When he was an infant, Stephen Ollendorff and his parents escaped Berlin on Kristallnacht. Their landlord warned the family that their apartment would be raided and his maternal grandmother got them airplane tickets to England. The rest of his family — his grandparents, aunt and uncle — did not survive the Holocaust.
Ollendorff and his mother sought refuge in Delaware with Dr. Guy Sarvis, OWU professor of sociology and economics, while his father worked in New York as an ophthalmologist.
On May 11, Ollendorff will return to OWU and be the keynote speaker at the 170th Commencement Ceremony.
Today, Ollendorff, an attorney, is president of the Ollendorff Center for Human and Religious Understanding. The Center’s main goal is to increase awareness of the fundamental issues facing the Jewish people today.
Last year, Ollendorff pledged a five-year, $100,000 donation to fund the Dr. Guy Sarvis Endowed Travel/Research Grant which funds research and travel for students exploring different cultures.
Ollendorff said he plans to deliver a speech that is inspiring to students entering the unknown.
“I thought I would discuss my experiences in meeting the many challenges and opportunities that I faced during my lifetime,” Ollendorff said. “Hopefully, my experiences will assist the graduating class in its decision making process in these very exciting and uncertain times.”
Ollendorff said he was compelled to accept the invitation to speak at commencement because of his appreciation for the university.
“ I feel a very special connection to Ohio Wesleyan because, by establishing the Dr. Guy Sarvis travel/research and award programs, Ohio Wesleyan is reaffirming its proud tradition of cross-cultural understanding and tolerance,” he said. “Professor Sarvis, who has been one of the great influences in my life, was a true pioneer in social justice at a critical time in our country’s history.”
According to Julia Hatfield, senior class council advisor, Ollendorff also donated $2 million to the economics department. She said while his contributions have deepened his connection to the university, they are not the only reason he was selected as the keynote speaker.
“It really depends on what the senior class is interested in,” Hatfield said. “One priority was to get someone who is not necessarily well-known but is known for their work with human rights and global issues.”
“We try to get someone who will connect with the senior class,” Peddle said.
Peddle said he met with President Rock Jones several times over the summer to discuss the commencement speaker.
He said he originally wanted someone famous from Hollywood, like Chris Pine or Ellen DeGeneres, but because of schedules and fees, most candidates were not viable for the role.
“Traditionally, the commencement speaker receives no payment or honorarium,” Peddle said. “The university only pays travel fees.”
Peddle said he was often under pressure because he had to keep it a secret. He said once they had information about Ollendorff, people reacted positively when the keynote speaker was revealed on Feb. 13.
President Rock Jones said he is thrilled that the leadership of the senior class selected him as their Commencement speaker.
“His longstanding personal relationship with a member of the OWU family and his commitments to human and religious understanding give him much to say of interest and importance to our graduating seniors,” Jones said.
Senior Aara Ramesh, Senior Class Council vice president, said the Council found out the same day as the rest of the students. She said she became excited about it when she learned about his connection to the university, his survival of the Holocaust and the organization he founded.
“This is the history major in me talking,” Ramesh said. “I think he’ll bring an element of resilience and faith in a global society.”
Peddle said several students reacted negatively to last year’s commencement speaker because he did not deliver a positive message to the graduates. He said Ollendorff can share a story of success and connect with the graduates.
“I don’t want to hear I’m not going to find a job,” Peddle said. “He (Ollendorff) sought refuge in Delaware, Ohio of all places and overcame a lot and is successful.”
Ramesh said she hopes for a positive message for the graduates.
“Leaving comfort is scary,” Ramesh said. “I hope he’ll get us excited about what’s on the other side of the ceremony because that day, everyone is both scared and pumped.”
Ollendorff earned his B.A. from Columbia University and a Juris Doctor from Columbia Law School. Today, he is an attorney with K&L Gates LLP.