Tom West, West Words

Tom West

When Jon Wefald was a senior in high school, he was a “C” student. On an IQ test, his score was 108, nothing special. Shortly before graduation, his English teacher told him his best options were to join the Army or to get a job as a clerk at the local Woolworth’s store in Minot, N.D.

Wefald wanted to go to college. When his English teacher implied he wasn’t capable, he thought, “We’ll see about that.”

On Oct. 9, Wefald, 81, spoke at Central Lakes College in Brainerd on “The Principles of Leadership That Will Lead to Success.” Much of his talk was about his own life. The message was something that “C” students everywhere can take to heart.

He graduated in four years from Pacific Lutheran University, earned a master’s from Washington State University two years later, and received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan in 1965.

He began his academic career at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, teaching history. In 1971, he was named Minnesota commissioner of agriculture. In 1977, he became president of Southwest State University in Marshall. The school’s enrollment was dropping and many, including some legislators and Southwest faculty members, thought it could not be saved.

Wefald took on the challenge, personally visiting 94 of the 95 high schools closest to Marshall, and talking to not just a few students at each stop, but to the entire high school student body. The next year, Southwest’s enrollment increased 30 percent. He is widely credited with saving the school.

In 1981, he was named chancellor of the six-school Minnesota State University System. However, his greatest achievements came after being named president of Kansas State University in 1986, a position he held for 23 years. Like Southwest, Kansas State was suffering from declining enrollment. It had 15,000 students when he started, and 24,000 when he retired.

How did he do it? At his Central Lakes College talk, Wefald, retired and living in Deerwood, offered approximately 200 students his eight principles for becoming a leader and achieving success:

• Have a strong work ethic. If someone asks you to do something, he said, “You do it right now, not the next day or next week.” Amazon, for example, is successful, he said, “Because they do everything with a sense of urgency.”

• Develop values of determination, dedication and never giving up. Wefald said when movie actor and producer Sylvester Stallone was asked for his success secret, Stallone replied, “I keep going and going and going. …”

• Be an optimist and be passionate about your job. He said, “I don’t work with people who say, ‘No.’ I’m not going to work with pessimists.”

• Be able to read, write and speak. He asked the students, “Can you write a one page memo (with) no spelling errors, no grammatical mistakes, all complete sentences?” adding, “If you can read the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post from cover to cover and understand what’s in (them), you are going to be a success.”

• Remember that cellphones and PCs are not ends onto themselves. “They are not going to get you a job,” he said, adding that if you have to fire someone, do it in person, not by email. He said, “If you fire someone on your PC, it’s Biblical. They never forget.”

• Have a curious mind. “Maybe you don’t read the paper,” he said. “You should.” Later he asked the students, “Do you know what is going on in northern Syria these days? In Venezuela? … Knowledge is power.”

• Have a sense of humor. Wefald said only two U.S. presidents since World War II had a sense of humor, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. He said, “The reason Reagan never got impeached was because he was so nice.”

• When you make a mistake, you have to apologize, “completely, totally, categorically,” he said. One often hears someone in Hollywood say, “If I offended you, I apologize.” Wefald said that isn’t an apology. One needs to say, “I’ve made a mistake. I apologize. It’s never going to happen again.”

Wefald reminded the students that they live in the greatest country in the world. Of the 7 billion people alive today, he said, 3 billion go to bed hungry every night. Most don’t have clean water. One billion cannot read or write. “We live in a country where you can be anything you want to be,” he said. “You can be nobody one day and somebody the next.”

Using a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., he urged the students to look in the mirror and say, “I can be somebody.” Wefald said, “There is no other country in the world where you can say that.”

Successful people, he said, “never think they are the smartest guys in the room,” but they have a caring, generous attitude and thank others often, including custodians, co-workers and parents. “I wore people out by saying, ‘Thank you,’ but, you know what, people appreciate it.”

Wefald’s talk was part of the lecture series sponsored by the Gordon Rosenmeier Center for State and Local Government, named for a Little Falls lawyer and influential Minnesota state senator of the mid-20th century.

Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at

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