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Jon Wefald ’59, president of Kansas State University, named Kansan of the Year
B Y G E N E S M I T H
T O P E K A C A P I T A L - J O U R N A L
JJon Wefald was standing on a stairway in Kansas State University's administration building last week when a big man in a black leather jacket and jeans muscled past.
Wefald hailed him and introduced Dale Herspring, head of the K-State Department of Political Science. "He can tell you how we do things around here," said Wefald, a half smile playing on his lips.
"This is one of the most unhierarchical institutions around," Herspring said instantly, leaving no doubt that was a major reason he's still there. "The most you can hope for is that people will listen to you. Here, they do. I turned down a job in Texas at $20,000 bucks more a year, just because of that."
A rugged, blunt-talking man, he recalled teaching at another area university where a simple problem he brought up took 2½ months to solve because so many different officials had to be involved. In contrast, when he discovered some leaking portable potties left over from a KSU rock concert three days before, he called Tom Rawson, vice president of administration and finance. "He called me back in 20 minutes and said, "You're right. They'll be gone by this after noon." And they were.
"All I can say is, the kind of support I've gotten is worth the $20,000.
"Nobody is jealous of their territory," explained Herspring, a veteran of both the Navy and the U.S. Foreign Service. "In the military, the primary task is to get the job done. That's the way it works here. Nobody is going to stand on bureaucracy and formality." He paused and added, "If Jon left, I think I'd seriously consider leaving.
"The minute you go aboard a ship, you can tell what the commanding officer is like. It's the same situation here. It's not because I can call the president and get what I want. It's that I can call the president or the provost without worrying about retribution. And if they did, I think Wefald would hammer whoever tried to use it."
Jon Wefald is as unlikely a man as ever headed a major university. A neat, compact man of 5'8" and 165 pounds, the 60-year-old Minot, N.D., native majored in history and political science at two minor Washington state schools and finally earned a doctorate in history at the University of Michigan.
Put Wefald's formal resume in a folder with half a dozen others, and nothing in it would give a reader pause. It lists the usual scholarly honors, a few professional papers, a number of speeches and "presentations," a handful of book reviews.
The qualities that make this small Scandinavian stand out don't seem reducible to the pages of a formal resume, for they are qualities of heart and mind and attitude. He is a warrior without military experience, an athlete too small to serve as waterboy on any varsity team, a salesman who never stops promoting his product, and executive who commands from the saddle-and does it without angering others. Usually, anyway.
He is a man in a hurry; a college president already ancient in his job (average tenure: under five years) who wants everything done now, today, never tomorrow or next week. He never dissembles, and rarely hesitates to reply to any questions.
He not only attends every K-State football and basketball game but every one of the Lady Cats' basketball and volleyball games, as well. "They're exciting," he exclaims, eyes widening. "Big 12 women's volleyball is action-packed."
Nor does he neglect his chosen field, carefully citing some 150 volumes of history he has read in recent years. Darting into the next room of his office suite, he returns carrying a stubby recurved bow, backed with a thick layer of sinew and strung with gut, along with a sort 30-inch arrow with a wicked flattened steel point. The bow is hand-made, the arrow hand-fletched, both by a Hungarian craftsman he discovered four years ago on a visit to a Budapest museum.
"This is a development of 9th century Hungarian bow, exactly as it was perfected and used by the Mongols," said Wefald, offering the compact weapons. An authority on Genghis Khan and his all-conquering Mongols, Wefald says the deadly horsemen could fire a dozen arrows a minute to killing effect out to 300 yards.
He estimates the pull on the bow at 120 pounds, adding, "Of course, neither you nor I could draw anything like that."
Of his faults, perhaps the leading one is his unfailing insistence upon the positive.
Briefly rattled a few years ago when he was personally assaulted by a deranged local man, he referred to the man — understandably — as a "lunatic" when a Manhattan reporter queried him about it. The reporter naturally quoted him. He never forgave her, and never talked to her again.
Most of all he is a collector — of talent: Tomorrow's academic and athletic superstars, gifted teachers and administrators. Probably no other university president in the country takes prospective student recruits home for lunch with him and his wife, Ruth Ann. Certainly no other would see them off on their return — and then call their parents, to pitch the advantages of attending K-State.
Nothing in his early years pointed to any of that.
Wefald, second son of a federal grain inspector, jokes, "I just wanted an opportunity to leave" Minot, but in truth the family had long since moved to Minnesota, following his father's postings. And the KSU chief is quick to add, "You never know when you're growing up what course you'll take."
He started as an associate professor of history at little Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., in 1965 — but in 1971, after a brief congressional bid, suddenly seized a chance to become Minnesota's commissioner of agriculture, another six-year job. "I spoke in at least 80 percent of the towns in Minnesota," Wefald reminisced. "I loved working with farmers and ranchers. I still love'em today."
Still, when he got the chance to become president of Southwest State University in Marshall, Minn., in 1977, he snatched that opportunity as quickly as he had the ag commissioner's post. "Southwest State was dying on the vine, and we turned that around, totally," he says today.
That in turn brought him a 1982 offer to become chancellor of the Minnesota State University System, a complex of seven schools. And in July 1986 he found himself in Manhattan for the first time in his life — the new president of Kansas State University.
