Ron Calgaard (right) and other Trinity University officials stand in front of a poster outlining the university’s $48.5 million capital campaign in 1980. Credit: Courtesy / Trinity University

There were about 770,000 people in San Antonio in 1979 when Ron Calgaard arrived here from the University of Kansas to become president of Trinity University, a small liberal arts college best known for its nationally ranked Division I tennis program.

San Antonio didn’t have much ambition then, and Trinity wasn’t a nationally recognized school. Calgaard, who would go on to become the school’s longest-serving president, is credited with transforming Trinity into a nationally recognized liberal arts university.

Calgaard overcame initial resistance to ending the costly, Division One tennis program, and making tennis another one of the university’s non-scholarship Division sports. He devoted all available talent and resources to recruiting a better faculty and administrative team, expanding the physical campus, elevating admission standards, building an endowment, and recruiting a more diverse, academically accomplished student body.

“The ingredients of success are present. Our achievements will depend on the quality of our vision and the depth and worth of our performance,” Calgaard told the Trinity community in his prescient inaugural address on Feb. 15, 1980.

Calgaard retired after 20 years and remained active in business and civic affairs in the city until falling ill earlier his year. He died April 10 at the age of 82. You can read the Rivard Report obituary written by Education Reporter Emily Donaldson published April 12 here.

Why write about him again now? To share my own personal appreciation of an individual who made San Antonio a better city, and one who deserved his day of public remembrance. Calgaard was a larger-than-life figure whose vision gave San Antonio one of its crown jewels — a distinguished, destination liberal arts university that recruits nationally and internationally with one faculty member for every 10 students.

Yet there has been no public service and moving eulogy, no solemn ringing of church bells or funeral cortege for a man who ranks as one of the true notables in contemporary city history. That, alas, is life in a city shut down by the coronavirus contagion. We are denied a public moment of mourning and celebration.

“I don’t want to have a memorial service until I can hug everyone,” Genie Calgaard, Ron’s wife and partner who served as the widely respected First Lady of Trinity University during his tenure, told me this week as she recounted the wave of cards, letter and calls that came in Ron’s final weeks and after his passing.

The late Ron Calgaard with his wife Genie Calgaard Credit: Courtesy / Trinity University

I also spoke with Marc Raney earlier this week, who came to Trinity one year after Calgaard from Southwestern University in Georgetown, and earlier, a stint at Boston College. As vice president for university advancement, Raney was a key figure in helping turn Calgaard’s vision into reality. For 19 years, Marc and his wife Gail lived next door to Ron and Genie in historic Monte Vista homes on Oakmont Drive owned by the university.

“We were all part of this wave of young people who came to Trinity,” Raney said. “Ron was this spellbinding visionary who was going to elevate the university into the realm of the top liberal arts schools in the country. He offered us the opportunity to be part of something that was going to make a real difference in the space of a lifetime.”

I arrived in San Antonio 10 years into Calgaard’s presidency and knew from my first encounter that he was a singular force. He was smart, had a quick sense of humor, did not suffer fools, and spoke with erudition, confidence, and clarity. Once he trusted you, his candor on politics and local affairs was cuttingly accurate. I always left our conversations grateful to have spent time with such a gifted, driven individual, yet secretly happy I didn’t report to him.

“There was nothing simple about working for Ron,” Raney said. “He was a very challenging, demanding leader. He could see things when other people could not. He was high energy, things were always moving fast around him. We were raising standards. Change is never easy and there were people there that resisted it, so it was hard work.”

Raney said annual division budget sessions with Calgaard, an economist, were brutal, and once budgets were set, there was no going back for more money later in the year. His focus instead was using all available funds to improve faculty, the library, student recruitment, and expand the campus. Those efforts began with a $48.5 million capital campaign in 1980 when the university endowment was about $75 million. At the time it was an unheard of sum of money for an academic institution to raise in San Antonio. By the time Calgaard retired, the university endowment stood at $540 million. Today it is more than $1.3 billion.

Click here to read the Trinity University 20-Year Report issued upon Calgaard’s retirement.

“He had a receptive board of trustees,” Raney said. “They essentially said, ‘Ron, we want to be a great school, but we don’t know what that means.’ Ron had written down exactly what it meant on the back of a napkin: a first-rate faculty, a first-rate library, more endowment funds, defining what you were going to be and what you were not going to be. It was a terrific marriage.”

Raney said Calgaard enjoyed enormous respect in San Antonio and the higher education world, but was indifferent to personal attention or having his ego stroked.

“For Ron, it was all about Trinity, the institution, never about him individually, unlike what we see in some public figures today,” Raney said.

“I didn’t have gray hair until we expanded the campus to Mulberry and moved tennis to Division III,” Raney recalled. “Trinity had been grandfathered into Division I NCAA tennis, one of the few schools that had a single Division One sport. We had 13 athletes on full scholarships. We were paying for their tuition, board, travel, training, and they weren’t particularly integrated into campus life.

“Ron asked, ‘Why are we doing this?’ No one had dared pose that question before. He took it to the board and they made the change. It was like a bomb had hit. It took some time to recover, but today the people who were most strongly opposed to ‘that guy from Kansas ‘ recognize it was the most important thing Ron did, that it made everything else he did possible. That’s a big part of his legacy.”

John Webster, the retired, long-serving headmaster of the San Antonio Academy boys school located near the Trinity campus, praised Calgaard for his service on an advisory council that rescued the school from financial ruin.

“When Dr. Calgaard spoke, you knew right away you were in the presence of an exceptional leader, someone at the top of his field,” Webster said. “He operated at a level higher than I could aspire to attain. He was a walking, talking encyclopedia of knowledge. He helped us dig out of a deep hole.”

Trinity plans to celebrate Calgaard’s life at a future date, perhaps when the campus is again alive with students, faculty, and administration, and a great university president can be remembered for realizing his ambitious vision.

“It was a special time, all our years at Trinity, and I was honored to be part of what Ron and all the others there did,” Genie said. “We were blessed to have the opportunity, and together we enjoyed this wonderful time in our lives.”

Editor’s Note: The lead photo is courtesy of Trinity University: A 20-Year Report 1979-1999, Ronald K. Calgaard Papers, Box 00-26, Coates Library Special Collections and Archives, Trinity University (San Antonio, Texas).  

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.