A legacy of compassion and leadership continues after retirement

Fred Vondracek retired on June 30, 2010, after a 41-year tenure at Penn State. Now a professor emeritus of human development, Vondracek had a profound impact on the people he worked with and on the University as a whole. He held a multitude of academic leadership roles, helped shape and build a department and a college, broadened Penn State’s international reach and paved the way to improve work-life balance for Penn State employees.

“Fred is an important and unique person in the college because he has a long history here and he has taken on many different roles,” says Nan Crouter, the Raymond E. and Erin Stuart Schultz Dean of the College of Health and Human Development. “He always has the big picture of the college and University in mind, not to mention that he has good judgment, he’s level headed and fair, and he cares deeply about the college and the University.”

Before he became an academic leader, though, Vondracek was on a vastly different career path. Growing up outside of Cologne, Germany, he had trained to be a tile setter and stone mason. After finishing an apprenticeship, he felt that manual labor was not a good fit for his career (though it has remained a lifelong hobby). So he moved to the United States -- even though he could not speak English. The language barrier, however, was no major obstacle. He enrolled in the Psychology program at Concord College in Athens, W.V., and received his undergraduate degree in three years, while mastering English and working to pay his tuition fees. After that, he ventured north to Penn State, where he was admitted as a Psychology graduate student in 1964.

Vondracek completed both his master of science and doctoral degrees in Psychology in four years, then left for a year to pursue a postdoctoral clinical internship with the U.S. Veterans Administration Hospital in Salem, Va.

An Academic Pioneer

Vondracek was invited back to Penn State a year later to be a part of the University’s newly founded College of Human Development and one of its academic units, the Division of Individual and Family Studies (IFS; now known as the Department of Human Development and Family Studies or HDFS). Donald Ford, founding dean, and Hugh Urban, founding director of IFS, requested Vondracek’s help in building the IFS program. Now, due to Vondracek’s and other faculty members’ contributions, Penn State’s HDFS program stands as a leader in educating human services professionals and training world class researchers. Vondracek had a hand in hiring many prominent researchers to the faculty of IFS, including Graham Spanier, now President of Penn State, and Crouter, the current dean of the College of Health and Human Development.

“Fred has in many ways helped build the foundation on which the department rests, which makes it possible to mount a strong program and gain excellent students,” said Steven Zarit, professor and head of the HDFS department. “He has a very strong commitment to undergraduate education and to training people for practical roles in which they apply knowledge to solve real problems.”

Vondracek also initiated a change that would revolutionize Penn State’s child services programs. At the time he had become head of the IFS program in the late 1970s, the University only offered child care services to its employees on a part-time basis. Because of Vondracek’s efforts, though, Penn State made a commitment to create full-time child care centers, which include the Bennett Family Center and the Child Development Laboratory, both of which are renowned for their high-quality services and received the highest possible Keystone STARS rating (Star 4).

“We had nice facilities on campus, but they were only being used for a few hours a week,” recalls Vondracek, referring to the early days of the Child Development Lab. “The nature of the workforce was also changing—more women were working. I thought it would be appropriate for the University to be involved with helping to ensure that the children of two working parents were being taken care of properly.”

Nearly half of Vondracek’s time at Penn State was spent in administrative leadership roles, which included appointments as professor-in-charge of the HDFS undergraduate program, professor-in-charge of the HDFS internship program, and head of the IFS division.

Internationally Acclaimed Research

After three years of being in charge of the IFS division, Vondracek stepped down to focus on another of his passions: research. His research focuses on career development across the life span, and he made significant contributions to theory and empirical research dealing with the role of work in people’s lives, from childhood to old age. He was particularly interested in how children learn about work, how adolescents form work aspirations and values, and how the contexts in which a person develops can influence that person’s career.

Vondracek’s work in this area brought international attention to Penn State.

