In memoriam: Al Froderberg, 1935-2015

Western Today staff

Albert John Froderberg, a professor and administrator at Western Washington University for more than 40 years, died peacefully at home in Bellingham on Oct. 22, 2015. He was 80 years old.

Froderberg was born in Seattle in 1935 of pioneer stock and raised in Ballard. His forbears included farmers and lumberjacks. His parents, Oscar and “Midgie” (Carlotta, nee Miller) were a postal carrier and a nurse, respectively. He attended the University of Washington, from which he received his B.S., M.S. and Ph.D (Mathematics, 1962) degrees. That same year he married Mary Searing, a fellow graduate of both Ballard High School and the University of Washington (BA, Art).

In 1963, Al and Mary moved to Sweden, where Al taught for two years at Chalmers Institute of Technology in Göteborg. The couple then moved to Vancouver, Canada, where Al taught mathematics at the University of British Columbia from 1965 to 1967. Their daughter Annie was born there. Al moved twice more, first to San Diego State University for one year, and then to Western.

He​ had a long career at Western as a distinguished teacher, administrator and lobbyist. He was beloved by his students and colleagues for his humor, his humanity and his excellent political skills.

“Al was a great friend to Western for a long time and in many different ways,” said Western President Bruce Shepard. “His legacy is one of wise leadership, especially in how he guided the university after the untimely loss of President Robert Ross, but also in his long career as a professor and vice president.”

He may best be remembered by those present at the time for his leadership of the university in its darkest hours after a plane crash took the lives of three top WWU administrators in the fall of 1987. After the deaths of President Ross, Vice President Cole, and Vice President DeLille, Al moved from the position of acting provost to interim president. Few likely realized that he had himself narrowly missed being on that plane, and that he had lost one of his closest friends in President G. Robert (“Bob”) Ross.

Despite what must have been terrible inner grief, Froderberg's was a healing presence at the university. A colleague wrote, “During this time, Western drew on everything Al had to offer. He gave us a shoulder to cry on. He gave us a quiet word of condolence. He assured us that we were going to get through it, and he reminded us of how much President Ross loved a good laugh. He shepherded Western through its grief, and for a year, taught us how to heal …the Western family owes Al a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.” Another colleague wrote, “For those who didn’t go through that period of time, it’s hard to describe the anguish. But under Al’s steady hand as interim President, there was no confusion. In fact, the place didn’t miss a beat. I remember one faculty member, who was typically known as a grump, telling me: ‘I don’t think you could buy a vote against Froderberg.’”

Froderberg was succeeded by President Kenneth P. Mortimer, who became a dear friend. Al’s tenure as president, though brief, was noteworthy for its enormous impact on the WWU community.

Similarly, he had had a great impact in his prior role at the university as a math professor and two-term chair (1972 to 1975 and 1983 to 1985) of the Math Department. Professor Tom Read noted that he “essentially created the math department in its modern form.” He “oversaw a reorganization of department procedures… managed the department through the most stressful of all Western’s succession of financial bad patches” (in the early 70s), “revitalized the graduate program by arranging to increase the number of teaching assistants to essentially the current level” and engineered “the split between math and computer science in the '80s.”

In the 1970s, Froderberg established an exchange program between the math departments of WWU and Chalmers Institute of Technology in Göteborg, Sweden. He and other faculty developed long-lasting relationships both professional and personal that continue to this day, and that span generations. In addition to his remarkable achievements in the math department he was an admired teacher, the favorite of many.

The next step in Froderberg's political academic career was his tenure as president of the Faculty Senate from 1980 to 1981. A few years later, President Ross sought a legislative liaison to represent Western’s interests in Olympia, and, in 1985, he appointed Froderberg to the job due to his extraordinary political sense. Al secured millions of dollars in state funds for the operating budget and for capital projects at Western, and served in this position for 15 years. Al developed a reputation among legislators as an individual with an all-encompassing knowledge of higher education policy who acted with honesty and integrity, and who, most important of all, was fun to be with.

When a new president, Ken Mortimer, was hired in 1998, he appointed Al as vice president for External Affairs. Froderberg served in this capacity until 2000, when he resigned the position and became the Western Foundation’s director of Planned Giving, continuing his service to the university as a very effective fundraiser.

Froderberg was known for his quiet persistence. After retirement in 2009, Al continued to serve the university and the Foundation, giving “wise counsel,” as always. In the words of one friend and colleague, Al was “a brilliant educator, an astute politician, a wise and patient leader, and most of all a precious friend who enriched the lives of all who were fortunate enough to share his time and his talent.”

During the many years he devoted himself to WWU he worked tirelessly at home as well. He virtually rebuilt his home, and did the wiring and plumbing himself. Successive projects included building a three-story garage perched on the edge of the hillside without any help; and renovating a storage shed, converting it to a wonderful art studio for Mary with a stunning view of Chuckanut Bay. 

As a young boy Al spent many summers fishing with his uncles and loved it. Later, he and friend Rodney Payton, another WWU faculty member, bought a fishing boat, and for many summers the two fished for salmon commercially in front of their Chuckanut Bay homes. Al then incorporated this love of fishing into his work, taking WWU alumni on fishing trips to Canadian fishing lodges as part of his fundraising efforts.

Froderberg is survived by his wife of 53 years, Mary, his daughter Annie (and wife, Renata), grandsons Kieran and Declan, and his brother Ted (and wife, Jayann).

In accordance with Al’s wishes, there will be no funeral or memorial service. Those who wish to remember him may make a gift to the Western Foundation, to the “Albert J. Froderberg Memorial Scholarship Fund”. Gifts can be sent to 516 High Street, Bellingham, WA  98225 or given on-line at alumni.wwu.edu/froderbergmemorial.

[ Editor's note: A different but nearly identical form of this obituary first appeared online on TheBellinghamHerald.com. ]

Monday, November 9, 2015 - 11:40am