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College president fighting for kids

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 By Laura Williams-Tracy

A nation that can raise hundreds of millions of dollars of private money to aid victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack and the southeast Asian Tsunami surely cannot ignore the plight of its own children, says Bobby Vagt, president of Davidson College.

As the new chairman of the Children’s Defense Fund, a role of held by U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for five years before her husband became president, Vagt is charged with working with its founder and president, Marian Wright Edelman, to transform an organization widely known for its studies and lobbying efforts into a grassroots movement building a voice for better treatment for children.

“I believe the reason it’s still like this is that people don’t see it in their everyday lives,” says Vagt. “If you can’t put a face on it, then it gets defined in Washington by a tax bill.”

What’s bothering Vagt?

For starters, he says, a recent study by the Fund shows that over 13 million American children in 2003 did not have consistent access to enough food to ensure active, healthy living.

Add to that a lack of health insurance for all children, unequal access to quality education and the fact that a child is killed with a gun every hour of every day, Vagt says, and the problem is an epidemic that can no longer be ignored.

Vagt joined the Defense Fund board just over two years ago after Edelman spoke on the Davidson College campus just north of Charlotte, N.C., for a Martin Luther King Day celebration.

“We had 1,300 people in the audience,” he says, “and when she finished speaking we had 1,300 people ready to go out a lift children.”

Vagt was one of them.

During his varied career, Vagt has worked with people either in trouble themselves or those on a path to greater achievements and the ability to help.

Vagt is the 16th president of Davidson, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1969.

               Robert F. “Bobby” Vagt

Job: President, Davidson College, Davidson, N.C.

Born: Wilmington, Del.

Education: B.A., psychology, Davidson College, 1969; master’s in divinity, Duke University, 1972

Family: Wife, Ruth Ann; two daughters.

Boards: Chair, Children’s National Defense Fund; board member, Lake Norman Regional Medical Center, El Paso Corp.

Hobbies: Runs six miles every day: “The very thing that takes your energy is the thing that energizes you.”

Last book read: “Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations,” Jonathan Sacks

Last vacation: Maine

Proud moment: Youngest daughter, Lindsey, started her freshman year at Davidson College in 1997, the same year Vagt became president. In 2001 he was on stage for the graduation ceremony to hand over her diploma. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Later, he earned a master’s in divinity at Duke University and was ordained in 1972.

He had been working at a Greensboro prison while earning his degree, and went to work as a warden with the N.C. Department of Corrections, cutting the escape attempt rate by 50 percent among inmates he oversaw.

His career delved into directing mental health programs before being appointed deputy commissioner of corrections for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Later, he joined the New York State Division of Budget as assistant director, and formed and became executive director of the Municipal Assistance Corporation.

From 1980 to 1997, Vagt worked as an executive of three international oil-and-gas-exploration companies before being tapped to lead Davidson.

His national role with Children’s Defense Fund furthers the school’s long-term commitment to public service, he says.

More than 70 percent of Davidson students regularly engage in community service, not for academic credit but for the lessons it teaches and the fulfillment it brings, he says.

More than 120 Davidson students volunteer at two Freedom Schools, which are partnerships between the Defense Fund and local communities to provide literacy-rich summer programs for children.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our students volunteering there,” says Vagt. “On a local level children’s issues can transcend the politics.”

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