A fond farewell from Don and Shirley Beggs
After 13 1/2 years at Wichita State, Don and Shirley Beggs are moving on. Joe Kleinsasser, longtime director of WSU’s news and media relations, recently had the opportunity to interview this extraordinary presidential couple in the president’s office. Following are highlights from that interview.
Q: Looking back, what are you most proud of during your tenure here?
Shirley: One of the things I’m most proud of, and it still gives me goose bumps every time I go in to Koch Arena, is knowing how hard Don and Jim Schaus worked for 11 months to raise the money. The end product to me is phenomenal.
Don: I look at the accomplishment of the university and the installation of Banner. It is a good example of what happens when people who know what they want, and how they want to get it done, modify things. That’s a real compliment to this entire university and it goes across all levels of classifications of positions. We now provide better services because people invested in it.
Obviously there’s the excitement of the NIT in New York, and then a few months later the student symphony performing in Carnegie Hall.
Shirley: The thing we’re most proud of, though, and both of us feel this way, are our students. We have seen our students advance and mature. We have more students who are full-time now than we’ve ever had before. And our relationship with our students has just been so very, very special.
Q: Were there any disappointments?
Don: I can’t think of any one specific issue. It’s more not being able to do what we would like to do in a creative way.
I would say in the entire time I’ve been in this position I’ve heard good ideas, good thoughts, how can we make it happen across all disciplines, athletics — whatever you want to talk about — and see students get opportunities to perform, to see faculty get to participate in major conventions and this type of thing.
The concept of disappointment is really kind of hard to define at Wichita State because there are people accomplishing what they want to accomplish daily. And so from my perspective I see it as not being able to fund good ideas.
Q: How did you deal with the frustrations and pressures of the job?
Don: In this job you deal with the most positive and the most negative. There have been times I’ve gone home to Shirley and said, “I just can’t figure out how we’re going to do this. How could this have happened when things were going so well?”
For me, my vent has been Shirley. She’s a very positive person. Plus I’ve got staff who try to make things happen. If I’m going to sit around and worry about something with all the positive things going on here, I probably shouldn’t be in this job.
Shirley: We aren’t great worriers. I feel the same way toward Don. He’s so positive all the time. In all of our years together, which are 49, I can’t remember a time when he said he didn’t want to go to work. And he’s always loved this job and been eager to meet each new day and the challenges ahead, and I think that’s just so important. If I have any disappointment at all, it’s the fact that we aren’t younger and that we can’t stay longer, because we’ve loved it so much.
Q: Did anything surprise you during your tenure at Wichita State?
Don: My greatest surprise was coming to a larger community than we’d ever lived in with a university that was not the dominant employer in the community. And so I saw that as different. It’s different, but it’s a very positive difference for those of us who live in Wichita.
I must admit I thought I had small-town values. I found those same values present in the Shocker nation. I found it in the faculty. I found it in the student body. I found it in other staff, alumni.
That was my biggest surprise. Gene Hughes (former president) had told me I was coming to a good situation. It was a better situation than I’d perceived what he said was good. It was easy to see that it was good.
Shirley: I think for both of us it’s been that way. You know, usually you think of a honeymoon lasting one year. And we feel here at 13 1/2 years we’re still having a honeymoon in Wichita and at Wichita State University because the people wrapped their arms around us from the moment we arrived, and they’re still that way. They love their city. They love the university. They know how important it is economically to south-central Kansas, and they have wanted us to succeed.
Q: Both of you were very visible, attending many events on campus and in the community. What did you enjoy the most about attending these events?
Shirley: All the people we would see, sometimes the same people, but always a mix of different people. Seeing our students be successful. It’s been really exciting to participate and be involved, not only on campus but also throughout the community.
Don: Well, I see us in these roles as representing the institution, being proud of whether it’s a city, county, regional set of activities, whether it’s our student performances, whether it’s in the fine arts, athletics or lecture series that are sponsored by academic units. We want to be there. Sometimes I’m not knowledgeable about the content, but we want to be there in terms of trying to support people doing the things they were either hired to do, or aspiring to get to do. So from my particular bias the excitement is getting to see people do things that they want to do. And in almost all those cases, it’s entertaining.
Q: You both do very well at remembering the names of people. What’s your secret?
