Where Leaders Are Made: USD's Long History of Creating Take-Charge Graduates
By Jarett C. Bies
The University of South Dakota prepares students to do many grand things.
More than that, it prepares them to lead.
Across all academic and professional disciplines, graduates of USD go into the world and guide others, taking lessons from where their careers began to the top positions across the spectrum of success. It started from USD’s beginning: Early leaders like Anna Johnson Pell Wheeler went from graduation in 1903 to lead the Bryn Mawr University’s mathematics department. Edith Reeves Solenburger ’06 directed suffrage efforts while championing children with disabilities. Carl Gunderson graduated in 1890, and later became the first alumnus governor of South Dakota.
School of Law graduate and Sioux City, Iowa native Col. George “Bud” Day ‘49, a Medal of Honor recipient, served as a U.S. Air Force pilot and was imprisoned for six years in the “Hanoi Hilton” during the war in Vietnam. What Day endured would seem to strip out any impression that his time at USD played an important role in his resistance against his captors while leading men on the edge of insanity and death.
“My training in the law school in South Dakota was always a factor,” he said. “I was trained to be thorough and persistent, on how to reason, and the faculty taught us legally what was right and wrong. It played a role throughout my military career, including during those six years in North Vietnam.”
Leaders in the arts and humanities face challenges of another sort. Janet Brown ’73, ’03 completed degrees in theatre and public administration, and as the CEO of Grantmakers in the Arts, a national association of private and public funders of arts and culture with offices in Seattle, she credits USD for preparing her for achievement. Under faculty such as Dr. Warren Lee and Dr. Wayne Knutson, she was able to ply her skills and inspiration at the Black Hills Playhouse. “Drs. Lee and Knutson expected professionalism, and I took that to heart. My peers played a key role in my development, and I’m still best friends with many of them,” Brown said. “Producing plays and handling all aspects of a production, those were binding experiences where we were together all day and all night, exposed to deadlines and collaborating together to solve problems. Ensemble work is critical, and I was well-versed in it by the time I graduated.”
From a one-room grade school in Alexandria, S.D. to senior management in a Fortune 500 company, College of Arts & Sciences alumna Sylvia Wagner ’71 points to friends as well as her passion for writing, and draws a line back to where her success began: At USD. An executive vice president of human resources and development with Assurant, a specialty insurance provider with international offices, Wagner truly found her stride through a variety of examples in Vermillion. “The leadership in the Chi Omega sorority served as examples for my career. Women like Sylvia Belatti (now Moisan, ’69) and Nancy Carlsen (’69) challenged me not only to do well academically but to think beyond academics to leadership roles on campus,” Wagner said. “Those relationships impacted my career in ways I did not anticipate, but they were priceless interactions. At USD, I gained skills that helped me to craft my role in human resources. Finding motivation – like finding one’s major – requires a wide range of experiences. If that’s not a liberal arts take on business, I don’t know what is.”
Dr. Vance Thompson ’82, ‘86 is internationally known as an eye surgeon, but his career began with his degrees from USD’s College of Arts & Sciences and the USD School of Medicine. He led early in his life – growing up in Gregory, S.D., and continued to develop the tenants of leadership in Vermillion. “Many things came to play in my career, from my upbringing on the plains, to the impeccable dedication I found in my professors,” Thompson said. “At USD, it went beyond the classroom to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house, to Inter-fraternity Council, places that ended up being good experiences. What I learned, maybe more than anything, was persistence. I learned to not only lead, but to follow. I find I do best when I’m driven not for the power, but for the cause, whether I lead, follow, or just play a role. That’s what drives me.”
While she had already led many classrooms when she came to USD, Cincinnati, Ohio native Geralyn Jacobs ’91, ’93, entered the graduate program at the School of Education and came away knowing there was more to learn. “As I entered doctoral study, I was able to help on big projects with our leadership,” Jacobs said. “Those opportunities truly challenge and stretch you.” Jacobs said her job – teaching teachers – grew into many other opportunities. “I was asked to write pre-school standards for South Dakota, and while I was busy, I said yes,” she said. “That moment was so crucial. It was a door opening and since then, many others have opened as well.” Opportunities and education at USD led to her being named the president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a post she currently holds.
Retired Col. Mike McDermott’s skills as a leader were sharpened at USD and served him well as an U.S. Army airborne combat officer in Vietnam. The Highmore, S.D. native graduated with a degree in political science in 1966 after serving as a battalion commander in the ROTC, then left USD and took part in one of the battle at An Loc in 1972. There he earned two Distinguished Service Crosses. In order to lead in battle, he needed to hone his craft. “My training and the opportunities I had to lead large groups of men at USD was crucial to success I had in combat,” McDermott said. “I had critical lessons in Vermillion. It’s just not possible to be an effective leader without really having candid, trust-based relationships with your subordinates.” McDermott returned to complete a master’s degree in 1975.
