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UMD's Chicago Connection

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Chicago... the Windy City, the Second City... Home of the Blackhawks, White Sox, Cubs, Bulls, and Da Bears, along with hundreds of UMD alumni. In December 2011, UMD held an alumni gathering at the American Blues Theater on North Lincoln Ave. in Chicago and a lively group attended the performance of It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph. The Chicago-based theater has a connection to UMD. Professor of theater and interim dean in UMD’s School of Fine Arts, William Payne, is the co-founder of the theater. He has been an ensemble member since 1985 and has directed nearly a dozen shows.

omtvedt collins harder jessa
Craig Omtvedt ’72 Christine Collins ’76 Robert Harder ’66 Jessa Carlstrom ’00

Craig Omtvedt ’72

“Take charge of your life. Decide what you want to do in two or five years, and map out a plan.” That’s the advice Craig Omtvedt ’72, CFO of Fortune Brands, gives to business students. Omtvedt should know. From setting pins in a bowling alley in West Duluth to CFO of a Fortune 500 company, Omtvedt’s plan was to take on ever-greater responsibility. And his trajectory has been straight up.

The events that transpired have been remarkable. Omtvedt joined Fortune Brands in 1989 and ultimately became senior vice president and chief financial officer. The companies and brands he led are well known: Pinnacle Golf, Titleist, FootJoy, Cobra Golf, Waterloo Industries, Masterbrand Cabinets, Moen, Master Lock, American Lock, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Windsor Canadian, Sauza Tequila, Courvoisier Cognac, and VOX Vodka, to name a few. This past year, Fortune Brands broke into separate entities. Omtvedt continues to serve as an advisor to the successor company, Beam Inc. He is still involved with the Cincinnati-based General Cable Corp., the trucking manufacturer Oshkosh Corporation, and Standard & Poor’s CFO Advisory Council.

Omtvedt’s business sense came early. “I grew up in Smithville, a neighborhood in West Duluth,” Omtvedt said. His father sold Electrolux vacuum cleaners, door-to-door. Omtvedt had a paper route. He worked at a bowling alley. When he turned 16, he worked 38-hour weeks as a gas station attendant and mechanic.

At UMD, Omtvedt started in engineering but switched to business finance and accounting. By that time, he was a controller in the shipping department at Sears. He was also the business manager for the Statesman, the campus newspaper, and took it from near-bankruptcy to a solid footing.

“The greatest gift I received from UMD was the quality of faculty,” Omtvedt recalled. He had Jerrold Peterson for an economics professor just as Peterson arrived at UMD. “The overview of micro- and macro-economics Professor Peterson gave us still stays with me today.”

After graduation Omtvedt landed a position in corporate operations at Sears. First, he worked in Green Bay in a controller position. “That’s where I met my wife, Jane. It was love at first sight.” From there, a series of positions at Sears took him to Minneapolis, to Dubuque, Iowa, and to Chicago. He joined The Pillsbury Company in Minneapolis for four years.
“A recruiter for American Brands called,” Omtvedt said. “Six months later, I was in Greenwich, Connecticut, as the global head of international audits.” He faced the challenge. “The hallmark of American Brands and its successor, Fortune Brands, was their true focus on shareholder value,” he said. “We weren’t afraid to take risks and to stay versatile.” Over the years, they sold the tobacco companies and concentrated on golf, home and hardware products, and spirits. They brought the business back to Chicago. During Omtvedt’s tenure as CFO, Fortune Brands delivered a total shareholder return that was nearly double that of the S&P 500.

Omtvedt’s greatest personal achievement is his continuing role as a national trustee for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. “I believe every kid deserves a fair start, and the Boys and Girls Clubs do an amazing job,” he said. Over the years, he led big Midwest fundraisers, including the golf events, and raised over $4 million for the non-profit.

“The stars aligned to allow me to retire early,” Omtvedt said. “I’m excited to enter another chapter in my life. I want to play golf and learn Spanish. The world is too exciting of a place, and I have too much energy to slow down. I want to do more charity work, more consulting, and continue to serve on the boards I work with now.”

Robert Harder ’66

He is a descendent of Pocahontas. His grandfather ran logging camps. His grandmother took thousands of photographs of Minnesota’s Aitkin County from the 1890s to 1940. His mother attended Duluth State Teachers College and learned to speak Ojibwe.

