Despite a loss, Bobby Fong is all smiles

By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly

Butler University president Bobby Fong speaks during a pep rally for the Butler men’s college basketball team in Indianapolis, on March 31. (Photo by Darron Cummings/AP)

It was a heartbreaking loss last Monday night. The clocked ticked down at Lucas Stadium in Indianapolis. Butler University, the underdog team, was only two points down. Gordon Hayward aimed for the win, but his half-court shot slammed against the rim.

Duke University won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men’s college basketball championship, 61–59. It was the first time since 1989 that the title game in the NCAA tournament was decided by two points or fewer.

Butler doesn’t have much to cry about though. At 3 p.m. on Tuesday, April 6, it held a rally at Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler’s basketball arena, to celebrate a fantastic season consisting of a 25-game winning streak.

Butler President Bobby Fong had canceled classes the previous day, amid cheers of “Bob-bee! Bob-bee!”

Many have said that Butler won people’s hearts. In the last two weeks, Butler has graced the front pages of USA Today, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. The team has been featured on CNN, ESPN, CBS, and ABC.

According to the Indianapolis Business Journal, visitors to the school’s website increased from 6,000 a day to more than 100,000. The site even crashed at one point, due to the increased traffic.

Through it all, Fong is smiling. “What [the basketball team has] been able to do will permanently alter the profile of the university,” Fong said, speaking to an Indianapolis NBC affiliate. “People know not only that we play ball but that we’re a remarkable educational institution. To that, we will always be in their debt.”

Butler’s president

Fong, 60, became the 20th president of Butler on June 1, 2001. He is a second-generation Chinese American, born to Chinese immigrants. People have asked whether his real name is Bobby.

“Bobby was unusual enough,” Fong said in a Butler Q&A. “I went through a time trying Bob or Robert, but my real given name is Bobby. Daddy gave me a Chinese name. Bobby was the closest American equivalent.”

He grew up in Chinatown in Oakland, Calif. His father was a butcher and his mother was a seamstress in a sweatshop, according to Butler University’s website.

Fong didn’t learn to speak English until he started kindergarten. He became American through baseball.

“My teacher started to talk about the Dodgers and the Giants and somebody named Willie Mays,” Fong told Indystar.com in an interview. “And I raised my hand and said I didn’t know anything about that. ‘Bobby,’ she said, ‘if you want to understand American life, you need to learn something about baseball.’ And I’ve been overcompensating ever since.”

Fong has amassed a collection of 30,000 baseball cards.

“The wonderful thing is that immigrant families never throw away anything, and I still have my childhood collections, which enabled me to complete sets of Topps for 1958, 1959, 1961 and 1962,” said Fong in the Butler Q&A.

Fong lost his parents at an early age. He was 2 years old when his father passed away. His mother died before he entered college at Harvard University.

His mother had been a little concerned. “After I received the scholarship offer from Harvard,” said Fong, “Mamma went around Chinatown saying, ‘Bobby is thinking of going to Harvard.’ The inevitable response was, ‘It’s too bad he’s not going to Cal.’ She became so concerned that she went to the Chinatown elders and asked, ‘Is Harvard any good?’ They told her that if I got the money, maybe I should go, but that it was too bad I was not going to Cal.”

Fong was able to attend Harvard through scholarships and Social Security benefits.

At Harvard, Fong toyed with the idea of majoring in pre-med.

“That didn’t work out,” he said.

He ended up with a degree in English in 1973, magna cum laude. He opted out of law school to go to graduate school to further study English. “The idea of being a scholar and being able to perpetuate the legacy of education that was given to me became very important,” he said. In 1978, Fong returned to California to earn his doctorate in English literature from UCLA.

Fong started his career at Berea College in Kentucky, where he taught through 1989.

It was through the advice of his mentor, Frank Wong, provost at the University of Redlands, that Fong decided to go into higher education administration. Thus, Fong left Berea and became a professor of English and a dean for arts and humanities at Hope College in Holland, Mich. In 1995, he left Hope to become dean of the faculty and professor of English at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., where he stayed until he became president of Butler.

“Being the Asian American child of immigrants made me acutely aware both of the opportunities represented by the American dream and of how the doors to opportunity are so often closed because of socio-economic circumstances.  I have worked hard, but I am also mindful of the scholarships and mentors who smoothed my way as a student, teacher, and administrator.  My past has made me determined to give others a helping hand,” Fong told NWAW.  ♦

Stacy Nguyen can be reached at stacy@nwasianweekly.com.

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