Current USD Student Government Association President Alissa VanMeeteren of Yankton, S.D. understands that like alumni before her, learning from professionals can enhance one’s acumen to lead. Professors like Mary Pat Bierle in political science, David Carr in economics and Shane Semmler in speech communications challenged VanMeeteren to improve. “So many lessons, from each of them, and most revolved around listening carefully, of gauging other’s points of view before just ‘throwing up words’ in response,” VanMeeteren said. “In the Theta house, lessons there, about how to live, more than just leadership, to be an effective member of a community no matter what it is, the house, a class, the University.”
The friends and peers of those who developed as leaders at USD also played key parts Pine Ridge, S.D. native Chuck Trimble ’57 noted when reflecting upon his time in Vermillion. He gives much credit to his brothers in the Theta Xi Fraternity for helping him navigate difficult college years. Contemporaries like Dean Belbas ’56, Philip Odeen ’56 and June (Woodward) Wagner ’57 helped form his perspective. “They gave me self-confidence, and matriculating with them, in their midst, was an honor, one that helped shape my career,” Trimble said. “I was an advertising art student, but had friends in many other disciplines, those were important building the confidence I needed.” After graduating, he started the American Indian Press Association, a precursor to the Native American Journalism Institute. He also served as the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, where he was unanimously elected a total of six times. “To develop consensus among the diversity of so many tribes, to lead them all, it require confidence,” he said. “I really attribute much of that self-assurance from what I got at USD.”
Former South Dakota Supreme Court Justice Judith Meierhenry ’66, ’68, ’77, a native of Gregory, S.D., said that while peers like her friend, the late Gov. William Janklow ’64, ’66 helped her understand how leaders take charge, USD’s atmosphere also affected her. “From my undergraduate years through my time in the School of Law, I saw the beauty of higher education,” she said. “Every day of my career, and in many other parts of my life, the lessons I learned back in the USD English department came to bear. Developing a love for the language, and of writing, that truly opened doors that I use every day.”
When Britton, S.D. native Frank Farrar completed his business and law degrees in 1951 and 1953, he took a number of lessons with him. He served as state’s Attorney General, and then was elected governor of South Dakota in 1969. “USD fit me because the place was really friendly and there were only about 3,500 of us, so for a common guy like me, it was a good fit,” said Farrar. “As an undergraduate, I was a house president for the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, president of the Inter-Fraternity Council, and of the student body. The post-World War II veterans had a big influence on me because many were five or six years older than I was, and so I had to be stronger.”
Originally from Pierre, S.D., Dr. Erica Schipper ’00, ’04 served her country in the U.S. Navy after completing medical school, and she said the experiences she had–as an SGA president, as a member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, and as a dedicated student in both the honors program and the School of Medicine—paid dividends when she began her career. “I began my naval career with impressionable young medical corpsmen, new to their work. I remembered the start of my career with Dr. [Michael] Hein and Professor Paul Bunger guiding me and helping me take off,” Schipper said. “I tried to do the same thing with these young sailors. I let them fly, but held out a net just in case. From my time as SGA president to now, each step has helped me improve my leadership, but it really began in Vermillion.” She continues her career in obstetrics and gynecology at Sanford in Sioux Falls.
While Bruce Nolop ’72 began his time at USD making a big adjustment – the University’s nature was a far cry from Mobridge, S.D. where he went to high school– he got the opportunities he needed to eventually lead in the boardroom. “For me, going to USD was the biggest adjustment in my career progression, but it was faculty who made a difference, and who boosted my confidence,” said Nolop, who graduated with a degree in political science, held leadership positions in both his fraternity, Delta Tau Delta, and student government. “From Doc (W.O.) Farber to Nancy Zuercher in English, I had so many mentors, men and women who brought out my best attributes. In college, you have to lead with persuasion, and you’re forced to build teams and trust. It was the best laboratory for developing that style of leadership a person could ask for.”
Col. Andrea Thompson ’88 of Sioux Falls came to USD for academic and sports opportunities. What she found was a chance to perfect her leadership skills in a wide range of campus environments, from varsity athletics to student government, as a member of Alpha Phi sorority and as sports editor at The Volante. “I was blessed with many upperclassmen friends who indirectly influenced me, who showed me various approaches to leadership that I was able to make my own, taking parts from each,” said Thompson. She currently serves as a Senior Fellow for Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Chief of Staff of the Army, in his Strategic Studies Group. “At the foundation of any good leader are values and loyalty and my foundation was put in place by growing up in South Dakota,” she said. “I was able to build upon it at USD. Nothing can fully prepare a person for combat or the intense stress of deployment to warzones like in Iraq or Afghanistan, when you face adversity as a leader, that foundation is essential. You know what right looks like. My friends, classmates and the faculty at USD helped me build my foundation.”
Leadership is truly a skill that is developed, and at USD, it’s crafted in high-quality graduates who overcome challenges and rise to face ones even bigger. Professors, staff and peers expose those people who seek those roles – the ones in the front of the room, or the head of the business, or the highest posts of government and military – to their inner potential, share wisdom with them along the way, and then remember them as they read about their accomplishments in the world USD’s leaders are changing every day.