The Magazine of the University of Minnesota Duluth
THE DEFINING MOMENT
In everyone's life there is a moment that becomes a turning point. Sometimes it's a milestone. Sometimes it's a project or an event. Sometimes there are more than one. In this article, which profiles six people who've made incredible contributions to UMD, we hear their stories. These six people are a diverse group yet there is an elusive commonality.
When Robert Carlson, UMD chemistry professor, arrived at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities as an undergraduate, he was overwhelmed. "The school was far bigger than my hometown," he said. Looking back on his freshman year, he said, "It was the experience of being clueless."
Carlson thought he would return to Howard Lake, Minn., his hometown, as a high school chemistry teacher, so along with over 300 other students, he attended chemistry lecture classes. During his sophomore year, Carlson did well in the organic chemistry class and the professor, Wayland Noland, a specialist in nitrogen heterocycles, took notice. Noland asked Carlson to be part of his summer research group. Carlson agreed, but he secretly wondered if his teacher had the right student.
That summer, Carlson worked with graduate students, doctoral candidates, and post-doctoral researchers experimenting with indoles, an aromatic heterocyclic organic compound and one of Noland's areas of expertise. "All of a sudden I was a contributing member of a community," said Carlson. "It changed everything. I survived because Noland made a connection with me. He was a knowledgeable mentor, and when he took an interest in me, it made all the difference."
The work with Noland propelled Carlson into a rigorous academic career. He received his B.S. in chemistry, with honors, from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, a Ph.D. from Princeton, and a NIH Fellowship at Harvard to work with Nobel Prize winner Professor E.J. Corey. With those credentials, he could have chosen a large university, a national research facility or industrial research. Instead, Carlson made the choice to join the faculty at UMD. He decided to give something back to his home state by making a meaningful connection with its students.
Carlson devoted himself to teaching and research in organic synthesis, but he also paid attention to the region's resource-based economy. During the early 1980s, Minnesota's paper mills were given stricter environmental standards. What appeared as a problem to just about everyone else, was an opportunity for Carlson to make a connection between UMD and the business community. Carlson made an offer to Potlatch, a wood products and paper producer in Cloquet. "I asked them if they would show me everything," he said. "In exchange I would help them find ways to make a profit from chemicals isolated from their waste stream." It was a win-win solution. Signing a non-disclosure agreement, Carlson began a long-term working relationship with the wood products industry.
At about the same time, UMD also called upon Carlson for a special assignment. He was asked to serve as acting vice chancellor and then vice chancellor of academic administration, overseeing all faculty hiring, promotion and academic programming. In this role, he was again able to put his connection-making philosophy to work. In his capacity as vice chancellor he made associations that have since defined UMD. He helped obtain Sea Grant status for UMD and formed the Institute for Lake Superior Research, which is now named the Large Lakes Observatory. He strengthened UMD's Land Grant status, and he helped forge a new entity, the Natural Resource Research Institute, NRRI. Also, with the help of Professor Robert Falk (since retired), they started the UMD tutoring center.
Fast forward to 2005. Carlson now has published over 75 papers and holds multiple patents. "Birch bark used to be an unused resource. We call it 'white gold' because it has so much medicinal potential," Carlson said. All but five of Carlson's patents are related to birch bark and its compounds, Betulin and Triterpenes. "Think of the structural integrity of birch bark," he said. "You can see perfectly intact cylinders of birch bark lying on the forest floor, where the tree has rotted away. There had to be materials present in the bark that protect it from bacterial and fungal assault."
Carlson and a team of researchers at NRRI are looking for as many potential uses as they can for this previously ignored Minnesota raw material. They are aware that birch bark compounds, betulinic acid and Betulin, are being tested as a treatment for serious diseases including melanoma and HIV -- the virus that causes AIDS.
NaturNorth, a new company formed by Potlatch, Synertec, and UMD, is developing the technology to separate the chemical compounds from birch bark. NaturNorth can access at least 100,000 pounds of birch bark daily. The bark yields about 10 percent Betulin, "so we literally can get tons of this stuff,'' said Carlson. "You can see why we call it 'white gold'."
His project with birch bark wasn't Carlson's only collaboration with industry. Several years ago, Carlson received funds to work with NRRI on sensor technology. Carlson has four patents with origins in sensor technology leading to a new company, Apprise Technologies. Apprise is another Minnesota business that came out of research at NRRI and is building products that are used internationally to monitor health and process environments. They designed the Remote Underwater Sensing System or RUSS as their first commercial product.
