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Woodbury was a rare breed of public policy maker

Throughout his career in public service, Robert Woodbury believed that "the joy is in the struggle."

Maine lost a fine son last week with the passing of Bob Woodbury.

Bob was an educational and civic leader of the kind who only come along every few generations. He arrived in Maine in the late '70s to lead the University of Southern Maine. He was a natural builder whose ready intelligence, warmth and collaborative spirit helped USM move from a commuter campus to a full-fledged university.

In 1986 he became chancellor of the University of Maine System, a position in which he served with distinction until his retirement in 1993.

All who knew Bob will recognize that he had no intention of truly retiring in 1993. He had far too many ideas, interests and energy for that.

I remember him as a helpful mentor to those of us who founded the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education.

Our K-12 advocacy group was in the process of developing goals for Maine's educational system. Bob cautioned us business leaders that reform would be a long and frustrating path.

Then he smiled and said: "The joy is in the struggle." How right he was, on both counts.

Bob was also deeply engaged in the work of several other nonprofits over the subsequent years, including the Maine Community Foundation and the Maine Public Broadcasting System. He even found time to help establish the American University in Bulgaria.

Bob returned to the university as interim chancellor in 1995 when the trustees faced a leadership crisis.

In his calming way he righted the ship and helped the trustees come up with a new chancellor, Terry MacTaggart.

Bob had many wonderful qualities, but, in particular, he was perhaps the most naturally upbeat and optimistic person I have met in public life.

I last saw Bob in late July. Tim Honey, a former Portland city manager who returned to Maine as a home base for his work with the International City Management Association, called to say that he and Bob would like to have lunch with me to discuss their latest project.

Even though he must have known he was in the final phase of his struggle with cancer, Bob wanted to impress on me the importance of making the Portland area a "regional center for global engagement."

He and Tim had co-chaired the Greater Portland Global Communities Task Force.

The task force had been asked by the Portland City Council to address three questions:

• What does it mean for Portland to be a global city?

• What are Portland's global assets?

• How can these assets be best mobilized?

The task force met over several months from mid-2008 to early 2009 and presented its findings and recommendations to the City Council this past spring.

The task force found that Portland has surprising global assets, but these are mostly "below the radar screen" and not coordinated or networked. Moreover, these global assets could be important to the economic future of the region.

In short, what we have here in Portland is an abundance of global talent and no one to tap it. If there is anything that got Bob Woodbury worked up, it was untapped talent.

He may have been physically weak when we met – in fact I barely recognized him until he smiled – but he was not about to let Portland miss this opportunity.

Recession or no, budget cuts or no, there must be a way to come up with the funding needed to implement the task force's recommendation to establish a regional center for global engagement.

In truth, I thought this project a stretch for our region's fiscally-constrained condition, but Bob was having none of that, and here I am writing about the regional center.

Come to think of it, the center might even be called the Robert L. Woodbury Center for Global Engagement.

Bob Woodbury was first and last a man of engagement. He believed deeply in our mutual obligation to make this world a better place.

He was a man who lived his life, each and every day of it right to the end, working to do just that.

He championed countless just causes and embraced all of us he met along the way.

He lived a full life. We are fortunate that his influence lives on in all those who have shared the communion of commitment with him over many years and on many fronts.