Visionary leads a growing press

''I've never regretted the decision to earn my livelihood in publishing. I've had what is a little like a lifetime romance with the field,'' says the founder of North-east-ern University Press. And from his enthusiasm, it is obvious that the romance has lost none of its luster.

The story of the development of North-eastern University Press (Northeastern UP) is largely an account of the vision and work of that man, William A. Frohlich. In seven years he took a publications operation that was involved in printing, copying, and putting out essentially vanity publications to full status as a university press.

Today Northeastern UP is the youngest member of the Association of American University Presses and has a reputation for quality reprints and a small, highly selective list of new books, particularly in the fields of American history, women's studies, criminal justice, and literary criticism. The press also produces and distributes records and tapes under the label ''Northeastern Records.'' Although Mr. Frohlich is quick to point out the importance of the hard work and imagination of his staff, the Northeastern UP list reflects its director's own qualities of imagination, energy, and good taste.

Frohlich ''grew up on the pavements of Manhattan,'' he recalls, ''but I had an uncle who, at a formative time, invited me to his Monroe, N.Y., home, where I became the summer gardener of his 10 acres, even down to creating circles around his trees. I think I agree with Thomas Jefferson. As much as I think urban centers are vital to civilization, I also think there is another side of the urban environment that is very negative. Being in a natural environment is very purifying. It is the kind of environment in which people should spend at least a portion of their lives.''

Today this ''transplanted New Yorker, very comfortable in the Boston area,'' combines work in the city with life in suburban Wellesley, where he ''gardens too much, almost to the exclusion of other things,'' except reading, which he has always enjoyed ''qualitatively'' ever since his boyhood, when the same uncle read Kipling to him.

Frohlich graduated from Swarthmore in 1957 and thereafter studied for a master's degree in history from Columbia. After a brief stint in an insurance firm and one year teaching junior high school in New York City, he opted for a career in publishing.

''Publishing is fundamental to a civilization. Without books we'd have very little. For all the garbage that is put out - cartoon books and so on - publishers do continue to put out important books that are so vital for the survival of civilization. Academic publishing is the most important kind of publishing today. The work is very, very gratifying.''

Frohlich came to Northeastern from a background in commercial textbook publishing, including work with Doubleday; Scott, Foresman; Knopf; and Ginn & Co. At Ginn he was vice-president for editorial development in charge of editorial and design aspects of the college division, but in 1976, when his division was sold to John Wiley & Sons, a New York-based firm, he decided to stay in Boston. Few jobs were then available in publishing, but the Northeastern position was offered to him. He ''gambled on a distant twinkle of possibility'' that he could build a university press and took the job.

Within one year he had talked Northeastern into an experiment in university press publishing. With no full-time staff and a mere $10,000 nonsalary budget, Frohlich began to publish works that came out of conferences held at the university. By the second year he had one staff member and was publishing five titles. Three of these were conference-related volumes. Two were reprints that initiated the now substantial ''Northeastern Classics'' series. The lead volumes , ''The Maritime History of Massachusetts 1783-1860,'' by Samuel Eliot Morison, cq and ''The Boston Tea Party,'' by Benjamin Woods Labareecq, both distinguished books in their subject areas, set the tone for the series.

Frohlich smiles. ''We publish a number of authors who, were they living today , would probably never choose to be published by us,'' he says. Two recent ''Northeastern Classics'' are Edmund Wilson's ''Patriotic Gore''; ''Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War''; and ''The Art of the Novel,'' by Henry James.

''At the end of three years we had shown the university that a very low-cost experiment (about a $29,000 budget funding 11/2 staff people and production-related costs) could produce a small and selective publishing operation.'' Now Frohlich has five full-time staff members and expects to publish and offer for distribution 20 titles in the 1984-85 fiscal year.

Building a new university press during the years when even long-established presses were facing hard times is no small accomplishment. Says Frohlich, ''Northeastern was generous enough to fund us at a time when other institutions were aching.'' Northeastern is a no-frills university with an academic calendar that allows students to work alternately with periods of study to achieve a bachelor's degree in five years while supporting a substantial amount of course expenses through employment.

''I had the good fortune of having landed on my feet in an institution that had virtually no financial problem,'' Frohlich says. ''I respect the social values of Northeastern, and my goal has been to build on their financial support the best mirror to reflect the institution as it strives for higher academic quality.''

The university is now building up its arts program, just as the press is associating itself with prestigious neighborhood institutions and building its literary and record lists. ''We are in a neighborhood of kindred spirits,'' Frohlich explains. ''We distribute for the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Atheneum, and the Gardner Museum. The distribution does not bring in a great deal in terms of revenue, but we decided to associate ourselves with these prestigious cultural institutions in the belief that their image will redound to our future authors.''

Frohlich is an articulate, tidy, dignified man with a trace of whimsy showing through his earnest demeanor. His office, in the basement of a Fenway brownstone in a Boston neighborhood that has seen better days, exemplifies his ability to turn something unpretentious into a tasteful environment. It is a clean, well-lighted room, with framed prints and bookcases lining the walls. Except for its location, it could be the office of a dean in any of the better known New England colleges. (Frohlich is now dean of publications at Northeastern.) But if you open a closet you might find a stash of Northeastern University Press tote bags and sweat shirts. And on rare occasions a huge white dog shares Frohlich's space, now and then howling unabashedly for his walk along the Fenway.

''My work is a never-ending process,'' Frohlich reflects. ''There is no such thing here as resting comfortably on your laurels. But what you accomplish is a function of what you set your horizons on. If I can do only 12 or 14 books, I want them to be the most imaginative books possible. Within the limits of my finances, the age of the press, and the reputation of the institution, I want to produce quality books.''

In this he has already succeeded. Northeastern University Press, under Frohlich's directorship, has already surpassed any ''limitations.'' Its competently edited and attractively designed books are substantial works of scholarship that serve to enhance the reputation of the parent university.

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