He drove a beige Toyota Avalon. Drove it for years. Drove it into the ground. Drove it down Russell Boulevard, Davis’ main drag, with Hawaiian slack-key guitar music often bleating from the rolled-down windows. Drove it, finally, all the way to New York to give it to his son.
“Larry loved that car,” said Maril Stratton, Larry Vanderhoef’s friend and colleague for 29 years. “He’d fix it up every now and then. Just really wanted to hang onto it. It was funny.”
University chancellor as regular guy?
No. Chancellor as an extraordinary regular guy.
Never miss a local story.
Larry Neil Vanderhoef, UC Davis chancellor from 1994 to 2009 and fixture on campus for a quarter-century, who even in emeritus status cast a long shadow on campus until his death Thursday at age 74, was not one to put on airs. In fact, friends and former colleagues say, he often took great pains to deflect credit, or at least liberally share it, for projects under his watch that included the construction of the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, the expansion of the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento and the university’s ascension as a top-flight research institution.
“He wasn’t pompous; he was down-to-earth,” said Barbara Horowitz, a distinguished professor and former vice provost for academic affairs, who sometimes clashed with Vanderhoef on issues big and small. “Even if he didn’t agree with you, he listened. You get that in good leaders. You weren’t afraid to argue a position. He was approachable.”
He was, in many respects, a product of his Midwestern upbringing. Wilmer and Ida Lucille’s only son – he was christened just plain Larry, not Lawrence – was born in Minnesota, reared in Wisconsin, where he liked to hang out in pool halls, and became the first in his family to finish high school. More degrees followed, more letters after his name. A bachelor’s and master’s in biology from the University of Wisconsin, a doctorate in plant biochemistry from Purdue. He landed his first teaching and research position at the University of Illinois and eventually found his way to administration as provost at the University of Maryland.
California-bound in 1984, he ascended from provost to chancellor in a decade. If being one of 10 campus heads in one of the country’s largest public education systems went to Vanderhoef’s head of silver locks, he hid it well.
A recurring theme among the outpouring of remembrances from friends and colleagues on Friday was Vanderhoef’s quiet yet firm leadership, occasionally in the face of crisis. Brice Harris, chancellor for California Community Colleges, called him a “gracious and elegant leader.” His successor at UC Davis, Linda P.B. Katehi, spoke of Vanderhoef’s “deep love and passion” as well as his “wisdom and leadership.” Ralph J. Hexter, the school’s provost, spoke of the “gracious presence” he exuded on campus, both as chancellor and in his emeritus years dealing with health issues, including several ischemic strokes, which ultimately led to his death.
Even if he didn’t agree with you, he listened. You get that in good leaders. You weren’t afraid to argue a position. He was approachable.
Barbara Horowitz, a distinguished professor and former vice provost for academic affairs
These appreciations also paid tribute to Vanderhoef’s concrete successes, how he guided UC Davis to increases in student enrollment and endowment, how he presided over the brick-and-mortar buildup of the section of the campus facing Interstate 80 – first the Mondavi Center for Performing Arts, then a hotel and conference center and, in one of his last initiatives before retirement, plans for the Shrem Art Museum, currently under construction.
“There were any number of people who advised against building a performing arts center, told him it was just a pipe dream,” said Don Roth, the center’s executive director. “He listened to them, but he saw the need. He had the vision to push it through, knowing it would be meaningful not just to our students but to the entire region. He’ll be remembered for that.”
Yet, perhaps, countless others will remember Vanderhoef for less grand, but no less meaningful, gestures.
Such as when he was traveling on university business in rural India and took the time to seek out a phone and call a worker in his office who had suffered a miscarriage.
“That meant a lot to her,” recalled Stratton, assistant vice chancellor emerita.
Or the time when Vanderhoef was in his office reading the latest issue of the student newspaper, The Aggie, when he happened upon a column by one of the editors, humorously lamenting that she would be alone on Valentine’s Day. Vanderhoef left his office, said he had an errand to run, and appeared later in the Aggie newsroom bearing a box of chocolates for the lovelorn student.
“She was away from her desk,” Stratton said, “but other editors and reporters were in the room and later told her, ‘Hey, the chancellor brought this over.’ She didn’t believe it at first.”
