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Scholar at the top

When Hanna H. Gray accepted her present position as president of the University of Chicago in 1978, she took up what Newsweek magazine described as ``the most prestigious academic post ever held by a woman.'' Setting ``first woman'' records, however, was nothing new to Mrs. Gray: She was the first woman to be dean of arts and sciences at Northwestern University (1972-74), and later the first woman provost of Yale University (1974-78).

Born into a distinguished academic family in Heidelberg, Germany, she was raised in New Haven, Conn., where her father had accepted a post at Yale after leaving Germany because of his opposition to the Nazis. She once recalled being brought up ``under all kinds of German theories'' that included having no pillows, no white bread, and only two radio programs a week. A great fan of such entertainers as Edgar Bergen and Fred Allen, she told an interviewer that she once aspired to a career as radio comedian.

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She graduated summa cum laude from Bryn Mawr College, studied under a Fulbright Scholarship at Oxford, and earned her PhD in history from Harvard. A scholar of Renaissance and Reformation history, she holds honorary degrees from 42 colleges and universities and is a member of the Pulitzer Prize board.

She currently oversees a university of nearly 10,000 students and a budget of more than $290 million - not an easy task. ``The university's characteristic state,'' she told the university senate last winter, ``may be summarized by the words of the lady who said, `I have enough money to last me the rest of my life, unless I buy something.''' -R.M.K.