Dr. Jonathan C. Messerli, 78, president emeritus of Muhlenberg College and Susquehanna University, died Sunday, November 28, 2004. A respected educator, artisan and scholar, he was a man of extraordinary energy and vision. Although widely known as a positive leader in American higher education, he was also recognized for his numerous talents in building and restoring historic homes.
Messerli’s academic career included professorships at the University of Washington and the Teachers College at Columbia University and as dean of education at Hofstra and Fordham Universities. His first college presidency was at Susquehanna University in 1977, followed by a second college presidency at Muhlenberg College from 1984 to 1992.
Messerli possessed all of the characteristics of a superior academic leader; he was caring, deeply respectful and kind. Alongside his modest demeanor, these personality traits enabled Messerli to positively affect the academic and social realms of both Muhlenberg and Susquehanna in invaluable ways. Messerli’s accomplishments as president of Muhlenberg are noteworthy, as he initiated long-range strategic planning, comprehensive marketing and intensified student recruitment, long before these practices were widely embraced in higher education. He also was renowned for his development of Trexler Library, the renovation of three of the College’s oldest buildings and the successful completion of Muhlenberg’s first $1 million annual fund campaign. In addition to the aforementioned achievements, the College's endowment nearly doubled to $29 million, and its Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding, a study abroad program and the Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence programs were started during Messerli’s tenure at Muhlenberg. At Susquehanna, he led the University through a crucial period of academic progress, enhancements to physical facilities and strengthening of its finances. Although recognized for his impressive accomplishments, Messerli was best-known at Muhlenberg for his sincere demeanor and passion for academics. Jim Steffy, planning consultant and former interim president said, “He was a scholarly president with unbounded enthusiasm. On campus, he was known as a builder.” Jonathan C. Messerli was born February 14, 1926 in Albany, Oregon. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Concordia Teachers College, River Forest, Illinois, in 1947; a master of arts from Washington University, St. Louis, in 1952; and a Ph.D. in the history of American education from Harvard University in 1963. Messerli was committed to working with others beyond the academic arena and served on the boards of Bethphage Mission in Nebraska and the Special Olympics in Pennsylvania. He was a founding board member of Lehigh Valley’s Ambassador Bank. At the time of his death, he was a member of the board at the Lehigh Valley Historical Society and the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia. He is survived by his daughter, Hannah Messerli; and son, Timothy Messerli; their spouses, David Sterling and Lauren Messerli; and a granddaughter, Elizabeth. He is also survived by brothers, Carlos and Victor.
Portions of this article were taken from Messerli’s obituary and an article in The Morning Call.
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In conjunction with the Office of Community Service, Rachel Feinberg, Betsy Stoller, Dee Ross and Adrienne Verbich, four women in the junior class at Muhlenberg College, organized The Glass Slipper Project, an initiative where members of the College community donated gently used formalwear to local young women. Area groups such as Casa Guadalupe, Sister to Sister, the Girl Scouts, Big Sisters and the Impact Project were invited to attend and select outfits for their upcoming proms and formal dances.
On December 4, 2004, a showcase of the donations turned Miller Forum, Moyer Hall, into a veritable boutique. Over 250 gowns were collected from the College’s faculty, staff and student body, as well as a number of shoes, bags and other accessories. By the end of the day, 78 of the dresses had been taken. The remainder were donated to charity.