by Geoff Gehman ’80 | photography by Chuck Zovko
Ed Ahart ’69 has established a record of devotion and service to Lafayette that is long and distinguished. He’s a former president of the Alumni Association, the father of two graduates, the father-in-law of two graduates, sponsor of a scholarship fund, and recipient of the Joseph E. Bell ’28 distinguished-service award. And he is one of the Board of Trustees’ most trusted leaders.
A new phase has begun in Ahart’s Lafayette service and leadership: he was elected chair of the board in May and took over July 1. According to his predecessor, it’s a natural progression for a progressive point man.
“Ed’s knowledge of how the College works day-to-day is second to none,” says Alan R. Griffith ’64, who served the last nine years as chair and remains on the board. “He’s well respected by everybody. He’s a valuable confidant who brings a wealth of experience as a business and community leader. He won’t always tell you what you want to hear. But you know he’ll be thorough, thoughtful, and forceful.”
For Ahart, who grew up in Phillipsburg, N.J., stewardship is a family affair. His mother’s family is descended from Thomas Stewart, Gen. George Washington’s secretary for New Jersey affairs during the Revolutionary War. Ahart’s father owned an insurance agency. According to his son, F. Edward Ahart strongly believed that civic commitment—to business, to school, to church—is one of a community’s best insurance policies.
“He told me that you have to take the long view with policy and people, that you need to think things through, make a decision, and act on that decision,” Ahart says. “Sometimes you’ll be right, and sometimes you’ll be wrong, but don’t spend a lot of time regretting that you may not be quite right. Be progressive. Go forward.”
Ahart’s impact at Lafayette has been broad. He became a tour guide after his first semester and an admissions intern after his second term. A Spanish major, he was a student supervisor in the language lab and served as vice president of his fraternity, Chi Phi. As a junior and senior, he had the unusual role of driving VIPs to meet President K. Roald Bergethon, a renowned stickler for dotting i’s and crossing t’s.
Ahart remembers less about the guests he chauffeured than the lessons he learned about leadership and fellowship.
Sometimes Bergethon’s wife, Kay, would sense his nervousness around the politicians and corporate executives he picked up at the airport and ferried to dinner. Putting an arm around his shoulder, she would assure him that he had the ability to be calm and collected no matter what the challenge.
“And I became known as one of the Bergethons’ boys,” says a smiling Ahart in a board room of his law firm, Schenck, Price, Smith & King LLP, in Florham Park, N.J. “They helped teach me interpersonal skills and social graces. That’s what’s best about a small college. Something finds you. You can make a real difference in so many important circles.”
Ahart has made a real difference in important circles since 1992, the year he concluded a two-year term as Alumni Association president and became a trustee. A member of the board’s Executive Committee since 2001, he has chaired the Committee on Student Life and served as vice chair of the Committee on Educational Policy and on the Easton Committee. He was a member of the search committee whose efforts culminated in the election of Daniel H. Weiss as Lafayette’s 16th president, succeeding Arthur J. Rothkopf ’55, president from 1993 to 2005.
During this time, Ahart helped make a host of key decisions designed to make Lafayette stronger academically, culturally, socially, athletically, financially, and strategically. Endorsing a strategic plan that calls for boosting the creative arts, life sciences, campus diversity, global citizenship, and community engagement. Finding the funds to increase the size of the faculty by nearly 20 percent when many colleges are freezing or reducing the size of faculties. Eliminating loans from the need-based financial aid packages for families whose income is less than $50,000 a year. And more.
Weiss praises Ahart as a remarkably diligent, keen mediator. “He was always there, ever present, really hearing everybody and really understanding their positions and perspectives” during the strategic planning process, Weiss says. “Ed has a rare combination of empathy and insight, engagement and passion, circumspection and general wisdom. He’s been a constant counselor to me; there’s nothing I won’t take to him.”
One of Ahart’s toughest duties was one of his most gratifying. In 1998, he chaired the All-College Task Force on Alcohol and Substance Abuse. Among the group’s 55 recommendations was the need for more outlets to ease stress that can lead to destructive behaviors. Those recommendations led to the creation of Gilbert’s, the latenight campus coffeehouse, and other healthy hangouts.
Thomas F. McGrail ’55, the board’s vice chair at the time of the task force, was so impressed by Ahart’s fair, firm management of the panel that he began considering Ahart as a candidate for trustee chair. “It was a very difficult job, and Ed did it superbly,” says McGrail, now a trustee emeritus. “He was definitely a voice of reason.”
That’s characteristic of Ahart’s service. The citation for the honorary degree he was awarded in May calls him “positive, thoughtful, sensitive, and well-informed,” especially during “contentious” times. Ahart admits that one of those times came when he chaired a trustee committee that recommended the board vote to withdraw the College’s recognition of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. (This was due to violations of fraternity and College policy and after a disciplinary hearing and a series of appeals had taken place.) Since he graduated, Ahart notes, 14 fraternities have closed, including his own.
Ahart thanks two board members for their mentoring. Griffith, he says, reminded him of the importance of treating every board member’s opinion seriously, of “maximizing” disparate voices. McGrail, he says, once read him the riot act, quietly. “I was particularly annoyed by some issue or another and spoke to it, rather loudly,” Ahart says. “Tom took me aside and said: ‘You know, you should settle down. You’re a good board member, and you’ve got a good future on this board. Just take a deep breath.’”
“That’s quite a compliment, considering I’m a hotheaded Irishman,” McGrail says with a laugh. “Ed is a true leader and a very good guy. He’s been on the board for so long and in so many key positions that board members know him really well.”
Ahart is obviously comfortable sitting at the heads of tables. He’s managing partner and chair of his law firm. He’s an elder in his church in Stewartsville, N.J., and a supervisor of the church’s cemetery, the resting place of Thomas Stewart and other relations. His mission with the cemetery is “all about preserving a place where people can understand their heritage,” he says. “I’m a big believer that we’re all a part of a continuum of life and that we need to serve respectfully and responsibly.”
Ahart’s investment in Lafayette is personal and parental. As a native of the greater Lehigh Valley with wide interests, it’s natural that he sponsors a Lafayette scholarship fund that benefits greater Lehigh Valley residents with wide interests. His co-sponsor is his wife, Catherine, a fellow Valleyite, elementary-school teacher, mother of their four children, and, Ahart says, “an active and enthusiastic partner and participant in service to Lafayette.” As the father of alumnae daughters (Amy ’97 and Alison ’03) who are married to graduates (Thomas DiGiovanni ’96 and Shaw Williams ’03), it’s natural that he wants their alma mater to be more nurturing and nourishing.
Despite being a natural choice for chair, Ahart accepted the post with reservations. It’s daunting, he says, to follow such dynamic stalwarts as Griffith and Griffith’s predecessor, Lawrence J. Ramer ’50, the chair from 1992 to 2001.
“I have some big shoes to fill,” Ahart says. “It’s a humbling job. You have to remember that you’re not the super CEO. It’s important to remember that our job is helping several hundred students a year go out into the world to make a difference; we’re in the business of making the world better. The College will face very significant challenges in the coming years, but I believe we are positioned well to succeed.”