Frederick “Ferdie” Wandelt III ’66 died Thursday from sudden complications of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, surrounded by his wife Joanna and their children, Allison ’91 and Christopher ’96.
It is impossible here to capture all Ferdie was to Taft and to thousands who knew and loved him. When I spoke with Lance Odden today, he said simply, “He transformed our school.” With his death, we have lost a great man, someone who will join the list of legendary educators who devoted their lives to Taft, and someone who served with an unparalleled love, passion, and loyalty. We will never be able to separate the story of our great school from the legacy he left. His devotion was both humbling and inspiring.
Ferdie was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on February 10, 1948; and for his entire life, he had strong ties to friends from his hometown. He came to Taft as a gifted and energetic leader and athlete, and at Taft he distinguished himself as a boy of great charm and friendliness, one of the school’s finest athletes and a true sportsman, and a natural and effective leader. He attended the University of North Carolina, and within months of graduation and after service with the National Guard, he was back at the school he loved, serving in the Admissions Office.
For the next four decades, he would serve Taft in a way that is without parallel. That he was a beloved figure on campus is well known, but his service to the larger educational community meant he was also a globally respected leader. He led brilliantly as a board member of ASSIST (American Secondary Schools for International Students and Teachers); he was president of the SSATB (Secondary School Admissions Test Board); and he served as a trustee for the Challengers Boys and Girls Club of Los Angeles. Other scholarship organizations, like Prep for Prep and the Wight Foundation, knew Ferdie as a supportive and visionary leader. Peer schools were made better because he helped open doors in international recruitment, and he shared his best ideas with them. “It’s about helping all schools and kids,” he said often.
His career at Taft was in admissions, but he was so much more than just the finest director in the country. In 1976, when Joe Cunningham retired, Lance appointed Ferdie as the director of admissions. Ferdie was young, but it was clear he had talents that were unique. Lance captured his tenure perfectly: “From the outset, Ferdie understood two interrelated principles: first, that attracting the best mix of diversely talented students would create a uniquely spirited community; and second, that the vibrancy so created would transform Taft’s place in the community of schools.” No school has ever had a finer admissions leader. Ferdie had a unique humor, warmth, and grace. After you met him in an interview, you wanted to attend Taft. And in those twenty minutes, Ferdie could “read” a candidate with a sensitivity and insight that was astonishing. Countless parents offered versions of, “You talked to our daughter for just a few minutes and you understand her better than we do!” Those who were admitted felt blessed, and somehow, those who were not felt that he cared deeply and personally, and indeed, Ferdie regularly counseled families and helped them find another school that was a better fit.
In 2007, Ferdie came to me and said, “It’s time for a new chapter for me, and you have the best admissions guy in the business in Peter Frew.” And so I appointed Ferdie as Assistant to the Headmaster for Alumni Affairs, and in that role, he met with hundreds of alumni, at receptions, dinners and meetings. When you got a call from Ferdie saying he would be in town and “Could we meet for lunch?” you felt like the luckiest person around.
And for Ferdie, admissions was not just meeting families on the Main Hall: he traveled the world telling the Taft story, from large cities and small towns in this country, to China, India, Hungary, and on and on. He leaves great and loving friends all over the world, especially in Hong Kong, where his annual visits felt like a family reunion. If Taft is known around the world as one of the great schools, it has a lot to do with him.
For colleagues, he was above all a mentor. He had done it all—he had lived in the dorm; he had been a superb girls’ lacrosse coach; he knew what it meant to run a practice, go to sit-down dinner, and counsel an upset advisee—and so scores of teachers sought him for advice. Of the many images I have of him, one of my favorites is Ferdie at his desk while a young teacher sat in the chair and soaked up his stories and advice. I was one of those teachers in my early years, and still was as recently as last month.
Ferdie changed Taft. He changed lives. He touched so many—students, teachers, parents, grandparents, alumni, colleagues at other schools, board members. He embodied what it meant to be a Taft teacher. When you talked to Ferdie, you came away a better person. He would smile at you and say, “You’re the best,” and you walked away happy, ready for anything. Above all, he loved his family and was a loving husband, father and grandfather.
We will celebrate his life in print and in person in the months ahead, but I write this today, to all members of the Taft family and so many others, with a sense of terrible sadness and grief, and yet also a feeling that we were all blessed to have known this great man. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Joanna and their children, Allison and Christopher, and to the entire extended family.
In sadness and celebration,
Willy MacMullen ’78, headmaster
Read the 2007 Taft Bulletin profile of Ferdie by Barclay Johnson '53
Read the 1988 Taft Bulletin profile of Ferdie by Willy MacMullen '78