Dr. Robert N. Aebersold, 83, extraordinary husband, father, grandfather and human being, passed away at 02:40 p.m. on August 12, 2019 in Greensboro, NC, from complications following a small bowel obstruction. In his last hours, people he loved held his hands and sang to him. He leaves behind a universe of people both heartbroken to lose him and better for his touching their lives
Born December 18, 1935, Bob grew up in Granville, OH, raised by his grandparents and his determined and strong mother, Doris Strickler Stemen. His second-grade teacher said on his report card, “Bob makes friends with everybody and is always thoughtful in thinking about others.” That proved prophetic about his whole life.
He was the first in his family to go to college and then spent most of his life attending, teaching or working in schools. He earned a B.A. from Ohio Wesleyan, an M.S. from Ohio University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. He also received honorary degrees from universities in Hungary, Russia, Scotland and England, as well as from Springfield College in Massachusetts.
After getting his master’s degree, Bob took a job as a guidance counselor, science teacher and football coach at Oberlin High School. A chance encounter led him to meet Nancy Lightner and they fell in love. They married a year later, in 1964 in Salisbury, Conn., and moved to Hanover, Ind., where he coached and taught. In 1965, they moved to Takoma Park, MD, where he started his Ph.D.
In 1968, he was hired by Slippery Rock University (SRU) as an instructor in the physical education department and as an assistant football and baseball coach. Those were busy years as he finished his Ph.D and with Nancy, raised their two daughters, Alicia and Amanda. Fellow faculty, community members and neighbors in Bradman Estates, where they chose to settle, quickly became dear and lifelong friends.
He also officiated high school football, which soon progressed into officiating football at the Division I level, including big games like the Peach Bowl in 1980, and the Liberty Bowl in 1982, Bear Bryant’s last game. Later in his career, he would often remark that it takes a lot to shake you after you have been booed by a stadium of 10,000 fans.
His career at SRU evolved over time. He became chair of the physical education department, then vice president of academic affairs, and ultimately, university president – an unplanned trajectory that he humbly embraced. He brought his skills as counselor, coach and consummate listener to each of these roles.
Bob didn’t fit the typical profile of a college president. In his own words, he was not an intellectual, but that is why the role suited him. He focused not on the politics, but on the people. He focused not on building a résumé, but building a legacy for the university. He focused not on personal advancement, but on the advancement of the students he was there to serve.
Bob served as president of SRU for 13 years, from 1984 to 1997. He would say his legacy is the students who passed through SRU in his 29 total years there.
During his tenure, he was instrumental in the development of the university’s dance program, the first in the Pennsylvania state system. He helped shepherd in SRU’s physical therapy program – a program he was immensely proud of and even during his hospitalization, would talk about to the therapists assisting him.
During his time as president, the university built the Alumni House and the student apartments. He believed students should be involved in university decisions, even in building and financing projects, which is why it was so moving to him that the students voted to name the then new state-of-the-art Aebersold Recreation Center built during his tenure in his honor.
Two years after retiring from SRU, Springfield College in Massachusetts hired Bob to serve as interim president. He then served as interim chief academic officer at the Connecticut State University System in 2001, helping coordinate the academic affairs of all four Connecticut state universities. In 2004, Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) asked him to step in as interim president. In typical fashion, the local paper reported when he arrived at 07:00 a.m. on his first day of work at CCSU, he stopped first at the student union and then the dining hall to talk to both students and staff, before finding his way to his new office in the administration building.
In those positions and in all aspects of his life, Bob believed in stewardship and service, often saying we should all strive to plant a tree in whose shade we will never sit. He believed in always trying your best and striving for excellence in everything you did, big or small. And he believed in putting people first, which is why he made friends everywhere he went.
That is probably why he was a diner guy. Starting with his mother’s restaurant The Evergreens in Granville, he frequented places like Isaly’s and Camelot in Slippery Rock, Dudley’s/Tracie’s and The Hideaway in Belfast and Bayside, Maine, and Herbie’s in Greensboro. His breakfast choices changed over the years, but the constants were black coffee and good conversation with fellow customers and wait staff alike.
He and Nancy made many dear friends in the years they vacationed in Casey Key, Fla., and Bayside, Maine. When Bob first came to Maine with Nancy, he was warmly welcomed by her large, extended family, which to no surprise, immediately also became his large, extended family. At family gatherings, if you were lucky enough to be standing next to him while he was grilling – spatula in one hand, drink in the other – you would hear the best running commentary. Bob spent many nights on the porches of dear ones in this special place, where his anecdotes, contagious laughter, and booming baritone singing voice will be deeply missed.
Anyone who knew him will miss his infectious smile, his unshakable calm demeanor, and his boisterous cheers for the Penguins, the Rock, and his grandchildren’s various accomplishments. Countless people who regularly sought out his counsel will miss his insights into relationships and politics and people, his storytelling and sports analogies, and his ability to really listen and then coach you to focus on what actually matters.
He leaves behind a family grateful for both his unconditional love and his full life of service, his wife and partner of 55 years, Nancy Lightner Aebersold; his daughters and sons-in-law, Alicia Aebersold and Lester Burke of Washington, D.C., and Amanda Aebersold Couture and Paul Couture of Greensboro, N.C.; and his four beloved grandchildren of whom he was exceedingly proud, Andrew Couture (19), Elliot Couture (17), Miranda Aebersold-Burke (16), and Madeline (Maddie) Aebersold-Burke (12).
AEBERSOLD – A celebration of the life of Dr. Robert N. Aebersold, who died Monday, August 12, 2019, is being planned for Saturday, November 02, 2019, in Slippery Rock.
Memorial contributions may be made to The Robert N. Aebersold Scholarship at Slippery Rock University, payable to the SRU Foundation, 100 Old Main Street, Slippery Rock, PA 16057.