An Exuberant Farewell to the Man Who Helped Put School on Map

George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is honored at a gala at the Mandarin Oriental.
George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is honored at a gala at the Mandarin Oriental. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 20, 2007

The trolley was covered with a huge picture of Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the longtime president of George Washington University, who was cruising around campus on a farewell tour. Inside, school officials waved paper fans with photos of his grinning, bespectacled face; outside, at one of the dorms, students were screaming and holding out glossy black-and-white photos of him.

Get the picture signed, a student explained, and you get a coupon for a free burrito. And, yeah, the guy who had his neck autographed by Trachtenberg actually goes to Georgetown; some students were saying goodbye to their president, and some were just there for the party.

No matter: It was still a perfect send-off for Trachtenberg, who in his 19 years as president has driven the university to greater national prominence, built it up and forged its identity, often through sheer force of personality. He's a storyteller, a jokester, a bundle of energy and ideas, blunt, gregarious and innovative. Over the years, he has inspired affection, amusement, admiration and outrage. He has kept the campus hopping and stayed firmly planted in the center of things.

In some ways, Trachtenberg continued on the path started by Lloyd Elliott, who in more than 20 years as GWU president led what was a commuter school to increased stature and a rapidly growing home in Foggy Bottom.

But it was Trachtenberg who gave GWU character and a sense of place. He cemented the school's ties to Washington's center of power, hosting world leaders, luring faculty and launching the schools of public policy and political management. He moved the graduation ceremony to the Ellipse, where it will be held today.

The school -- the most expensive in the country -- had few traditions, so he made some up. He bought a large brass hippopotamus sculpture on a whim and, when his wife refused to allow it in their home, gave it to the school. Now, there are myths of hippos frolicking in the Potomac during George Washington's day, hippo T-shirts on sale at the bookstore, a hippo Web page, even a secret society named for the hippo.

Not many college presidents launch secret societies these days.

"I think institutions need myths," he said. "They need stories about themselves."

He barrels through buildings, grabbing people by the shoulder, laughing, barking, "Okay, kiddo," by way of farewell, his voice heavily flavored by Brooklyn. And he writes letters, lots of letters; he seems to know absolutely everyone and fires off notes that are sometimes thoughtful, sometimes caustic, often just going for a laugh.

"Beneath the crusty veneer is a compassionate individual," said administrator Robert A. Chernak, an old friend.

Ruth J. Katz, dean of the school of public health, said that when her cancer recurred soon after she joined GWU, Trachtenberg never called to ask about work; he only called to find out how she was feeling and to ask whether there was anything he could do to help.

"My goal," Trachtenberg said of his presidency, "was to make GW proud of itself."

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