Carlson's research is significant, and sometimes it is easy to think of his teaching and student mentoring as less important. He doesn't see it that way. On Carlson's priority list, teaching and advising come first. He arrives in the classroom 5-10 minutes early so he can greet each student. He remembers their names. "I believe in my students and I expect them to do well," he said. "Because they know I take a personal interest in their work, they try not to disappoint me."
Carlson didn't become a high school teacher, but he did come back to Minnesota. He chose to teach at UMD because it was part of the system where he got his start. While many of his plans changed, his ability to make connections has stayed intact and guided his career as a researcher, an administrator, and especially as a mentor for his students.
Rod Raymond is the coordinator of Life Fitness and Wellness at UMD. Among other accomplishments, he is a 19-time Ironman Triathlon finisher, a two-time Olympic trials participant, and the international champion of ultra-endurance races including the Scottish Coast-to-Coast Race, the Trans Swiss Race, and the Border-to-Border Triathlon.
Raymond gives some of the credit for his achievements to several men in his life: his brother, Roger, and his youth hockey coach and life mentor, Jim Morrissey. In addition, Raymond credits two UMD people for giving him their trust: Ken Gilbertson, associate professor of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, and Dick Haney, former recreational sports senior administrative director. "When I started at UMD, I was barely squeaking by on student loans and I didn't really have much direction," Raymond said. "When I was a sophomore, I was in Ken's office when a reporter from the Statesman arrived. Ken knew I had just won a local bike race, and told the reporter to interview me instead of him. I thought... 'Who me?' "
Those few words from Gilbertson had an impact on Raymond. In that instant, he could see a future for himself in the health and fitness field. In 1989, when Raymond achieved upper class status, Haney hired him to run the UMD fitness program. "Dick gave me confidence and the keys," Raymond said. "There I was, a student, with a lot of responsibility."
The trust Gilbertson and Haney put in Raymond was not unfounded. Raymond went on to graduate from UMD with a B.A.S. in teaching life sciences and a Master of Education with a wellness emphasis. As part of a dynamic team, he has built the fitness program to one of the premiere programs in the United States. Over 91 percent of UMD students participate in UMD's fitness and recreational sports programs. In fact, just over a year ago, Outside Magazine named Duluth among the 40 Best College Towns and praised the UMD Recreational Sports and Outdoor Program for its contribution.
Raymond is a key staff person in the program's success. He oversees the weight room, teaches academic classes, trains personal trainers, and conducts seminars on achievement and health around the world. Most of all, Raymond serves as an inspiration to faculty, staff, and students.
Raymond inspires, not only because he conveys energy and enthusiasm, but also because he has achieved elite athlete status. In 1998, Raymond entered the Swiss Gigathlon, the toughest ultra-endurance race in the world. It consists of 246 miles of swimming, biking, running, in-line skating and mountain biking in two days. When Raymond placed first, he was noted as among the fittest athletes in the world. Just this past July, Raymond entered the Gigathlon again and placed fifth.
Raymond's energy doesn't quit. Outside of his activities at UMD, he is part owner of the Brewhouse Restaurant in Duluth, he opened the Redstar Club, and recently purchased the historic 1889 Duluth City Hall. He gives motivational seminars, and he organizes races and events. He produces, sometimes with partners, the Boulder Lake Ski Race in January, Brewhouse Triathlon in August, and the Green Man music and mountain bike festival in July.
Recently Raymond had an adventure of a different sort. Talent scouts for CBS's "Survivor" approached him to try out for the show. Even though he made it to the final 25, Raymond didn't make the final cut. He did impress the show's staff, who said he should audition for future shows such as "The Amazing Race" or "The Apprentice," both produced by "Survivor" creator Mark Burnett. Raymond hit it off with Burnett, a former adventure racer who served in the British Special Services, and the two traded stories of their past adventures.
Raymond had pitched his own adventure show to CBS, a cross between a reality show and a documentary. Raymond proposes mountain biking the entire 2,600 miles of the Great Wall of China as the first episode--something he has wanted to attempt on his own.
Gilbertson knew Raymond had promise, even before Raymond did. He had it right all those years ago when he told the Statesman reporter to interview Raymond. There was a story there, all right.
Last May, Amy Meredith heard her son, Alisher, cry out "Mama" for the first time. He was in his hospital room regaining consciousness after his fourth operation to repair his cleft palate. Meredith, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, waited much longer than most mothers to hear that word. She waited through a six-month adoption process, a trans-Atlantic journey, and a series of difficult medical procedures.
