|Lea and Tom LeNeau with their dogs Oreo Jr (left) and Buddy (right).|
Tom LeNeau attended UMD at first to work toward his master’s degree in education. While he was a UMD student, life delivered an interesting twist that has taken him to Minneapolis, Arizona, Colorado and eventually back to Minnesota. Along the way, in Arizona, he met and married Lea who has joined him on a journey that continues today.
Tom attended St. Cloud State for his teaching degree and accepted his first position at Washington Junior High in Duluth. “That was back in the day when teens did pranks like rolling tires down Lake Avenue,” he said. Washington was an inner city school, and he taught children who lived near downtown, on the airbase, and all the way up the north shore. A couple of years into his six-year teaching stint at Washington, he became restless, “It was a big world out there, and I want to see more of it,” he said. He enrolled in the education graduate program at UMD.
Well on the way to finishing the masters degree, a career counselor encouraged Tom to take some accounting classes. He and Phil Friest, head of accounting department, hit it off. “I threw together my transcripts: took some classes in the summer and was able to work on my bachelors degree in accounting as well the graduate degree,” he said.
As Tom wound up his masters, Professor Fawzi Dimian offered Tom a position teaching accounting at UMD. That meant Tom wore two hats. He was an accounting instructor and an accounting student at the same time. Once Mark Jennings, a Duluth attorney and Tom’s business law teacher, complained about the heavy grading load and the lack of a place to work on campus. Tom found a desk for Jennings in the teaching assistant’s office and got him some help. “It was kind of shameless, helping my teacher like that,” said Tom.
In the spring of ’79, Minnesota accounting firms came to UMD for Career Day. They interviewed undergraduate students and joined the faculty, including Tom, for lunch. That evening Tom received word of a job offer that ultimately turned him away from an education career into the world of business. The accounting firm, Deloitte, Haskins & Sells located in the IDS tower in downtown Minneapolis, had offered him a job. Tom took it.
“Deloitte assigned me to the regulated business area,” Tom said. “I spent almost all of my time in Minneapolis and St. Paul working with Burlington Northern and Soo Line railroads.” After two years at Deloitte, Tom received his CPA license and moved to Scottsdale, Ariz.
During his 20 years in Arizona, six were spent working with real estate developments. It was in Arizona where he met and married Lea. Some of the developments Tom was involved in included golf courses surrounded by homes. Since they were far from the city, they needed self-contained utilities, especially water and sewer facilities. “That’s when I discovered I liked the regulatory aspect of working with utilities,” Tom said.
Even though he enjoyed real estate projects, Tom left the company. “An opportunity came up to work for a utility named Black Mountain Gas,” Tom said. He became president and CEO, and he learned a lot more about utilities. “It’s a balance,” he said. “Shareholders want a return on their investment but the utilities need to serve the public. Utilities are also a monopoly so it’s a trick to make all the players happy.”
He said during his 12 years with Black Mountain Gas, there was never a dull moment. “Prices fluctuated from day to day,” Tom said. “All of the energy in the country is tied together. Natural gas and coal both generate electricity so they both influence the price of power.” He stressed that the U.S. is heavily dependant on fossil fuels. “We are building huge wind farms, and there is more solar energy generated everyday. There’s increased interest in hydroelectric as well, but when you add them all together, there just isn’t enough electricity coming from alternate sources,” he said. Tom mentioned other new sources of energy in North America. “In Colorado a process has been developed to retrieve methane from coal beds before mining begins, and a new pipeline from Canada to the oil refineries in Superior, Wis. makes use of oil sand.”
Tom talked about the complexities of the global market. “British Petroleum and OPEC don’t have to sell oil to the U.S.” Tom said. “They can sell to China. Or, if they don’t like the price, they can leave it in the ground and store it for free.”
Tom enjoyed working for Black Mountain Gas, but Northern State’s Power bought out the company. Tom served as an independent consultant for the new owners for a year and then retired. However, an opportunity presented itself and the retirement turned out to be short lived.
A "head-hunter" and the weather enticed Lea and Tom to move to Durango, Colo. where Tom took a job with Red Cedar Gathering, a large natural gas pipeline in Colorado. “I was with them about five years,” Tom said. “when we ‘retired’ again.”
Coming Full Circle
For his second retirement, Tom and Lea moved to St. Cloud, Minn. to help his mother move out of the house where Tom grew up. “I’m happy to report that my mom is doing well,” he said.
Lea is enjoying St. Cloud. She landed the position of finance director for the foundation that assists the Paramount Theatre and Visual Arts Center. It’s a 700-seat former vaudeville theater built in 1921 and remodeled in 1998. The restoration is pristine. The Theatre features plays, concerts, dance programs and events. The Visual Arts Center offers exhibits, classes and workshops for adults and children and a retail gallery featuring artwork by regional artists. Somehow, St. Cloud offers Lea a bit of permanence. Lea’s father worked for Southwestern Bell Telephone. “When I was growing up, we lived in a city for a maximum of four years at a time, often less,” she said. Her childhood was spent in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas. She was working in Arizona when she met Tom at a dinner party.
“I’m not good at retirement,” Tom said. “In fact, I stink at it.” He saw an advertisement about an accounting adjunct professor position at the private school, Rasmussen College. “I thought that sounded pretty good,” he said. “I could teach a couple of classes. I’d wear a sports jacket with patches on the sleeves.” But when he interviewed for the job, the college administrators saw his resume and asked him to sign on full time.
“I went full circle, Tom said. “I left St. Cloud to become a math teacher and now I am a math teacher again.” He’s really is enjoying Rasmussen because it’s a career college with four-year degree programs in fields like accounting, nursing, and business. “In this economy, students are going back to school to train for a career,” he said. “Most of them are serious nontraditional students. They remind me of myself.”
The LeNeaus can remember the exact moment when they met UMD Chancellor Kathryn A. Martin. “We were at a reception at Erwin and Beverly Goldfine’s house in Scottsdale, Ariz.,” Lea said. They met people who cared about UMD and heard Kathryn talk. They were interested in UMD’s new buildings and student growth.
“It is simply amazing,” Tom said. “We know the faculty and staff are a strong team, and we were impressed by Kathryn because of her presence. She believes in UMD; she fights for UMD and that means she can affect change.”
The LeNeaus began to pay attention to UMD’s progress. Now that they are back in Minnesota, they try and get up to Duluth whenever they can. “I’ve been to other universities, but UMD was the one that gave me the most,” Tom said. “I got more career pop out of my accounting degree than any of my other degrees. It opened doors.” Tom said the whole UMD experience was good for him, “I had faculty who really cared about me. Frequently, they knew better than I did what would be best for me in the long run.”
The LeNeaus strongly believe in education. “Once you get it, no one can ever take it away from you,” Tom said. “UMD isn’t the biggest school in the country, but I’d challenge anyone to find another school that tries harder. Now that Lea and I are at the point in our lives that we can start giving back, we are supporting UMD. It’s making a difference in the lives of students, and it’s the one place that means the most to us.”
Written by Cheryl Reitan.
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