ARLINGTON, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) –  Former UT Arlington President Wendell Nedderman passed away Wednesday night, May 8, according to the University.

He was 97.

Wendell Nedderman (UT Arlington)

UTA President Vistasp Karbhari said that Nedderman set the foundation and trajectory for the transition from a small college to one of the largest and best-reputed universities in Texas.

Nedderman served as President of UTA from 1972 to 1992.

Nedderman was the founding dean of the College of Engineering, arriving on campus in 1959 convinced that what was then Arlington State College was destined to grow, given its location between Dallas and Fort Worth. After a decade under his leadership, the engineering college became one of the largest and best in the Southwest.

In the late 1960s, he served in a number of key positions, sometimes simultaneously. He was dean of engineering (1959-69), vice president for research and graduate affairs (1967-68), graduate school administrator (1967-69) and vice president for academic affairs (1968-72). In 1972 he became acting president, and in 1974, president.

“President Nedderman was an inspirational leader, far ahead of his times in his vision for the University of Texas at Arlington, and his passion and dedication to excellence and student success set the standard and bar high for all those who follow him,” Karbhari said. “Our University is where it is today—a national powerhouse and a leader in teaching, research and outreach—because of the path that he set and the battles he fought for UTA. His legacy will be felt for years to come and he will always be remembered as a Giant among University leaders.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and all those who held him in their hearts. Lisa and I were honored and privileged to have known him and will always remember his graciousness, his kindness, constant support and encouragement. Rest in peace, President Nedderman—your work and legacy lives on in the hearts of the thousands whose lives you touched, the success you enabled in others and in the University you built.”

State Sen. Royce West of Dallas said Nedderman was a crucial figure in UTA’s history.

“President Nedderman was a transformative leader for UTA and a mentor, advisor and friend to many of its students,” said West, a UTA alumnus. “I count myself fortunate to have had our paths cross.”

Dr. Wendell Nedderman named acting president of UTA, 11/05/1972 (UT Arlington)

Nedderman often referred to himself as “an old country boy” from rural Iowa whose father raised Hereford cattle, hogs and sheep. His own experiences as an Iowa farm boy turned doctoral student transformed him into a lifelong champion for improving access to a college education for tens of thousands of students, especially for transfer and first-generation college students.

He famously toured the campus in a wheelchair to experience first-hand the accessibility challenges faced by students with mobility issues. It was more than a publicity stunt. It led to significant modifications across UTA and an award from Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe Jr. in recognition of UTA’s efforts to improve campus accessibility for people with disabilities.

“I think there was always an atmosphere of acceptability or friendship or support on the campus of The University of Texas at Arlington,” Nedderman said in a 2014 interview. “I always took pride in that.”

Nedderman was known for his gentle touch. For his first 17 years as president, he didn’t have a reserved parking space, eventually acquiescing to an advisor who insisted the president have a designated spot. He once told incoming UTA students that their time in college should be spent learning, expanding their intellectual horizons, maintaining physical fitness, developing social skills, building friendships and, lastly, having fun.

“And please notice the order of my suggestions,” he said.

Throughout his career, Nedderman championed the city of Arlington, and UTA’s role as both an asset and resource for the North Texas region.

“One of our greatest attributes is our strategic location in the heart of a booming Metroplex,” he said in 1980. “We are accessible to people. We regard the great community around us as our laboratory—something to be interacted with, something to add relevance to our academic efforts; something to serve and something to draw strength from.”

Nedderman received numerous awards throughout his career, including Engineer of the Year from the Fort Worth chapter of the Texas Society of Professional Engineers; Citation for Service from the Arlington Chamber of Commerce; Service to People Award, Texas section, from the American Society of Civil Engineers; and Distinguished Honorary Alumnus from the UTA Alumni Association.

He served on many boards, including the Arlington Independent School District, Arlington Memorial Hospital, Arlington Chamber of Commerce and the Texas Council on Economic Education. He also served as president of the Metropolitan Tarrant County United Way, the Arlington Kiwanis Club and the North Texas Higher Education Authority.

Nedderman was born Oct. 31, 1921, near Lovilia, Iowa. The man who would help build one of the largest universities in Texas began his education as a boy in a one-room schoolhouse. He eventually graduated first in his high school class and enrolled in Iowa State University’s civil engineering program.

Nedderman attended college on what he says was a “shoestring budget,” but he was determined to finish and, he said, “willing to do anything that it took to get away from the farm and graduate from Iowa State (University).”

He did so in 1943 in the middle of World War II and then promptly joined the Navy Reserve. As a commissioned officer aboard the destroyer USS Patterson, he earned eight battle stars and three campaign ribbons. Before he was 23, Nedderman had fought in the Marianas, the Philippines and at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

After the war, he moved to College Station, Texas, where he became an instructor in civil engineering. He also met Betty (Vezey) Nedderman and married her in 1947, a union that lasted 67 years until her death in 2015.

He earned a master’s of civil engineering from Texas A&M in 1949. The couple briefly moved back to Iowa, where Nedderman earned his PhD in civil engineering from Iowa State in 1951.

Back at Texas A&M, he rose to the rank of professor before being recruited to become the founding dean of engineering at Arlington State College in 1959. Its first day as a four-year college coincided with his arrival as dean of engineering, he recounted in a 2013 interview. For the next decade, Nedderman helped grow the engineering school into one of the Southwest’s best, before becoming president.

In 1992, he was named president emeritus and received the Mirabeau B. Lamar Award for leadership in learning by the Association of Texas Colleges and Universities. He also continued teaching in the College of Engineering.

In a 2007 interview, Nedderman said the hallmark of his presidency was a philosophy of pride and optimism.

“You have this diverse group of alumni, legislators, regents, faculty, staff, students, all sometimes tugging in different directions,” he said. “You have to pull them all together with a feeling of great pride in your university. And I think there is no substitute for taking pride in your university
and exhibiting great enthusiasm.”

Nedderman retired to Frisco, Texas, where he lived with his son Eric and his family. His wife, Betty, preceded him in death. The couple had four children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.