Years earlier, when Meredith and her husband, Todd, decided on an international adoption, they found a good working relationship between Lutheran Social Services, World Partners Adoption and an orphanage in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic. Originally, the Merediths were interested in adopting a baby girl, but during the selection process they saw a picture of Alisher. "I looked at the photo over and over," said Meredith. "His bright eyes called to me."
Even in the first photo that Meredith saw, it was obvious that Alisher had been born with bilateral cleft lip and palate. Meredith wasn't intimidated. She knew Alisher had a correctable birth defect that would only take time and patience to heal. "Hey, I'm a speech therapist. There's something wrong with me if I won't adopt a child just because he or she has a cleft," said Meredith. When she got a video of Alisher, she showed anyone who would watch, including a team of medical professionals who used the video to evaluate Alisher's development with respect to motor skills and possible medical conditions. They gave the Merediths the "thumbs up." At one point, the video shows Alisher slowly falling to the side. As he falls, his smile gets bigger. "I knew I liked this little boy when I saw that," she said. "I appreciated his sense of humor." Five months later the Meredith's flew to Kazakhstan to adopt, as Meredith said, "a beautiful 17-month-old boy."
Meredith has an advantage over other parents in her position. She is a speech therapist with a Ph.D. in speech and hearing sciences from the University of Washington, Seattle. Her background includes research on the apraxia of speech, a neurogenic (neurologically based) speech motor disorder, and she teaches anatomy of the speech and hearing mechanism, speech science, neurogenic speech disorders, and dysphagia. While teaching, she uses examples from Alisher's experience, and she has already offered a course about cleft palate issues. Meredith has also co-authored a booklet on cleft palate and adoption for the Cleft Palate Foundation.
Even though Meredith had background knowledge and she did her homework, Alisher's condition wasn't straightforward. Meredith knew Alisher wouldn't talk like other children right away, so she taught him sign language. Then, three months after arriving in the U.S., he had to have two surgeries to repair the front part of his upper jaw, the premaxilla. The first was in January 2004, the second, because the first wasn't entirely successful, was in March. The next month, April, he had lip repair; and in May the roof of his mouth was repaired.
"Each time Alisher went to the hospital, he surprised me with his recovery," Meredith said. "Once he was playing and almost knocked me down, just 24 hours after surgery." Todd and Amy Meredith have had to deal with toddler-hood, parenthood and cleft palate repair all at the same time. "Alisher is the joy of our lives," Meredith said. "I have written a journal about our experiences with adoption, Kazakhstan, speech/sign and language acquisition, surgeries, etc., and hope to publish a book and a couple of articles about our journey."
It hasn't always been easy. There will be more surgeries. Alisher doesn't get stared at very often anymore since his lip repair has healed. Sometimes he gets teased by the kids at daycare for talking differently, though. "Our hope is that his speech will be close to normal by the time he is five years old," Meredith said. "Until then he'll need a lot more speech therapy and potentially another surgery to help close the nasal cavity. But, for most folks, after spending just a couple of minutes with Alisher, they don't even see the cleft anymore. All they see is a happy and energetic little boy."
It was over a year ago, after his seventh month in Duluth, that Meredith walked into Alisher's hospital room, and for the first time he called out "Mama." It was a long wait, but it was worth it.
Bedassa Tadesse was working in the computer room at Jimma University in the Omoro Region of Ethiopia when he heard his name. "I heard their voices before I saw them," he said. There were 16 military men from the Tigrean party. Their faction had recently taken control of the country from another group, the Amharas, in a bitter civil war.
"Bedassa Tadesse," he heard one of the men shout. "Through the doorway, I saw the machine guns," he said. He stood for them then; Tadesse is as tall as any NBA player, and he tried to remain calm as he was handcuffed. "In my office, they went through my papers," Tadesse said. They were looking for documents that aligned Tadesse with the Omoro party, but there were no papers. There was no alignment. Tadesse was just an economics teacher in one of Ethiopia's four universities.
Tadesse spent the next 35 days shackled to a prison wall. He was beaten, hardly fed, and each day the guards tried to force him to sign a paper that admitted his treason against the Tigreas. Tadesse wouldn't sign. Even when threatened with a gun to his head, even when he became a victim of atrocities of which he still will not speak, Tadesse wouldn't sign.