Robert Harder has written about all of it and more. He has published five works of short fiction and five books of non-fiction, most of it about American frontier history and military aviation. His collection, A Minnesota Remembrance, is a detailed personalized history of north-central Minnesota.

His latest and most prestigious book, Flying from the Black Hole: The B-52 Navigator-Bombardiers of Vietnam, was published by the U.S. Naval Institute Press in 2009. The book tells the story of the heavy bombers and their aircrews during Vietnam, including a 1972 air battle over Hanoi. Harder served as a USAF officer and B-52 navigator-bombardier in Vietnam and the Strategic Air Command.

Harder gives UMD’s AFROTC Detachment 420 enormous credit for helping him get through college. “I skipped a grade so when I first attended UMD, I was only 16 years old and a pretty raw kid,” Harder said. “I made many lifelong friends in the corps of cadets, which is paying an unexpected dividend as time marches on.”

After returning from Vietnam, Harder became a commercial pilot and certified flight instructor. He worked at some of Minnesota’s great retail companies ­— Target and the old LaBelles chain. He and his wife, DeeDee, moved to Chicago in 1982, where Harder joined Montgomery Ward as a merchandise manager and later, vice-president. Retired from business, he is now a full-time writer.

Christine Collins ’76

Pain is complex. “It isn’t simply physical trauma that translates into pain. Emotion, memory, and stress are substantial factors as well,” said Christine Collins ’76, a director in Neuroscience Research at Abbott Labs. Collins’ work is part of decades of research on cytoskeleton proteins. These move and transport substances and sensory data through cell pathways, bumping from one to the next, through the nervous system to the brain. Instead of looking at drugs that dull the senses, Collins is leading a team of researchers in the quest for a novel therapy for chronic pain, interrupting the signals sent to and from the brain.

Her varied experiences in biochemistry and medicine provide her with the background to take on this sophisticated research. At Abbott Labs, she holds four patents for her work. She has done research on metabolic disease, diabetes, and obesity. Her virology group supported drug trials for treatment of the Hepatitis C virus infection. She came to Abbott from years of teaching and conducting research at Northwestern University Medical School. Before that, she completed a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Michigan State University, where she met her husband, Russell Kohnken. They both did postdoctoral work at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in Shrewsbury, Mass.

Collins’ mother, Eleanor Collins, was a faculty member and chair of the UMD Department of Home Economics. Collins was inspired by a woman teaching “hard math,” her calculus teacher, Grace Peterson. Collins also worked for biochemist Paul Anderson and mathematician Joe Gallian. “My quest for answers began at UMD,” she said.

Jessa Carlstrom ’00

Jessa Carlstrom is the founder of Warrior Arts Studio, a nonprofit arts organization dedicated to honoring the stories and experiences of military veterans. While the program harnesses the energy of volunteers to lead writing exercises, pottery classes, and other creative sessions, it is the short play workshops that Carlstrom talks about most.

One Iraqi veteran brought Carlstrom his journals from two tours of duty. He wanted to write a novel. When Warrior Arts offered a five-week, page-to-play workshop, he opted in. Carlstrom brought in a volunteer playwright for the group and two men volunteered as the actors.

An Air Force veteran, Tim, wrote of his experiences during and after deployment. “A play was performed from the work for Tim’s friends, family, and strangers,” Carlstrom said. “One woman in the audience told Tim she felt physically ill watching the play. She wanted to leave the theater.” Tim grinned when he heard that reaction. “Through art, he was able to communicate his precise feelings,” Carlstrom said.

Warrior Arts isn’t therapy. Carlstrom is adamant about that. “We help veterans create real art: powerful, moving, emotionally-charged work.” Carlstrom, a 2000 theatre alumna, worked in two Chicago theater companies. “I met a lot of talented people here. I found a home and a family,” she said. Now, her dream is to bring Warrior Arts into a permanent home. Grant writing and fund-raising are on her agenda.

It is important to Carlstrom that the program continues to expand. “The smallest story can open doors. The act of sharing an experience has phenomenal power. I’ve seen people transformed through art.””

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Last modified on 03/05/12 09:36 AM
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