Robert Hendren, former College of Idaho president, dies at 89

Robert Lee Hendren, Jr., 89, died Tuesday, May 19, at his home.

Hendren served as College of Idaho president from 1987 through 1999.

Born in 1925 in Boise, Hendren attended Collister Elementary, North Junior High and Boise High School, graduating from the latter in 1943.

He dropped out of the University of Idaho halfway through his junior year to run Hendren’s Furniture in Boise.

In 1984, Hendren and his wife, Merlyn, agreed to finish the degrees they had begun more than 40 years earlier. They chose to complete them at the College of Idaho.

They both graduated in 1986. Hendren graduated magna cum laude in philosophy.

Months later, the school’s trustees asked him to become its president.

During his tenure as president the college achieved a number of milestones.

A memorial service is set for May 30 at 2 p.m. at St. Michael’s Episcopal Cathedral in Boise.

Here’s a July 1, 1999, Idaho Statesman article on Hendren by former Statesman reporter Kathleen Mortensen, during the school’s 16 years as Albertson College:


The goodbyes have been said, the books are packed away, and only nails remain where pictures once graced the walls of his office at Blatchley Hall.

But outgoing Albertson College of Idaho President Robert Hendren leaves behind many reminders of his 12-year term, which officially ended Wednesday.

The most visible is the former student union building, revamped and renamed Hendren Hall, the new admissions center.

More important, however, is the virtual remake of the college that Hendren led as president.

The silver-haired, 73-year-old former Boise furniture store owner once was labeled an outsider both on and off campus. He leaves now as a savior and hero with a national reputation for achievement.

“Looking back on what he has done, his is one of the more remarkable presidencies in the last two decades, “ said David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Albertson enjoys not only a local reputation as a first-rate college and has been named the top regional liberal arts college in the West three out of the past four years by U.S. News and World Report.

In 1996, it placed second.

Just under 700 students, more than a third from the top 10 percent of their class, come from around the world to attend the 43-acre campus at a cost of $20,000 a year, including room and board.

This now-vibrant school bears little resemblance to the struggling institution that in 1987 was fighting the wolves at its door.

At that point, rumors of imminent sale or foreign takeover were rampant, enrollment was in a slump, and the school’s endowment was practically nonexistent.

Hendren seemed an unlikely choice to turn things around. Besides having no experience running a college, he had just graduated from the school himself in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.

But he did turn things around.

“It was more than a transfusion, more than a fresh oxygen supply. He gave the college a lease on life, “ Professor Emeritus of English Louie Attebery said, calling Hendren the school’s salvation.

“I cannot imagine the institution having survived without his leadership both on the Board of Trustees and as president, “ he said.

Soul of the school

Hendren is credited not only with saving the school, but also with preserving its liberal arts flavor, supporters said.

“Bob Hendren saved the school. But more importantly, Bob Hendren saved the soul of the school, “ commented Kenneth C. Howell, president of the national alumni association. “It would have been easy for someone in his position to come in and turn this into a nursing school or some other specialty school.”

Instead, Hendren realized the value of a small, residential liberal arts college and fought to keep that alive.

“He preserved the nature of the institution; that’s going to be his legacy, “ Howell said.

When Hendren took the helm, enrollment at the then-College of Idaho stood at about 400 students. The school’s endowment, just over $700,000 in the early 1980s, had grown to about 10 times that amount but was still far short of what its leaders said was needed to provide financial stability.

In addition, campus buildings needed a facelift or were inadequate to meet students’ changing needs.

“My challenge was identifying all the funding needed to stay alive, “ Hendren recalled. “I honestly thought I just had to increase enrollment, but I found the facility was not the kind that would be attractive to prospective students.”

More than that, Hendren’s task included finding a niche for the school that would help it prosper in a competitive marketplace, Northwest Nazarene College President Richard Hagood said.

He did that by calling on Boise business associates and developing new contacts within the liberal arts circle.

He also spearheaded the name change from College of Idaho to Albertson College of Idaho, which recognized the huge financial support of benefactor and alumnus Joe Albertson.

“The College of Idaho sounded like a public school, “ Attebery said, adding: “There’s a strong and vital history attached to institutions named for principal benefactors - Harvard, Duke, Stanford.”

Increasing the endowment

Hendren’s first task was to increase the endowment, which he helped boost to $25.3 million by the end of his first year. It now stands at more than $65 million.

His strategy was to use networking, business connections and marketing to brush up the college’s image and bring in more money. That helped attract even more money.

With the growth in the endowment to cover operating expenses, he was able to focus on the buildings themselves.

Within the past decade, an activities center, international center and performing arts center have been built, a student union building took shape in the shell of a former gymnasium, and the school’s administration building was completely overhauled.

Hendren once aimed to draw an enrollment of 1,000 students to the campus. But over time, that goal faded, set aside in favor of improving the college’s academic standing and reputation.

The renaissance of the college has made an impact on its host city.

“Albertson is the gem of the community here, “ Caldwell Chamber of Commerce President Dennis Hardziej said, “and he’s totally responsible for it.”

Hardziej credited Hendren’s business contacts and leadership skills with the turnaround.

“It comes from his leadership; everything flows downhill from that, “ he said.


Hendren honed those leadership skills through years of business and community involvement. He currently serves as chairman of the board for Blue Cross of Idaho, and in the past served on the Boise School Board, Ada County Planning and Zoning Commission and the Boise Art Association Board.

He’ll continue his Blue Cross commitment while preparing to travel to Harvard University next year, where he and his wife, Merlyn, plan to study for a year or more.

He plans to take classes that simply interest him, connect with a mentor and create a life-long reading list that will give him food for thought in his golden years.

“My biggest dream is to continue with a life that will produce intellectual stimulation, “ Hendren said, admitting he also plans to do his fair share of fishing and visiting with his grandchildren.

But he said he’ll never fully get Albertson College out of his blood.

“Of all the things I’ve done in my life, this is the richest experience I’ve had, “ he said.

“My dream is to always be connected in some way with this.”