lead the parade of seniors. But, according to COA President Darron Collins, the honor is really that of the college community.

“I think it’s one of the greatest privileges in the world to be able to be president and have Ed be down the road and be able to pick up the phone at a crisis or decision point and ask for guidance from someone of his caliber and quality,” Collins said.

“He’s a constant reminder of why I’m here and why the college is what it is. He’s tremendous.”

Kaelber was born in 1924 in Philadelphia and attended Harvard College both before and after World War II. He began working at Harvard Graduate School of Education as Associate Dean in 1957. When contacted by trustees preparing to launch College of the Atlantic in 1969, Kaelber saw an opportunity to lend his skills in entrepreneurship, business, education and management to a new institution seeking to change the world.

It was the students that made the college a viable concern in the beginning, and it is the students that have made COA the success that it is today, Kaelber said.

“I think one of the best things the college has done is find the students we’ve found,” Kaelber said, going on to describe the “respectfully irreverent” types of students that have contributed to such success.

“A student who’s not going to college to just rip some system off, who really wants to learn, whose looking very critically toward both what he or she is doing, and what the college and the faculty members are doing, who’s engaged and who won’t let you forget what you say,” Kaelber said. “I personally am rather pleased that when COA students talk about success, they don’t talk about how much money their going to make. They talk about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it.”

After 14 years with COA, Kaelber began contemplating his next move. Recognizing that Maine had many unfilled social and civic needs, Kaelber worked with a handful of other community leaders to establish the Maine Community Foundation. He served as president of the nonprofit foundation from 1983 through 1988. Since its inception, the foundation has distributed nearly $250 million in grants and scholarships throughout the state, and has been ranked among the top 10 percent of community foundations nationwide for its grant-making and charitable assets.

In 2007, College of the Atlantic launched the Edward G. Kaelber Scholarship for Maine Students of Outstanding Promise. Each year, one incoming first-year student is selected for graduated support of up to $7,500 for each of their four years of study at the school. The scholarship is endowed by a partnership between COA and Maine Community Foundation.

Commencement is set for Saturday, June 6, beginning at 2 p.m. on the north lawn of COA’s Eden Street campus. The featured graduation speaker is writer and international social activist Naomi Klein.