Robben Fleming, 93

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Robben Wright Fleming, 93, a former president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and of the University of Michigan, died Jan. 11, 2010, in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Fleming’s CPB Board chair during his stint in Washington, Lillie Herndon, died just over a month earlier.

During his CPB tenure from 1979 to ’81, he secured Walter Annenberg’s original pledge of $150 million to support a wave of college-level video telecourses commissioned by the Annenberg/CPB Project and distributed through public TV.

[Longtime CPB executive David Stewart wrote that Fleming was one of CPB’s best presidents — “the first and last to bring a natural dignity, as well as an intellectual grasp of what the position required.”]

In his 1996 book, Tempests into Rainbows: Managing Turbulence, Fleming wrote: “The most delicate part of achieving success in administering a huge grant . . . is to demonstrate as soon as possible that it was a good investment.” Fred Friendly had been conducting seminars in which prominent individuals discussed a topic, but those were not broadcast. Fleming offered Friendly funding for The Constitution: A Delicate Balance, timed for broadcast on the 200th anniversary of the Constitution. “The result,” Fleming wrote, “was a great series that attracted wide public attention and got very fine reviews. It also fulfilled our need for some early, high-quality product” backed by the grant.

Fleming was born in tiny Paw Paw, Ill. He earned degrees from Wisconsin’s Beloit College in 1938 and the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1941. He served in the Army during World War II.

Fleming headed two large and turbulent campuses during the days of Vietnam War protests, studiously trying to avoid bitter confrontations. He managed the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus as provost and then chancellor, 1964 to 1967, and then ran the University of Michigan as its president, 1968 to 1978.

“He was uniquely suited to be in that position at that time. He was a man who was hard to argue with,” his son Jim Fleming told Michigan Radio: “I can tell you when I was a teenager and tried it. . . . it wasn’t easier either.”

“I don’t take flights of rhetoric quite so seriously as some people do. And I don’t view showdowns as the end of the world,” the elder Fleming explained, according to an obit released by the university. He attributed his calmness to long experience in labor-management relations.

Fleming was a mediator for the War Labor Board and headed labor relations centers at UM and the University of Illinois, returning the Ann Arbor in 1964.

After his stint at CPB, he returned to Michigan as interim president in 1988.

Fleming was preceded in death by his wife of 63 years, Sally, who died in 2005.  He is survived by three children, Nancy, of Eugene, Ore.; Betsy, of Saline, Mich.; and Jim, of Mount Horeb, Wis., along with five grandchildren and a great-grandson.

His son, Jim, had a longer career in public broadcasting. He retired in December after 41 years with Wisconsin Public Radio, most recently as host of  Morning Classics.

A memorial service was held Jan. 17 in Ann Arbor. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to HospiceCare, 5395 East Cheryl Parkway, Madison, WI 53711; or Arbor Hospice, 2366 Oak Valley Drive, Ann Arbor, MI 48103.

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