"Finally, the university dean came to the prison to plead for me," Tadesse said. The dean convinced the military officials that most of the university seniors would not graduate unless Tadesse could finish teaching them economics. Still Tadesse was asked to sign a paper admitting his wrongdoing, and this time, with assurances that there would be no further punishment and with the dean's guarantee that he could still keep his teaching job, Tadesse signed and was released. From that point on, he knew he was being watched in Ethiopia.
The imprisonment was a turning point in Tadesse's life. Without it, he might still be teaching in Jimma. Because of it, he looked for other educational opportunities. He had already received a Bachelor of Science in Economics in Ethiopia and a Master of Science Degree in Development Economics in India. He then was accepted at a university in Austria and took the lucrative teaching assistantship. However, the doctoral program wasn't a perfect match with Tadesse's interest so, while studying and teaching, he kept looking. After a year in Vienna, he secured a position at Western Michigan University. Still, he wasn't able to take it. First, Tadesse had to go back to Ethiopia, back to Jimma University, to teach for a while and to assess the political situation. He was worried because his father had signed a paper promising Tadesse would return. Only after Tadesse used his Austrian fellowship money to bribe officials to leave his parents alone, did he leave for the United States.
Fifteen days after he defended his dissertation in Kalamazoo, (he received both an M.A. and Ph.D. in Applied Economics) he joined the Labovitz School of Business and Economics at UMD as an assistant professor of economics. Duluth, Minnesota, is just about as far away as one can get from the village in Omoro, Ethiopia, where Tadesse grew up. Tadesse had a number of other job offers but he chose Duluth because of the people. "At my interview, they were friendly, and they made me feel comfortable," Tadesse said. "I could tell these were respectful people that I could trust. After what I've been through, I can tell right away whether I can trust someone or not."
He now teaches international economics, econometrics, micro and macro economics, and development economics. His research interests cover many aspects, "As long as it involves an empirical evaluation of the real world phenomena," he said. Most of his published research work concentrates on international trade, foreign direct investment, development issues in emerging economies, and welfare and health economics. Currently he is working on the state level economic impact of NAFTA across the U.S.
There are a few similarities between his life in Duluth and Omoro. Tadesse still runs. "Winning long-distance running is considered as a special right by birth in my home country," he said. It's easy to see why. When he was only five years old, Tadesse had to run over two miles each way in order to go to school. "Walking took too long," he said.
That brings up another similarity. In both Duluth and Omoro, Tadesse met people who valued education. Tadesse's mother, who herself couldn't read or write, met a teacher at the village market who convinced her to send her children to school. Tadesse was the first, followed by two brothers and three sisters. He paved the way for his siblings, first at the village school, then living with a relative at an elementary school in a nearby town, next living in a tiny apartment while attending high school and finally by going off to the university.
Tadesse's journey began as he ran to the village school. It took him to cities in Ethiopia, India, Austria, and Michigan. It even took him briefly to a prison cell. And now, he has arrived safely at UMD, hopefully for a long, long time.
Neil Storch has given years of service to students and to UMD, but one of his projects will live on, far into the future. Storch wrote the book UMD Comes of Age: The First Hundred Years to celebrate UMD's 100-year anniversary in 1995. He didn't use a strict scholarly format; instead he included the stories of people who, as he said, "poured their hearts into UMD to make it what it is today." Storch, professor of history, along with photographer Ken Moran, wanted a book that was accessible to a wide audience and an enjoyable read.
Storch, who retired in May of 2005, joined the faculty at UMD in 1969. He became friends with many of the people who helped make the transition from teachers college to full university status in the early 1950s. He also worked with faculty members who founded university departments. The history book became an intensely personal project for Storch. He went beyond dates and facts to chronicle the lives of people who cared about things larger than themselves.
The story has a drama of its own, and telling it turned into a monumental part of Storch's career. For a quarter of a century, numerous efforts were made to associate the Duluth State Teachers College (DSTC) with the University of Minnesota system, however; there was opposition from the University and the Legislature.
Things changed with the end of WWII, when servicemen came home and demanded higher education. "So many veterans were taking advantage of the G.I. Bill that the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities couldn't handle the high demand," Storch said. Soon the University had little choice but to make a proposal to the Legislature that would turn DSTC into a liberal arts campus and a branch of the University system. "The bill proposed by State Legislator A.B. Anderson was signed on July 1, 1947, and UMD was born."
Provost Raymond Gibson made it a priority to increase the size and quality of the UMD faculty. With the dramatic, overnight boom in enrollment, UMD needed twice the staff. Individuals were sought who could build a school with a totally new curriculum. People such as Joe Duncan, Wendell Glick and Bill Tezla in English, Julius Wolff in political science, and Ellis Livingston and Jim Maclear in history were a few of these pioneers.
