By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer
When Minnesota State University administrator Scott Olson was recently named president of Winona State, the repeated lament was that Mankato’s loss was Winona’s gain.
But Olson isn’t the first MSU shining star to “defect” to Winona State. In 1983 Tom Stark did likewise, heading into much more duress than Olson faces and, ultimately, having his mission ended in a heartbeat.
Stark, a former superintendent of Mankato public schools, was MSU’s vice president when he was selected as Winona State’s new president.
Battle pay didn’t come with the job, but it should have.
Whereas Olson assumes presidency of a school sailing on calm waters, Stark took over an institution roiling in bad blood.
Miserable morale and enrollment doldrums were threatening the very existence of the first teacher’s college west of the Mississippi. And when president Robert Hanson resigned for health reasons, the school went looking for a hired gun.
But instead of shooting down the university’s ills, Stark disarmed them with charm. No easy task because he’d inherited an in-house feud of Hatfield-and-McCoy proportions.
As Stark told a couple of Mankato newspaper guys paying a campus visit a year later, “There was tremendous acrimony between the faculty and administration, and communication had deteriorated to the point where there was none.”
The cold war had gone further into a deep freeze when teacher layoffs were threatened. But Stark navigated around any axings through the use of early retirement incentives coupled with staff attrition.
Another saddle burr for him was “The Rochester Question” — ongoing pressure in that part of the state to start a four-year school in Rochester, a mere 40 miles away from Winona State’s “turf.”
That encroachment issue was resolved with the establishment of a Winona State regional campus in Rochester. That served not only to ease Winona State’s territorial concerns but also to generate needed cash flow for the school.
All that happened a year into Stark’s presidency, which he made look easier than the job was. That was his forte. Winona State went searching for someone with the charisma of “The Music Man” and the healing power of penicillin, and Stark delivered.
And he kept delivering until one day in 1988, when a heart attack laid claim to Mankato’s loss, Winona’s gain. He was 53.
As they say, the good die young.
Brian Ojanpa is a Free Press staff writer. Call him at 344-6316 or email email@example.com.