Or the time, years ago, when Warren G. Roberts, now superintendent emeritus of the UC Davis Arboretum, was grieving the loss of his longtime partner to illness, and on his first day back at work, a handwritten note of condolence was waiting from Vanderhoef.
“Here’s the busiest guy on campus, and he was taking the time to do that,” Roberts said. “It was more than just one gesture. During the time my friend was very ill, he’d ask my friends to find out how I was doing. About five weeks after my friend passed away, he called to ask me personally how I was coping. One thing he said, which I’ve remembered, is that, in his experience, the pain of loss gradually dissipates and the happy memories stay strong. He was such a big-hearted man.”
Stratton said, simply, that Vanderhoef “brought humanity to this campus.” She said his leadership style, which might at first seem dichotomous, was to be a soft-spoken people-person, caring but not overbearing, to be a presence on campus without craving the spotlight.
“You don’t see that a lot these days,” she said. “He never leaned over your shoulder and second-guessed you. He would go right down the hallway here to the coffee machine. It wasn’t so much because he was interested in a cup of coffee; he was interested in saying, ‘Hello, how ya doin’, how’s your kid?’ And he absolutely cared about your answer, too.”
Horowitz said she occasionally clashed with Vanderhoef in academic Senate meetings, including a major disagreement years ago about whether to change the academic calendar from a quarter system to semesters. Horowitz favored staying with quarters; Vanderhoef, the provost and second in command at the time, favored semesters. (UC Davis remains on a quarter system.)
“Larry called me at home to talk about it,” she recalled. “I mean, it’s not like I had any power. But he was receptive to listening to the argument against his position. That makes for a good working relationship.”
Even when Vanderhoef found himself challenged and faced controversy, he faced it with quiet assurance. In 2006, he was the subject of a “no-confidence” vote by the faculty, stemming from a racial- and gender-discrimination suit filed by Celeste Rose, a former vice chancellor who claimed she was pressured to resign.
The university and Rose reached a lucrative settlement in exchange for dropping the claim, and the fallout led to a “no confidence” vote by Rose’s supporters on the faculty. In his recently published book, “Indelibly Davis: A Quarter-Century of UC Davis Stories ... and Backstories,” Vanderhoef wrote of his inner struggle: “Condemn. No confidence. The words took my breath away. The next six weeks ... were interminable and agonizing as I awaited (the vote).”
More than 70 percent of the faculty vote supported Vanderhoef, cementing his position as chancellor and easing his mind, according to Stratton, who worked as his chief of staff during the upheaval.
“It was devastating for him,” she said. “A very difficult time.”
During Vanderhoef’s recent health problems – he had his first stroke in November 2012 and another two months later – Stratton said his positive attitude pulled him through once more. Vanderhoef eventually returned to his office desk (he served on several boards) and attended UC Davis women’s basketball games with his wife of 52 years, Rosalie, when the couple weren’t catching the latest show at the Mondavi Center.
“When we asked him to sponsor a concert a couple of years ago,” Roth said, “he chose Bonnie Raitt. He had a range of interests. Classical (music). Ballet. Theater.”
And Hawaiian slack-key music. Don’t forget that. He had an impressive selection of CDs in his office. But Stratton remembers getting into Vanderhoef’s Toyota once for a short drive and, when her boss turned on the ignition, the blaring sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival filled the interior.
Yes, the chancellor could rock. And he was a rock of stability for UC Davis during a period of growth and change.
March 20, 1941 - Oct. 15, 2015
- UC Davis provost and executive vice chancellor, 1984-1994
- UC Davis chancellor, 1994 -2009
- Personal: Survived by wife of 52 years, Rosalie; daughter Susanne Vanderhoef; son Jon Vanderhoef; sisters Lois Krenzke and Linda McDermott; brother Lee Vanderhoef.
UC Davis milestones during Vanderhoef’s tenure:
- Gained admission to the prestigious Association of American Universities.
- Launched school’s first comprehensive campaign, which would ultimately exceed its $1 billion goal.
- Construction of the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts
- Transformation of old Sacramento County Hospital into the UC Davis Medical Center and School of Medicine