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Northwood U Celebrates Life of Former President David Fry


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Photo caption: From left, Claudia and Dr. David Fry (standing) are pictured as Dr. Fry receives the Wings of Freedom Award in 2022 in Bay Harbor, Michigan.

Northwood University announced the passing of former President David E. Fry, “a visionary leader, esteemed educator and beloved patriarch in the Northwood University family.”

Fry, who served as Northwood’s CEO from 1982 to 2006, passed away Tuesday, Dec. 19. 

“Dr. Fry fostered Northwood University’s growth and progress as the longest-serving president and left an indelible mark on the institution,” reflected Northwood President Kent MacDonald. “Today, Northwood continues to advance the mission personified by Dr. Fry to develop free-enterprise leaders across America and around the world.”

Fry began his distinguished career as an economics professor with research and teaching interests in business, global economics and free markets. As president, he focused on creating an environment where this passion could be passed on to generations of students through the University’s philosophy, which values individual freedom and responsibility, earned success, moral law and the importance of free enterprise.

Fry proudly exemplified these institutional tenets of “The Northwood Idea,” the university said.

“Dr. Fry’s legacy includes leading Northwood through significant change, including growing the University academically from an institute to a university and opening the DeVos Graduate School of Management in 1993,” stated Kristin Stehouwer, provost, and vice president, academic affairs. “The more than 23,000 students who proudly graduated from Northwood University while Dr. Fry was leading from the helm – alumni who have gone on to impact private industry ­­– is a testament to his leadership.”

The Early Days

At age 22, David Fry was part of an extraordinary faculty class recruited to Northwood in 1965. He became an intellectual descendant of Dr. V. Orval Watts, Northwood’s first legendary faculty member who gave shape and form to The Northwood Idea. Beloved in the classroom, Fry was named “Outstanding Teacher of the Year” by students in 1967 and 1968.

Fry was so talented that the school’s founders – Arthur and Johann Turner and Gary and Willa Stauffer – promoted him to an administrator role in 1969. In 1971, the founders gave him a mission to plant seeds of enterprise in Indiana, where he flourished. As much as he enjoyed teaching, he had an inherent gift to lead, inspire optimism, and influence different constituencies to share a common dream.

Along the way, he had taken time to establish solid academic credentials. Just as the school’s fortunes started to sour in the mid-1970s, Fry had fortuitously taken a sabbatical to earn his doctorate in business administration.

In a historic move, the Northwood Board of Trustees appointed Fry president and CEO of the Northwood Institute in 1982, making him one of the youngest college presidents in the United States.

Nancy Barker, a Midland resident who has served multiple roles with Northwood since 1971, including vice president of university relations, reflected on how he started as a young professor and eventually became one of Northwood’s greatest leaders.

“David evolved over the years. He was respected and had a wonderful relationship with the professors because he had been a faculty member and fully understood their important role in the classroom and for the success of Northwood,” Barker said. David was a dynamic and challenging leader. He expected and encouraged those around him to do their best and gave them the support and opportunity to do that. His officers were a team who worked pretty much 24/7, as did he. David took the original Turner-Stauffer vision to a whole new level; his impact was international and yet still very personal.”

All our lives were devoted to Northwood, this small growing institution, and Dr. Fry was our leader who paved the way.”

As involved as Johann Turner and Willa Stauffer were in their respective husbands’ work, so was Fry’s wife, Claudia. She is known as half the team that transformed Northwood from the early 1980s until Fry retired as its president in 2006.

“Claudia was always there for David,” reminisced Dr. Timothy Nash, Northwood vice president emeritus and director of the McNair Center for Free Enterprise. “She was the Rock of Gibraltar, the anchor in his life who played the more direct role in raising their two wonderful children, Daniel and Julie. Claudia has always had a strong intellect, passion, and interest in The Northwood Idea, global economics and business.”

“David has had a much better and more fulfilled life with Claudia by his side, and Northwood has a larger global footprint because of the two,” Nash added.

Expanding Academic Offerings 

Under Fry’s leadership, Northwood experienced major academic expansions, including seeing Arthur Turner’s dream of a Florida campus come to fruition in West Palm Beach in 1983. He also fostered professional development partnerships with businesses and industry, the military, and community colleges.

Northwood began recruiting underserved students who needed access to various delivery methods and options to complete their degrees. Now known as Northwood Online, this was the start of Northwood’s Adult Degree Program, a delivery of content that enhanced access to higher education for adult learners who couldn’t attend college due to time constraints.

The DeVos Graduate School of Management was born in 1993 under Fry’s leadership. Since its beginning, the graduate school has attracted students worldwide. More importantly, its graduates have become entrepreneurs, leaders in the industry, mentors, and role models.

A University Well-Led, A Life Well-Lived

After facing many transitional and financial challenges, Fry and his team elevated Northwood to new heights. Campuses expanded, programs improved and grew and university status was achieved. Once back on solid footing, leaders focused on creative opportunities and innovations that lay ahead, distinguishing the Fry legacy.  

“David’s great contribution was leadership,” stated Dr. Robert Serum, a long-time academic leader and innovator of international programs at Northwood, who is credited with navigating significant educational innovations for over two decades, starting in the late 1980s. “There are a lot of good managers out there, but there aren’t a lot of good leaders. David could walk into a room full of CEOs, all of whom had big egos, and before you knew it, they all wanted him as a friend. He was very popular wherever he went with faculty and staff, with other administrators and teachers, and especially with businesspeople. He epitomized what they believed in, free enterprise and every dimension of The Northwood Idea.”

Those who worked with Fry noted he had a brilliant mind and was a spell-binding speaker. 

“His eloquence was so outstanding,” stated Dr. Marjorie Hohman, former board of trustee member, Distinguished Women honoree, and honorary doctoral degree recipient. “He was a people person, first. He was very good at connecting with people and holding their attention because he was such an eloquent speaker. He could stand in front of a crowd and captivate them because his command of the English language was superb.”

Hohman admired Dr. Fry’s influence on those he worked with. “The most outstanding thing about him was his leadership abilities and how he was able to get the best out of people,” she said. “He was such a mentor to so many.”

In honor of the tremendous progress made under Fry’s watch, the Northwood community came together to fund the David E. Fry Endowed Professorship to celebrate his retirement.

Recognizing his outstanding contributions to Northwood, in 2009, the University vested upon Fry its highest honor, Doctor of Laws, Honoris Causa. 

Most recently, in 2022, Fry received the Wings of Freedom Award, created in honor of Northwood University’s own Dr. Dale Haywood. Northwood bestows this honor upon individuals whose lives have contributed to human progress, individual liberty, and economic and social prosperity.

“Dr. Fry’s legacy lives on at Northwood University, and we are forever thankful for his transformative role in our history,” stated President MacDonald.  He continued, “Over my career, I have had the opportunity to research academic leaders around the globe and it is clear to me that Dr. Fry was one of the most transformational leaders in American higher education.”

Donors who would like to support Fry’s legacy can do so through a donation to the David E. Fry Endowed Professorship. 

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 or by calling Northwood University Advancement at 989-837-4356.

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