The mistake loomed over the university, impossible to miss.
Big black letters. Painted on a water tower with a height of 130 feet.
You probably remember: in August 2017 a contractor’s crew doing work for the City of Wichita painted “Wichita Staty Universite” during a rehabilitation of the Wichita State University water tower near 17thand Oliver. They accidentally transposed the Y and the E.
Joe Kleinsasser made it all seem OK, deploying all the Kleinsasser talents that have made him a beloved figure at Wichita State for the past 34 years.
He told a joke. He answered every question from reporters. He empathized with the people who painted the letters. He smiled and charmed with his Kleinsasser sense of humor and grace, asking if anyone had 10 gallons of Wite-Out.
“There was no way I was going to blame the city for the mistake,” he said. “It happens.”
That’s a win in the world of strategic communications. “Joe jokes” – groaners, as he calls them, or Dad jokes as they’re known – aren’t in a textbook. Some of the best strategies aren’t, either.
“With one little Joe joke, he defused it,” said Lainie Mazzullo-Hart, the new director of news and media relations for Wichita State Strategic Communications. “I don’t know if I or anyone else would have been able to make light of the situation. He turned it into a thing where people could say, ‘Stuff happens. Oh well.’”
Kleinsasser, who for more than three decades has led Wichita State’s news and media relations efforts, retires this week, and the university will miss his institutional knowledge, his experience and trust with the media, his patience and his kindness.
Almost every day since 1986, he drove 49.6 miles from his home in Hillsboro to campus. Kleinsasser, 67, used the drive to pray, listen to the news and prepare for his day. He dodged deer and thought about sports – Shocker basketball, Nebraska football – or his officiating assignment later that night in a small town.
In retirement, he plans to travel, continue volunteer work at his church and help home-school his youngest son.
Director of news and media relations
“I’m getting way more attention than I deserve,” Kleinsasser said while listing recent stories marking his retirement. “I’ve developed a lot of friendships and so many good memories throughout the university. I’m really thankful for the people I’ve been around who had faith in me that I could do the job.”
He started at Wichita State just in time for a news conference called to announce the end of the football program. He remembers the visit of Russian President Boris Yeltsin to campus in 1992 as one of his most interesting assignments. He lists his work with Dean Headley, associate emeritus professor of marketing at Wichita State, on the Airline Quality Rating as a highlight.
“I’ve often said that, outside of athletics, that’s the single largest event the university has had for 30 years,” he said. “It’s something that shows the effect of having faculty who is an expert on a topic, who is recognized nationally and still gets calls.”
In addition to working with media requests, Kleinsasser has served as announcer at events such as Memorial ’70 and created the email newsletters WSU Today and Shocker Blast. Before that, he supervised Inside WSU, a printed newsletter.
“He’s the heart of Strat Comm and part of the heart of the university,” Mazzullo-Hart said. “So many people know Joe on campus and off campus.”
Mazzullo-Hart remembers a busy day when Kleinsasser felt sick yet refused to leave before finishing his work.
“Kidney stones,” Mazzullo-Hart said. “We get a text – Joe drove himself to the hospital.”
He spent 40 years officiating high school and small college games, mostly basketball, before retiring in 2013. He credits his experience dealing with cranky coaches with helping him work with impatient media members.
That desire to help comes from his Christian faith. When not working or officiating, Kleinsasser could be found teaching Sunday school, serving on his church council or singing in the choir – where he met his wife.
“He likes to please people,” said Michelle Kleinsasser, his wife of 37 years. “He’s used to being nice to people. When he shares his faith, lives his faith – that’s what people are noticing in him.”
Joe Kleinsasser said his parents taught him to live by the Golden Rule – treat others as one would like to be treated.
“I don’t do it successfully all the time,” he said. “But there’s the humility of realizing that we all need each other. Yes, I’ve helped many people, I think, in my 34 years here. But if I stop, and am honest about it, probably more people have helped me.”
His coworkers in Strategic Communications will miss that about Kleinsasser. They will also miss his chocolate drawer, his afternoon sharing of popcorn and his jokes – at least some of them. His jokes are family friendly, often self-deprecating and, if you didn’t catch it once, guaranteed to come around again.
“He’s got corny jokes,” Mazzullo-Hart said. “He will tell everybody the same story over and over again. He would make his rounds. You wanted to be annoyed by it, but you couldn’t. Because it was Joe. Because it was funny.”
Some of his favorites:
“Anyone who knows me very well knows how much I love chocolate. In fact, one time I sent my sister a card that said, ‘I’m being held prisoner in a chocolate factory. Please …. Don’t send help!’”
After telling a joke, Kleinsasser will often say, “I’ve got a million of them.” Then he will fill in the reply from the audience - “They will say, ‘No, you’ve got one you tell a million times!’”
“Joe enjoys humor galore,” said Michelle Kleinsasser. “He has a quick wit at responding to conversations and likes to tell a lot of groaners.”
Kleinsasser’s humor, even the groaners, pairs well with his patience and work ethic. Local media members revere him for his willingness to help on routine stories and tough ones.
“He always returned your call, always returned your email,” said Tom Shine, a long-time reporter and editor at The Wichita Eagle and now director of news and public affairs at KMUW. “If he couldn’t answer your question, he would find somebody who could. Joe understood what the media was trying to do. He didn’t see media as an adversary. He helped WSU tell its story.”