Reading this month’s cover story by Simone Ellin and Aliza Friedlander about Jewish college and university presidents in the Baltimore area reminded me of my own close encounter with one of the best academic leaders out there (and a personal hero of mine): Freeman A. Hrabowski III.

For those of you unfamiliar with him, Dr. Hrabowski has served as president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for the past 26 years. To say he’s changed the face of UMBC and made it the school it is today would be a vast understatement. Proudly, I tell people I probably couldn’t even get into UMBC today.

When I attended in the days before the Hrabowski era, UMBC was a lovely albeit rather sleepy campus. It was mostly a commuter school, with a decent academic reputation. Our biggest claims to fame at that point were that actress Kathleen Turner was a graduate and the Velvet Underground performed there in ’69.

Under Dr. Hrabowski, UMBC has become a world-class center of higher education and research frequently highly ranked by U.S. News & World Report. He is lauded by national publications as one of America’s best leaders and most influential people.

He’s also a heck of a nice guy, as anyone who’s met him will tell you. Students often speak of how impressed they are that Dr. Hrabowski comes over to them while walking across campus, remembers their names from previous encounters, and even asks them how particular exams or papers turned out for them.

When you’re a young person grappling to find your place in the cosmos, and someone as busy and accomplished as Dr. Hrabowski demonstrates his interest in you, it means a lot.

As far as my close encounter with Dr. Hrabowski, it happened several years ago when I wrote a blog entry about my UMBC days. It was about my sophomore year, still trying to determine what I wanted to major in and coming up with bupkes. In desperation, I went to the campus career counseling office and met with an advisor named Ira Katz.

Ira asked me what I liked to do in my spare time, and I mentioned writing. He suggested I contact the campus newspaper, The Retriever, to see if they needed writers. “But they wouldn’t take me!” I responded, in my naiveté. “They’re The Retriever!” Ira could scarcely contain his smile. “Well, you never know,” he said. “Give ‘em a try.” And that was how I got started in journalism.

After I wrote my blog, someone — to my astonishment — sent the piece to Ira, who at that point was working in the corporate world. He wrote and thanked me for the shoutout. But someone also sent the blog to Dr. Hrabowski, who shot me a note saying he was glad UMBC played a role in my journey.

At the end, he wrote, “I am very proud of you.” We’d never met at that point, but those words meant the world to me.

Here at Jmore, we salute Dr. Hrabowski along with all of the other college and university presidents profiled in our cover story. Thank you for what you and your colleagues in academia do. The future is literally in your hands.

Alan Feiler, Editor-in-Chief