“Fred is a very important figure from my perspective because he has a foot in two worlds, developmental psychology and vocational psychology, and he’s the only bridge between them,” says vocational psychologist Mark Savickas, who is a professor of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences at the Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy and editor of the Journal of Vocational Behavior. “Fred has spent the last 20 years going back and forth between these two worlds, cross pollinating, bringing ideas from one to the other, creating a conceptual model that bridges both and trying to get people from each discipline to talk to each other. It’s a very admirable, important, and productive thing he’s doing.”

Vondracek’s seminal vocational psychology book, Career Development: A Life-Span Developmental Approach, co-authored by John Schulenberg ’84g, ’87g HDFS (a past student of Vondracek’s) and Richard Lerner, had a major influence on vocational psychology not only in the United States but also in Europe and Asia, said Savickas.

Schulenberg, now a professor of psychology at The University of Michigan and a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, said Vondracek’s research was “not just a scholarly pursuit, but a way he looks at life.” Vondracek instilled in Schulenberg the idea that “we as individuals are in charge of our own development” and that “change occurs across the life span,” he said.

As the new millennium approached, Fred took on more leadership roles, this time at the college level -- first as associate dean for outreach and undergraduate studies in the College of Health and Human Development, then as interim dean. During this time Vondracek focused on improving several international initiatives within the college.

The first project was a faculty and student exchange program he established in the 1990s with the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, Germany (where Vondracek holds an honorary professorship). This project aimed to cultivate international collaborations, which it has done successfully and continues to do today. He also helped develop and push forward the college’s new Global Leadership Initiative, which begins in fall 2010. The program is designed to expose students to a global experience under the supervision of an experienced mentor, giving them a chance to hone their leadership skills in an international setting.

A philosophy of being forthright

Vondracek’s leadership extended beyond the University, too. He served in various roles, including president, of the board of directors for the Second Mile, a nonprofit organization serving the youth of Pennsylvania. He also spent a decade as a consultant and member of the board of directors for Youth Rehabilitation Center Inc., based in Roanoke, Va.

Vondracek’s level of productivity is impressive. He was able to accomplish so much because he is a person who “knew how to get things done,” said Zarit. Equally as impressive as his work ethic is his personal demeanor. “When you talk to Fred, you always know what he’s thinking. He’ll never beat around the bush."

That demeanor is no accident, either; it is integral to Vondracek’s personal philosophy.

“Administrative leadership in academia should be focused on facilitating the faculty’s teaching, outreach and service,” said Vondracek. His approach involves “behaving in such a way as to have credibility among those who are being led. It’s important to be honest, not play games, be up front about what you’re trying to accomplish, and earn respect -- if you can do that, you can lead.”

Vondracek’s deep compassion for the people he worked with is equally as impressive.

“Fred is a brilliant man, who is also extremely generous and understanding,” said Erik Porfeli ’04g HDFS, assistant professor of behavioral and community and health sciences at the Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy. "He is very unique -- he combines a strong intellect with a strong compassion." Porfelli studied under Vondracek and the two continue to collaborate today.

This is evident not only in how he communicates with others, but in how he spends his time. For more than three decades, he was a consultant psychologist, first with Counseling Service Inc., in Bellefonte, Pa., then later at the Meadows Psychiatric Hospital.

Schulenberg notes that Vondracek’s qualities as a mentor are unsurpassed: “He is one of the most inclusive, social persons I know. He is fun to be around, he has a wicked sense of humor, but at the same time he is a very strong character. He has high standards, is demanding, but he is also very flexible.”

Vondracek will continue to be involved in life at Penn State after his retirement, consulting and providing advice for several initiatives, including the development of the new Gary Schultz Child Care Center at Hort Woods.

“Penn State has been good to me,” said Vondracek. “It has allowed me to do things I felt were important, to have a stable life from an occupational standpoint and to raise a family and children. Now, I have a grandson who will be at Penn State. It’s a fabulous institution that has given the opportunity of education to thousands of people. I’m proud to be a part of its success.”

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Last Updated November 18, 2010