Don: Shirley Beggs. In a meeting I was attending somebody said, “Beggs, you’ve got tremendous memory.” Jeff Turner said, “That’s only when Shirley’s present.” And that’s exactly what it is. She has a phenomenal ability to remember, and I live off of that.
Shirley: It’s a gift. My dad was this way. Our son is this way. I find at times if I’m really tired I may not remember some names, but most of the time I do. I don’t do associations, because if you’re in a receiving line, you don’t have time to do associations. It’s just that it registers somehow. I have no explanation for it other than it being a God-given gift.
Q: Can you guess how many times you’ve been asked about starting a football program?
Don: By different people, not nearly as many times as people believe or suspect. There are some people who believe that it has to be done and it can be resolved by one person. The question is most appropriate until a person has been told multiple times and simply won’t accept the answer. Then it’s a waste of time for them to say it because I’ve already heard it.
Q: Do you ever see football coming back?
Don: I think business plans can be developed. The question is what comes back? But if the business plan starts from scratch, and you’re not trying to build or grow something, that makes it harder. I believe there will always be the attitude prevalent at Wichita State and in Wichita that whatever you have, compete. Don’t just have it. And I think that’s the part that makes the business plan so important.
There had to be a value judgment made here that was my responsibility to make. Do you want to have competitive teams or do you want to have a variety of teams? We made the decision deliberately that we wanted competitive teams, so we expect to fund our programs in the top half of our competitive group. That way we can expect to have winning records. And I personally like what’s happened in athletics because we have more than winning records.
You hold out hope there can be a business plan. Realistically those chances are very limited.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges for WSU and higher education in Kansas?
Don: From my perspective the issue is how we are going to fund the types of programs we have and how do you fund creative things? We’re becoming much more dependent on student fees, student tuition. Then there’s the image of what is the purpose of a four-year school? We do have a purpose and we do provide a positive product and we do provide better educated individuals than when I finished a four-year degree. Is that what our culture wants to retain?
But the responsibility rests on us to convince people that an educated person enhances our culture.
Q: How has Wichita State changed in the 13 ½ years you’ve been here?
Shirley: I think physically it’s changed a lot with all of the different buildings we’ve added and have renovated. To me, the signage at all entrances is just a marvelous improvement. I think the area on Hillside from 17th to 21st Street is such a positive movement, and that’s working with the city to help make that happen.
Don: And I look at the student body change. We have more students who are geared toward wanting to graduate. We have more students who are either taking double majors or majors and a couple of minors — very much aware of what’s expected of their upcoming generation in terms of the ability to be adaptable.
In my generation you got into one profession and pretty well stayed within that profession. For today’s student, that’s not going to be what’s going on. So I see the students having significantly changed.
Technology has changed our services. When we put in Banner we eliminated the tradition of standing in line. Few people miss that. But I think it has changed a lot.
The quality of the people, the quality of students hasn’t changed. The phrase that has become at least a part of my talking to incoming students is, if you want to find yourself, go someplace else. If you want to create yourself and assume responsibility for yourself and use the university, we’re the right place to come.
At commencements, I thoroughly love seeing students come across the stage who I know have taken advantage of quality faculty members both inside and outside the classroom, quality experiences in the Wichita community, in the region, with NASA, whatever you want to talk about, that’s the real change I’ve seen.
Q: What made this the right time to step down, and was it difficult to make the decision?
Shirley: Well, we thought about it, especially last summer. We were on a trip and relaxed a lot and thought about it and we both were turning 70 years old, not that that’s any magic number, but realistically looking ahead, you want to have your good years to do some other things, to not get up at five in the morning and have a long day and be on call 24/7. You want to be able to spend quality time together and with your children and grandchildren, and some days do nothing, and I think not having a set schedule. So thinking about those things, we just decided this was the right time.
Don: I think as you look at this job, Shirley and I only know one way to do it, and if we can’t exert that kind of energy full-time all the time, then we don’t think we’re doing the job the way it can and should be done. Other people do it well other ways.
Shirley: We’ve loved what we’ve done. We love being on the go and getting to participate in and be active with so many different people and organizations, and we talked about changing our style and working later in the morning and stopping earlier in the evening. We just can’t do it.