"So many people and resources had been dedicated to the war; it changed everyday life even here in Duluth," said Storch. "We didn't know that we were going to win the war, and when we did, it gave people a sense of confidence. Students poured into UMD, hungry to learn and start careers."
Storch is passionate about UMD's history, but he has been passionate about any kind of history for as long as he can remember. In high school and college, he knew he wanted to teach history, the only question was at what level. Today, after teaching history at UMD for 36 years, he maintains the same interest and excitement that he did when he started. "I'm fortunate that I've had this career for so long and I still love it."
Instead of simply teaching about the past, he encouraged his students to apply history lessons to the present. In one of his final history classes devoted to the Cold War, Storch read selections from a famous speech and asked the question, "When was this speech delivered?" The following is an excerpt from the reading: "What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace for all time."
Some of Storch's students thought the speech was delivered in the past few years; however, it was given by President John F. Kennedy at The American University in June 1963.
Storch's teaching style was popular with students. Mary Small, a 1975 UMD grad, said that Storch's American History courses "were among the most rigorous of my college career, and if lifelong learning was a goal, Dr. Storch is the poster professor for giving me what I needed in that regard."
Storch will stay involved in UMD activities, but his full-time teaching days are over. His passion in the classroom will be missed.
There were seven days left before the UMD Theater Department opened The Great God Brown by Eugene O'Neil, a play about the conflict between idealism and materialism. There were a thousand details for director Bill Payne to integrate and many last minute decisions to make. Even though the actors had been rehearsing for months, the final decisions about the set, sound, lighting, blocking, costumes, and makeup needed to be made. The days approaching the dress rehearsal were a tornado of people, choices, stress, and deadlines.
It was during that week in 1997 that Payne made a personal discovery. When the questions poured in, he remained unflustered. When conflicts between actors arose, he stayed composed. "When I found the calm, I finally knew what I was doing. I knew how to behave in the center of the storm." Since then, he has made the attitude of calmness work for directing and making art in general.
Payne learned to make decisions based on being centered, focused, and thoughtful rather than more traditional authoritarian methods. "The environment you create should be one where people can do their best work," he said. "It should be efficient and demanding, but never volatile."
He has continued to practice this philosophy of calmness at UMD, most recently in February 2005 with Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, translated by Jon Berry. Payne created a play that would tell the story of Prometheus, the god who stole fire from Mt. Olympus and gave it to mortals. Payne, who worked on plans for the play for 18 months before it opened, gave it a contemporary slant by including a six-piece rock band, jazz dancers, and provocative video imagery. He created Prometheus as a heavenly soul brother, and at various points during the play, a band performed songs by The Temptations or Stevie Wonder while dancers interpreted protest songs from the 60s and 70s. There was chaos when all the elements were present during rehearsal, yet Payne stayed collected.
Payne also directs outside UMD. About every two years he directs a play at the American Theater Company in Chicago, of which he is a life member and the co-founder. Their mission is to produce new and classic American stories that question what it means to be an American.
He is also excited about an upcoming play, My Buddy Bill, written by Rick Cleveland, another co-founder of the American Theater Company and a friend of Payne's. Cleveland, Emmy winning writer for the West Wing and supervising producer for the show Six Feet Under on HBO, chose Payne to direct the new play. My Buddy Bill is a spin on the real friendship between Cleveland and Bill Clinton. In the play Cleveland spills the dirt on his fantastic relationship: one day he's on a tour of the White House, the next he's playing catch with the First Dog and flying the President's jet to Amsterdam. Clinton is portrayed as intelligent and charismatic, and, Payne says, "while I don't really know if it is all based on fact, enough of it feels true to make the audience believe it all."
Last October, Payne and Cleveland offered a one-night-only performance in Chicago at the American Theater Company. The play was also featured as a "script-in-hand performance" at Chicago's Goodman Theater in March as part of its second New Stage Series of works by outstanding local and international playwrights.
The play will open for its world premiere in Los Angeles in November 2005 at the Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre.
As Payne continues to make works of art, he handles the tornado just as he did preparing for The Great God Brown. No matter what happens in the creative process, he maintains that it doesn't benefit art to be stressed out. He can put things in perspective and realize his priorities.
For Payne, the key is to not make big things out of small problems. He knows with each new production a storm is inevitable, and when it comes, you will find him calmly placed in the center.
-- Cheryl Reitan and Emily McGuigan