By Scott Westerman
December at Michigan State University tests the constitution. If you live in South Campus, it’s a daily fight against the arctic winds as you cross the tundra, inadequately protected by the gossamer layers that students call winter clothing. At night, even the lights of the Capitol City can’t prevent Orion from marching across the sky, his belt reflected like a dancing diamond necklace in the churning waters of the Red Cedar as it tumbles over the rocks near the library complex.
Such is the scene that greets me as I return to my alma mater from New Mexico tonight.
I’m here for a highly personal reason. My adulthood began within the broad confines of campus. My best friends are those I made here. MSU prepared me well for a long and successful career. And after 31 years living thousands of miles from her embrace, I want to return.
I’m competing with three other able executives to become head servant at the MSU Alumni Association.
In truth, it’s the job I was born to do, working a lifetime in the subscription business, while parallel processing my love for the Institution as a leader in local alumni clubs across the continent, as a member of my college alumni group and as president of the national alumni board.. and with innumerable strokes of the pen, returning a portion of Colleen and my personal bounty to the University that made it all possible.
But tonight isn’t about me.
Fortified with Michigan wine and a superb Kellogg Center State Room dinner, I bundle up and head out.
I must look a little strange. Clearly too old to be a student, heavy camel hair coat, shirt, tie, dress shoes, topped by my favorite Spartan green ear muffs. But I don’t care.
I’ve put together a special play list for my iPod. “Reeling in the Years” starts me off as I walk past the Breslin Center and Munn Arena. “Your everlasting summer, you can see it fading fast..” I nod to the Southwest where Colleen has a fire going to ward off 40 degree temperatures. We’ll have snow showers and 20s tonight here.
The whispers of Jud Heathcote, Tom Izzo, Amo Bessone and Ron Mason mix with the wind. I turn towards Dem Hall and can hear Pat Foley and Gary Mescher doing hockey play-by-play through the static of the AM carrier current signals that used to define student radio when Wonders Hall was my MSU home.
Spartan Stadium looks taller, bigger, and even more majestic than it did when I first kick-stepped in from the Southern end zone as a freshman in the MSU Marching Band. Hospitality suites now take her elevation ever higher into the night and I silently go over my elevator speech one more time. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be in that building making my pitch.
I can’t resist walking along the river and up past Farm Lane to the banks beside the Auditorium. “Horse With No Name” comes on the iPod at just that moment. It was here that I saw my first MSU Concert, “America”. Dan, Dewey and Gerry sang that same song in this house.
Looking to the right, I remember the exquisite experience that is summer school, when everybody sat on the banks, text books in one hand, something cool to drink in the other. Canoes weave up and down the Red Cedar, and everyone wonders how anyone could concentrate on studying in a green paradise like this.
I salute Hubbard Hall in the East, the spontaneous red light in her top floor still burning four decades later. Nobody knew why we did it then, and I’m not sure many know why it’s still done now.
I cross the river again at Bogue Street and turn towards the oldest parts of campus. These were some of the first structures that came up out of the ground when MSC, the nation’s Premiere Land Grant College first started educating Michigan youth. Buildings with names like Old Botany, Morrell Hall, Agriculture and Old Horticulture give a clue to the initial educational focus.
From the beginning, MSU taught self sufficiency, work ethic and the sciences of how to get more from the land, while protecting the environment. These were the lessons that provided our great grandparents food, clothing and shelter, and continue to sustain our state, our nation and our world.
“Feeling Stronger Every Day” pounds my eardrums. I am passing the MSU Union now and across the way, Cowles House, the symbolic residence of presidents. I remember being an invited guest as graduation neared, feeling at once confident and terrified of what lay ahead, shaking the president’s hand with thanks for the preparation that I hoped would mix with the elements my parents and mentors had molded within my character.
Walking back towards the warmth of my hotel room, I stopped to consider Sparty, the statue that symbolizes all that was, is and will be Michigan State University. And I pondered the challenges ahead.
We are at a crossroads and must re-define how higher education is funded in Michigan. Our economy can’t provide as firm a foundation for a state sponsored education as was the case when I was first a Spartan.
The mantle must further shift to men and women of vision who are willing to invest in future generations. This is the job that MSU’s newly coined “Advancement” office must tackle.
And it’s the evolving role of the MSU Alumni Association.
This is the organization that endeavors to engage with 400,000 living alumni. We must keep MSU at the front of mind between the time they peel off their green mortar boards and the time when they are intellectually, emotionally and financially able to give their time, talent and treasure so that MSU can endure and prosper.
I think about a conversation I had with Curt Hoopingarner, the erstwhile president, cheerleader and atomic engine behind the Atlanta MSU Alumni Club. “How is it,” I asked, “that you can sell many memberships without touting a single benefit?”
He swings easily into his pitch. “Joining the MSU Alumni Association is the least we can do to repay the University for the riches it’s given us.”
“But we live in a value proposition world,” I counter, testing his resolve. “People want something for what they pay.”
Curt’s voice is firm and takes on the sonorous authority of a fundamentalist minister.
“It’s not about you.”
At every crucial turn in our lives, someone has invested in us. We can never fully repay the gifts we’re given by our teachers, our parents and those close friends who we trust to keep us on track even as our enthusiasm may push from the proper path.
Considering the magnitude of the return we’ve enjoyed as a result of our relationship with Michigan State University, contributing to her sustainable future is what Curt would call “a no-brainer.”
The campus was virtually deserted as I walked her paths this wintry evening. But the presence of tens of thousands of students who have been inspired by MSU’s teachers, found passion, a mission, friendship and love on these very grounds, is still profoundly palpable. They may have left her ivy covered halls, but MSU is still with them, wherever they may be.
I smiled. And realized again that whether or not I ever take a paycheck as head servant for the MSU Alumni Association, I will continue to vigorously support her, promote her and invest in her future… so that thousands more might have the chance to receive her gifts.
And make the world a better place in the process.
This is the magic that is Michigan State University.
It’s not about me.
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