At 25, Kenneth Ryder walked into Northeastern University as an instructor of history and government, and during the next 40 years, including 14 as president, he helped shape the school students attend today.
Along with expanding the university’s storied co-op program to locations as distant as China, Mr. Ryder increased academic offerings in the arts, humanities, and sciences, oversaw the purchase of what now is Matthews Arena, and launched the fund-raising effort that resulted in the construction of Snell Library.
His presence also lingers in the quiet, landscaped nooks on campus that offer respite from the urban surroundings, a design touch he championed.
“Certainly he was one of the educational giants in Greater Boston during his tenure,” said Vin Lembo, vice president and senior counsel at Northeastern.
Mr. Ryder, who served as president of Northeastern from 1975 to 1989, when he became the university’s chancellor, died Monday in the Belmont Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88 and previously lived in Brookline.
“Ken was a very smart guy,” Lembo said. “He was brilliant, but he was also street smart. I never saw Ken faced with a decision when he didn’t make the right call.”
Mr. Ryder, he said, was as adept working with civic groups in the Mission Hill neighborhood as he was guiding the Board of Trustees to decisions about matters far from Boston.
In 1986, for example, Mr. Ryder helped persuade the board to divest Northeastern’s holdings with companies doing business with South Africa, as a protest against apartheid.
“He saw the big picture and he saw the local picture,” Lembo said, “and he was able to work well in both situations.”
As he led Northeastern through a sustained period of growth, Mr. Ryder was an adept fund-raiser. During his first decade as president, the endowment quadrupled to $100 million, and alumni giving increased more than six-fold to $1.3 million.
Mr. Ryder did this while “taking Northeastern to full maturity,” as he described it in a 1986 Globe interview.
While retaining Northeastern’s historic commitment to cooperative education, he added a computer science college and a school of nursing. Under his leadership, Northeastern also launched the Center for the Study of Sport in Society and an executive master’s of business education program.
Cooperative education remained central, however, and Mr. Ryder served as the first president of what now is the World Council and Assembly on Cooperative Education.
“We still have a significant number of students who wouldn’t go to college if Northeastern didn’t exist,” he told the Globe in 1986. “And I hope that we never lose our ties to those totally dependent on their own resources for a college education.”
An only child, Kenneth Gilmore Ryder grew up in Brockton, where he graduated from Brockton High School in 1940 and received a scholarship to attend college.
“My father was the first in his family to go to college,” said his daughter Amy Ryder Pickel of Plymouth, “and then ended up running a college, which is pretty remarkable.”
At Boston University, he interrupted his studies during his junior year to join the Navy during World War II. A lieutenant junior grade, he served as a communications officer in the Pacific theater.
Returning to BU, he graduated in 1946 with a bachelor’s degree in history, and received a master’s in history a year later from Harvard University.
Northeastern hired Mr. Ryder as an instructor in 1949, and he became an assistant professor and an associate professor before being appointed dean of administration. He later served as vice president for university administration and executive vice president.
Introduced as the university’s next president in May 1975, Mr. Ryder told the hundreds of faculty members and students in Alumni Auditorium that he “sort of hoped this day might come.” He added that he hoped to establish “a climate of harmony, unity and something akin to the family feeling I felt when I first came here in 1949.”
Northeastern extended its family off-campus and engaged in a partnership with the Boston public schools in the years following desegregation. Mr. Ryder also instituted a grant program offering scholarships to 100 students living in Boston Housing Authority projects.
“Two things I wanted to do in my presidency were, first, to be responsive to the community of which we are a part,” he told the Globe in 1987. “Boston is our home, and we want to offer opportunity for the people of the city. The other is to expand our image as a cultural center.”
Mr. Ryder was “always my hero and so generous of heart with such integrity and intelligence, especially about how people may have flaws but always deserve respect and courtesy,” his daughter Jeanne of New York City wrote in an e-mail.
“He also had a very sneaky sense of humor,” Amy said. “He would hang back and come out with a one-liner or a punch line you weren’t expecting.”
“My sense of relaxation increases when I come home and finally put on something comfortable and disreputable,” Mr. Ryder told the Globe in 1977.
He added that for him, being disreputable meant wearing slacks, “not blue jeans,” perhaps accompanied by an Irish knit sweater from Dublin and bearskin sandals from Maine.
Mr. Ryder married Patricia Gagnon in 1944. They had three children and their marriage ended in divorce.
In 1975, he married C. Teresa Ryan, with whom he had two children. She died earlier this year.
When Mr. Ryder announced in September 1988 that he would step down as president the following year, he noted that he had “a fairly young family and it seems like an important thing now for me to be around them more. It’s difficult when your job takes up 14 to 16 hours per day.”
In addition to his daughters Jeanne and Amy, Mr. Ryder leaves two other daughters, Anne Ryder Wilson of Wakefield and Julie Ryder Lammers of Milton; a son, Bruce of Millis; and five grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday in St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Milton. Burial will be private.
“He was a man who accomplished a tremendous amount over the course of his life,” Amy said, “but he was probably one of the quietest, most humble men you would ever meet.”
In an e-mail, Julie wrote that her father “was a gentle, constant force in all of our lives, always there to point us in the right direction, and a wonderful role model of kindness and generosity for all of us to emulate.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.