Don: So when you look at that and the fact that we want to enjoy life without the job defining our life. The job has defined our lives. I’ve worked since I was 16. I’ve been on a university campus since 1959. That’s a long time. And it’s something that I wouldn’t change at all, but I now look forward to having a different set of priorities, defining our lifestyle and what is driven by us. We drove it because we let the job define it, but we need to do it differently.
Q: Which leads us to the next question: Is the toughest part about leaving WSU saying goodbye to people and knowing you’ll miss the relationships?
Don: You’re absolutely right.
Shirley: We love the people of this city and loved our students, our faculty, our staff. We think of Wichita State University as a family, and I think it truly is that, and it has been to us. So we’re going to miss all the people terribly. They’ll always be with us in our hearts.
Don: As a non-English major I finally found a use of the word “personification.” I personify a university. It’s a living organism to me, and it has lifelike characteristics. That’s what this university has done. That’s what this community has done. It has allowed us to behave that way. There are some institutions that would not like as much visibility as we have, would prefer a different style of leadership. And we’ve been allowed to lead the only way the two of us know how to do it.
Q: What has it been like during your farewell tour on campus and in the community?
Shirley: It has been exciting. It’s been emotional, especially emotional when we think about all the things we’ve done over the last 13 ½ years, when we see video clips of people we’ve been with, places we’ve been and just how really exciting those were in our lives. We’re trying to not be sad, although there are moments. And we just are thankful for the opportunity that we’ve had here.
Don: It creates a different situation for us. We’ve always looked forward. And when people know you’re retiring, it causes people to want to look back. And neither one of us looks back easily. Yeah, I want to have the memories. But it is very humbling.
Probably the hardest part is knowing that you won’t be with people. Shirley and I have talked about how much we’re going to miss the basketball games.
Shirley: And Don’s going to also miss planning, because he’s loved getting to plan and think about the future for the university. To be honest with you, we see great things happening for this university, 40, 50 years down the road. And we don’t like it that we’re not going to be actually participating as far as decision-making.
Q: As you move back to Illinois, what are you most looking forward to?
Shirley: Being able to have less of a planned schedule for one thing, being nearer our family. We’re five minutes from our son and his family at Bloomington, and two hours from our daughter and her family. We live vicariously through our son and his wife. They have just been notified they’ve been promoted, both of them have been promoted to full professor, so there are so many parallels of their lives and ours, and that’s fun for us. And the same with our daughter because she’s a public school teacher, I was a public school teacher, and we’re going to be very involved with our grandchildren.
Don: I’m ready to step away from the responsibility for so many things you don’t control — safety, security, providing opportunities for people to do their jobs. We still have responsibilities to our family. With this job, the pressure from my perspective is how to keep a safe, quality environment for people while they’re here. And that’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of variables that you don’t control.
Q: What words of wisdom are you offering to incoming President John Bardo?
Don: That’s a very fair question. I’ve shared with him, be yourself. He’s a man of integrity and honesty, and so literally that’s the most sound advice I can give him is be yourself and go for it. He and I have talked about the analogy that it’s like a relay race, and we’re finishing our laps. Now he’s ready to take the baton. He and I are working and we will continue to work this coming year to hand that off. And the more he learns the history of where we are, the less he needs me, because he knows where he wants to go.
Q: Are you likely to visit campus again?
Shirley: Oh, my goodness, yes. In fact, I’m sure this coming year we’ll be back three or four times, and in the future we’ll come back for certain events. What we’re excited about is the fact that Illinois State University is in the community where we’re moving and, although we will not be Redbirds, we look forward to all of the events where the Shockers come to play the Redbirds. And we plan on attending all of those events, and hosting some of our fans who come and enjoy being Shockers from afar.
Q: What final words of encouragement do you have for the faculty and staff?
Don: Probably the most encouraging thing is realize that not only are you good, but the people you are working with are good. When I look back at our branding campaign and our intent to say that we were good and we were proud to be who we are, I think it’s probably a singularly most effective brand effort where we all looked at who our colleagues are, who our students are and take pride in what we do.
We are a unique institution with a unique mission. And the Board (of Regents) has made a recommitment to Dr. Bardo that they support us being this unique institution in Kansas. And we stay unique when we work together. I think getting people to look at their colleagues and to understand everybody’s job is important.
Most of the jobs are different, but every job is important or we wouldn’t have the job. There are quality people here. That to me is the positive part.
Shirley: As I’ve said before in talks that we’ve given, it has been a love affair to remember.