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'Heart, spirit, soul' of SCCC dies at 94

Albert Ammerman, the founding president of Suffolk County Community College who built the two-year school from the ground up and led what became a three-campus "people's college" for 22 years, has died. He was 94.

The former administrator retired in 1983 but maintained a connection to the school, often showing up at graduations. He died Wednesday at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson from complications after suffering a broken hip three weeks ago.

"He was the heart, spirit and soul of Suffolk County Community College," said John V.N. Klein, former county executive. "It's fair to say ... the community college would not be an institution of the size and importance it has become but for Al Ammerman."

Ammerman, a junior college administrator in Michigan, was recruited to head Suffolk from its founding in 1960 when the new school first held classes at Sachem High School, while its first campus in Selden, a former tuberculosis sanitarium, was under construction.

"Dr. Ammerman was a visionary leader who set in place the sturdy foundation which the college still builds upon today," said college president Shirley Robinson Pippins. "I am thankful I had the opportunity to meet him and to get to know him. He will truly be missed."

Initially, the school had 13 faculty and 503 students. By the time he retired, the school had grown to three campuses, included 13 satellite locations, and had 23,000 students and 2,000 staff members.

"He was not a scholarly man ... but he was the best teacher I ever had ... on how to get something done by making sure people understand what you want and keeping yourself in the background," said John Gallagher, former chief deputy county executive and police commissioner, who once was Ammerman's aide. "I never saw anyone who could work the system as well as he could because of that low-key, self-effacing style he had."

The Selden campus, now named for Ammerman, opened in 1962 using several former sanitarium buildings, including the former morgue. But by 1970, the county added stately new classroom, library and theater buildings surrounding a central plaza named for most of Suffolk's 10 towns.

Even as that campus was near completion in the late 1960s, Ammerman was planning an eastern campus near Riverhead, a move favored the then-board of supervisors, where the East End had five of 10 votes. Later, Ammerman shifted gears when the state made land in Brentwood available at the edge of the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center. By 1977, both campuses opened.

Born in Sturgis, Mich., Ammerman was one of three children of a carpenter-farmer. He worked his way through the University of Michigan where he earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in political science and got his doctorate from Wayne State University.

He taught in a local high school for several years and met his wife, Ruth, a former student at his school, a year after she graduated. The couple married in 1940.

When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Navy and served in the Pacific. When he returned from the war, he went to work at Dearborn Junior College for 14 years, eventually as dean of instruction.

When they first arrived in Suffolk, Ammerman's son John recalled, "Suffolk was so rural my mother asked, 'Where are you going to find the students?'"

But the students came with the boom of the suburbs. Ellen Shuler Mauk, president of the college's faculty association, said Ammerman's strengths were his vision of the school "as a college for working people" and hiring strong administrators who in turn hired talented faculty.

Survivors include his wife; three sons, John, of Port Jefferson; Albert, of upstate Hamilton; and David, of Seattle; a daughter, Kathleen Grentzinger, of Geneseo; his brother, Charles, of Kentucky; a sister, Trudy Beardslee, of Phoenix; five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

A wake will be held 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Sunday and Monday at Bryant Funeral Home in Setauket. A funeral service will be 10 a.m. Tuesday at the First Presbyterian Church in Port Jefferson. A private burial will follow at the Setauket First Presbyterian Church Cemetery.

Contributions may be made to The Suffolk County Community College Foundation in Selden.

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