President Emeritus

This column appeared Tuesday, April 24, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


If someone wants to get in touch with me, it’s not hard. Text, voicemail, “Hey you,” email, swing by my office, tackle me by the ankles, a social media p.m. I suspect there are at least a dozen platforms on my smart phone (and probably another dozen with which I am not familiar) through which one can gain at least a facsimile of direct Matson access, should the need arise. Early in my career, I was mentored that perceptions are made or broken by the promptness of the response.      

So, it was with chagrin and a sense of personal shortcoming that I recently discovered not one, but two messages, left over a span of two weeks, on our landline home phone. My wife and I rationalize hanging on to the landline as an arms’ length receptacle to collect the spam and robocalls we fear would migrate to our cell phones if we were to cut the cord.

Apart from these two messages, I honestly cannot remember the last time I received a call on the landline worth taking.

The messages were from Dr. Jon Wefald. Yeah, that Dr. Jon Wefald, who mentioned he’d been reading my Mercury columns and noticed a couple of references to K-State. The retired historian wanted to get together to share some history and give me an autographed copy of his book, about his years as president of K-State. A period he not so subtly calls “the transformative years.”

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Back in the day, Wefald knew me as Gov. Bill Graves’ message guy, but my business with K-State was conducted a couple levels down the flow chart. I remember a few polite, “Hi good to see ya how ‘bout them Cats?” conversations with him as he was heading out of the governor’s office and I was heading in, but my name would never have risen to his lunch invitation list.  

As we sat down for lunch at Colbert Hills, it struck me. The skills and characteristics that led to transformative success during his years at the K-State helm, don’t just go away because he retired.

His was the generation that transformed their respective corners of the world through landline phone calls returned to people whose names and numbers were written on little slips of pink paper beneath the imprinted words, ‘While You Were Out’ by secretaries whose positions would transition to administrative assistant and then administrative professional, if not phased out entirely through attrition.

Seeds planted in the breakfast meeting, strategies developed over lunch. Tactics devised nursing drinks after work. Hand-written notes of rah-rah and thanks. Agendas moved through face-to-face relationships.

Dwindling enrollments turned around, football programs resurrected. Libraries renovated, art museums where once there were none. World class golf courses carved into Flint Hills.  

I only had an hour for lunch, lots of important things to do. Agendas of my own to move, ideas to make someone else’s. He seemed genuinely disappointed that I could not stay longer. Once again, I felt like a heel as another reality sunk in. In retirement, at 80, Jon Wefald doesn’t have as many people who listen to him as he once did. As I got up to leave, we exchanged business cards. That afternoon he sent me a very kind and thoughtful email.

If the actual transforming is the science, then the structure and process that leads to the transformation is the art and Jon Wefald is da Vinci. The moves I make today, my professional m.o., was learned from women and men of his generation, nuanced and calibrated to changing times, culture and expectations.    

A cynic might argue the landline messages, the invitation to lunch, the flattery, are all points on an arc bending toward the inevitable legacy-burnishing puff piece. It’s one of those never-spoken-aloud-yet-always-assumed ways of the world. If you invite a guy who writes a newspaper column to lunch, you have something to communicate and the columnist is your vehicle.

A more open-minded interpretation would be the man recognizes his remaining time on the planet is limited and he wants to use it doing what he does best. Doing what comes naturally. Moving an agenda through sheer dint of personality.

There’s no doubt technology is weakening our social connections. It seems hard to measure, but as a dues-paying member in good standing of the generation with one arm cradling the landline and the other in the Cloud, I can sense it. But I can also do my part to purposefully strengthen them. I can accept an invitation to lunch from an aging academician who did many good things in this community.

Transformative, some may argue. He would. Just read his book. I intend to.   

I also intend to return the invitation, take him to lunch, be polite, listen and not interrupt. Maybe someone will do that for me when I reach my golden years. Because I like to talk, too.

As for his agenda, please draw your own conclusions regarding the puffiness of this piece.