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Alumnus grateful for unique opportunity at OHIO in 1960s

Ohio Fellows Program alumnus says his success was due to hard work and “dumb luck”

This story is one in a series about Ohio University’s Ohio Fellows Program (OFP), initiated by Vernon Alden, OHIO’s 15th President. The 1960s-era program exposed select students to unique seminars, visiting dignitaries, internship opportunities and travel that broadened their OHIO experience. Several OFP alumni recently made a gift of $365,000 for the program’s revitalization as part of OHIO’s The Promise Lives Campaign. Compass met one of those donors, Ralph Haberfeld, who graduated in 1969.

At 18 years old, ready to make a way of it in the world, for many, a university campus is a smart place to start. It is where students can consume a range of knowledge and ideas and, in return, show themselves and the world what they're made of. 

Ralph Haberfeld, a 1969 Ohio University graduate and Ohio Fellow, came to OHIO for just those reasons. In addition to carrying a full load of classes, he joined the debate team—continuing this hobby from high school—and “always took an extra class,” he said.  

“I had a pretty full plate academically and was gone (from Athens) Thursday through Sunday from November to March (at debate team competitions). I think I was gone 13 weekends in a row at one point,” he remembered. “In the 1960s, it took an enormous amount of time to research and prepare for a debate. So I didn’t have a lot of spare time,” he said.

Haberfeld navigated his freshman and the beginning of his sophomore year with the belief that one day he would go to graduate school to become a lawyer. But something—and someone—got in the way of that plan.

“My idea at 19 about what I wanted to do was based in fantasy,” he said, now with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight. “I knew I wanted to get an advanced degree—my father had a Ph.D. Being on the debate team made me think being a lawyer was the logical career for me.”

Then the opportunity to be a part of the Ohio Fellows Program was introduced to him by his roommate, Terry Moore, who attended OHIO in the late 60s and returned to earn his bachelor’s degree in general studies in 1991. Moore was an Ohio Fellow Program student (watch for his profile to appear in this series in November), and encouraged Haberfeld to apply to this new and somewhat radical program. Haberfeld’s first step was to talk to the program’s director, J. Leslie Rollins.

Rollins, known as Dean Rollins, was appointed to direct the program by OHIO’s 15th President and his friend, Vernon Alden. Rollins had recently retired as a Dean of Harvard University’s Business School when he accepted the job.

“After meeting him, Rollins asked me to write an essay to go with my application. The prompt was something like, ‘Imagine an international crisis that required leadership. How would you deal with it?’ I wrote about how the U.S. State Department should respond to the overthrow of a South American country’s government,” Haberfeld remembered. “It got me into the program,” he laughed, “and that’s how I met Dean Rollins.”

Haberfeld said the Ohio Fellows Program wouldn’t have been the dynamic and unique program it was without Rollins’ leadership and his love of students. Rollins inspired him to think about things in a different way, even his pre-ordained decision to be a lawyer, Haberfeld reveals.

“Meeting Dean Rollins was the big thing for me. I liked this kind of guy. He was inclined to challenge people and say something to force you to rethink your argument. He would challenge everything I thought!” Haberfeld said. “He did that to make you come to your own defense.”

Does Haberfeld think Rollins put students ill-at-ease?

“He intimidated people, yes. But he did so with a real love in his heart for students and Fellows. “And,” Haberfeld joked, “he had a bias toward Harvard Business School and against smart, well-organized people with leadership skills becoming lawyers,” he laughed.

Being introduced to Dean Rollins put a stop to Haberfeld’s “fantasy” of becoming a lawyer, he said. Haberfeld started majoring in economics, which put him on the path of attending Harvard’s Business School, where he earned an MBA.

Haberfeld said another benefit of being an Ohio Fellow was the program’s practice of giving small groups of Fellows time with OHIO’s guest speakers. This made an impact on him since it exposed him to worlds beyond his realm.

“Dean Rusk (U.S. Secretary of State under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson) visited regularly. I remember meeting world-renowned portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh and his wife Estrellita, and that made a big impact on me. Estrellita is an effective, charming woman. She has a tremendous insight into people and was very encouraging about what I was studying when I met her,” he said.

After getting his MBA at Harvard, Haberfeld had a successful career consulting to the banking industry, most notably for his research in free checking accounts as an effective tool banks can use to gain more retail customers. He ran his own consulting business before semi-retiring in 2005.

“How much success one has is just dumb luck,” he mused. “You can define successful people as those who are prepared and who have an opportunity in front of them. It was dumb luck that I got into Harvard Business School, and Dean Rollins played a big role in that.”

Haberfeld said his contribution toward the $365,000 gift that will reignite the Ohio Fellows Program at the University is one he felt compelled to make and feels the leaders of this effort “…would be wise to find someone like him to lead it.”

“I’m just a guy who retired and wants to give back and help young people. The Ohio Fellows Program provided me with a big advantage in my life. I feel obligated to give back,” he said.

To learn more about how to give to OHIO’s student enrichment programs like the Ohio Fellows Program and to learn more about OHIO’s The Promise Lives Campaign, visit www.ohio.edu/campaign.