KSU had some problems then with declining student enrollments, few alumni endowments and an athletic program no one took seriously. Apparently, Wefald believed the job was tailor-made for him.
Challenged with being totally unlike any real university president, he laughed and pointed to the comfortable stuffed leather president's chair behind the big president's desk in the spacious president's office in Anderson Hall.
"You know what's wrong with them? They get into an office like this and they sit there all day, or they're in a meeting someplace and they're not getting anything done! You see that chair? I've never sat in that chair!"
It was probably true, because the chair was full of books and papers. The desk itself was clean as a store window display.
What's a university president's job, then? "That's all in the eyes of the beholder. Most presidents think of being an administrator. I saw myself as more of leader than a manager — and also I wanted to bring hope to K-State."
Rapidly then, he ticks off items: enrollment up from 15,000 to nearly 21,000; 2.2 million square feet of new university buildings; a new art museum; a healthy endowment program; a strong university athletic program. Reminded that the football team lost its last two games, and twitted about whether he was in the market for a new coach, Wefald shot back: "The team was running on empty" after the heart-breaking loss to Texas A&M, and never got its spirit back for the San Antonio scrap with unrated Purdue.
He paused, then brightened. "We're 11-2 for the season. Think about that! Back in '86, '87, nobody even dreamed of that kind of record. We're No. 9 in the country. We're still a top 10 team! You have to back up and say, 'We had a good season.' You gotta have a sense of humor about this whole thing."
Equally, he rejects questions about his moving on, to a better job at some bigger school. Wefald is never shy about his own opportunities, mentioning that the late Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey planned to make him secretary of agriculture in a Humphrey administration; that he has been "recruited hard" by such plum schools as the University of Minnesota and Ohio State.
"If I was gonna go anywhere I'd've gone to Minnesota, because that's where I'm from. But I've been 13 years in Kansas, and I like it here. I'm a Kansan now. I'm a K-Stater! Bill Funk, the headhunter, called and pleaded with me to allow my name to go before the board to run the whole Texas A&M system, 18 campuses, at more than twice the money-— over $400,000," as compared to his own $160,000 at KSU. "I wrote him a long letter; said thank you very much but no thanks."
All that was just this fall — one final good reason for The Capital-Journal to name Dr. Jon Wefald, lifetime president of Kansas State University. Mighty Mite of the Powercats, its 1998 Kansan of the year.
In fact, says Welfald, "I turned them down twice. The chairman of the board called and said he was gonna drive to Manhattan to hear it from me." Wefald told him not to bother. "I just love K-State! We have a 'can do' attitude. We empower people. I feel I have surrounded myself with the best administrative team that's ever been assembled. And also, we have a lot of fun. I'm not so sure I would in some of those other places. Kansas State has never been blessed with great leaders."
Herspring doubtless would agree. His older son Kurt stands 6'6" and weighs 290 pounds. He wanted nothing more than to play lineman on the Wildcats' football team. But Bill Snyder and his recruiting coordinator Mark Mangino, both urged the young Herspring to go the U.S. Naval Academy (where he had an appointment) instead, warning him his feet were too small to play top-level football.
The senior Herspring said Snyder told Kurt he could give him a better football program, but he couldn't even come close to giving him the lifetime advantages that would accrue from an Annapolis education. "He's going back now for his final semester. But the point is, both these men took time out of an incredibly busy schedule to counsel with a faculty member's kid. That's the difference. Both my boys think Snyder and Mangino walk on water."
Faced now with a brand-new millennium, the unconventional college prexy and his little management team--only three vice president's; maybe 10 assistants, total--haven't run out of ideas, either.
Ask Wefald his short-term goal for K-State and he'll shoot back the old Bernarr MacFadden mantra: "We're trying to get better every day and every week."
Longer term, he wants to get faculty salaries up. "That's really crucial. That remains our No. 1 goal. Then we have the challenge of building a new biology building. And we want to make sure we keep our strengths. Our history department has become known as one of the top military history departments in the country. We just hired three new history teachers.
"We have a new Ph.D. program in rural geography. You know, when you think about it, most of the world is rural." He wants to improve under-graduate advisors, expand graduate programs, push the KSU research engine. K-State research programs now generate $2.4 billion in benefits annually to the state, he says, compared to $150 million the Legislature authorizes for the school in the same twelvemonth.
"I'd say that's a pretty good return on investment," he declaimed.
And it explains why there's been a sea change in attitude. A generation ago even alumni commonly referred to "the cow college on the Kaw." The "cow college" part is still there, good as ever. But no one today talks about Kansas State University in those terms.
In a way, Wefald is reminiscent of a scene in "Key Largo," a classic Humphrey Bogart movie. Edward G. Robinson, playing a big-time mobster hiding out in the Florida Keys, is lolling in a bathtub smoking a cigar when two of his hoods bring Bogart in for one last confrontation before killing him.
"You know what your problem is?" demands Bogart.
Robinson glowers. "What?" he growls.
"You're never satisfied. No matter how much you've got, you always want more!"
Robinson thinks it over, rolls his cigar in his mouth. Finally he nods. "Yeah," he says. "That's it. More!"
Wefald is like that — but never exactly for his own benefit. He just wants more for Kansas State University and its people. More of everything.
Reprinted with permission from the Topeka Capital-Journal.
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