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Recognizing Talent and Opening Doors

Karl Valentin Ullrich received a lot of support in his life and has become a supporter himself

Freiburg, Apr 06, 2018

Recognizing Talent and Opening Doors

Photo: Patrick Seeger

He must have gone through life a little like Dick Whittington, repeatedly trading one challenge for the next. Now, at age 78, Karl Valentin Ullrich, honorary senator of the University of Freiburg, is like the fortunate hero at the end of the tale. And in April 2018 he is once again becoming a patron of the University, having established the Dr. Karl Valentin Ullrich Foundation with assets of 200,000 euro.

Karl Valentin Ullrich grasped at any opportunity that arose – with courage and flexibility.
Photo: Patrick Seeger

It’s easy to listen to him for hours. Aged 78, Dr. Karl Valentin Ullrich, honorary senator and brand-new patron of the University of Freiburg, is a witness to history whose memory never ceases to produce new details from his eventful life. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth when he saw the light of day back in 1939 in Baden-Baden: that year, the one in which Hitler triggered the Second World War, took Ullrich’s father at an early age. His mother, a waitress in a local bar, had to bring up three young boys alone. As a small child Karl Valentin went gleaning and gathering beech nuts with her.

The older brothers found sponsors, and so they were able to take their school leaving exam and study. “As the youngest I had to stay with my mother.” His childhood wasn’t one to encourage sky-high dreams. Instead, it taught him to be down-to-earth and responsible. With some amusement, Ullrich refers to his primary school leaving certificate, “Who offers something like that nowadays?” It wasn’t his first choice either: Ullrich often felt insufficiently challenged, however things didn’t remain that way, “Fate took care of me.”

Dick Whittington

He must have gone through his life a little like Dick Whittington. Like a child gazing in amazement at everything that he encountered and that enlarged the narrow village world of Hügelsheim, where he grew up. He traded one challenge for the next, and now in his twilight years – just like Dick Whittington – he is like the fortunate hero at the end of the tale. And he shares what he has with those in need of support. At least, that’s how Ullrich sees it, and feels he is richly compensated for his deprived childhood. He has played his part and always grasped at any opportunity that arose – with courage and flexibility.

For instance, there was the uncle who urged his nephew not to take on an apprenticeship and instead to attend a commercial college which would enable him to become a trainee at the Sparkasse in Baden-Baden. This was a great piece of luck for Ullrich: chatting to people and becoming familiar with the secrets of the financial world. And so it went on: time and again he encountered someone who recognized his talents and opened up doors to him, such as the Sparkasse customer who recommended he went to the business college in Pforzheim. It was founded for people like him, who because of the war had been unable to follow a path suited to their abilities.

Cooking spaghetti for Miss Kenya and Miss Uganda

In Cologne and Freiburg he studied economics. As this required good English-language skills, he spontaneously went for one year to University College in London, learned the language, played football on the university team and immersed himself deeply in the cultural atmosphere of 1968. Even today he can quote English poets, remembers his London address exactly, and has a 23 HP 1956 Ford in his garage that he brought over from England. In an emergency, the technically-gifted young man would even dismantle the driveshaft himself. And – again like Dick Whittington – he was eventually able to impress Miss Kenya and Miss Uganda during the Miss World contest in London, cooking spaghetti for them in his digs.

Contacts on all continents

Back in Freiburg, the lad from Hügelsheim took his doctorate. He wrote his dissertation on the social responsibility of commercial enterprises. This gave rise to two publications – which were so well written that businessmen also took up the books. Ivory-tower thinking was never Ullrich’s thing. Later professional experiences offered him plenty of opportunities to preach to the people. After a sabbatical at Harvard University in the USA, fate arranged it for him to take charge of the Foreign Chambers of Commerce at the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DIHK). He traveled to every continent and developed worldwide networks which endure today.

In 1985, Ullrich moved back from Bonn to Baden: for 20 years he was the CEO of the trade association of industrial companies in Baden (WVIB), promoted cooperation between regional industry and the University, and raised funds for an endowed chair – which formed the basis for foundation of the new Faculty of Applied Science, which is now the Faculty of Engineering. As the long-standing chair of the Verband der Freunde der Universität, Karl Valentin Ullrich has been a patron for others on their paths like others were to him. With the establishment of the foundation in April 2018 he continues to pursue his mission. Above all he wants to support students and postdocs who are engaged with questions of the social responsibility of companies.

Ullrich has never had time to get married. He was over 40 and living in Bonn when he first became acquainted with a divorced woman who had three sons. He became the father to them that he never knew in his childhood.


Anita Rüffer


Press Release on the establishment of the foundation

Verband der Freunde der Universität Freiburg e. V.