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The longest-serving president of Trinity University, Ron Calgaard, whom many describe as a visionary who transformed the small, liberal arts institution into a nationally acclaimed school, died April 10, following a brief illness. Calgaard was 82.
Calgaard came to San Antonio from the University of Kansas in 1979, selected as the new president of Trinity University. During his 20 years leading the school, Trinity refocused on undergraduate liberal arts education, becoming a residential campus with a Division III athletics program. Calgaard grew the endowment and made moves to diversify the student body, appealing to applicants nationally.
His passion for small, liberal arts education was rooted in his own studies at Luther College in Iowa, said Marc Raney, who worked with Calgaard at Trinity for 19 years.
Calgaard received his bachelor’s degree in economics at Luther before obtaining doctoral and master’s degrees from the University of Iowa. Before coming to Trinity, he served as the vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Kansas.
Bob McClane first met Calgaard when he arrived at Trinity in 1979. McClane was a Trinity graduate and later joined the board in 1990, serving alongside Calgaard as he carried out a strategic plan to bring the university to the next level.
“He was a real student of how colleges and universities work and what he felt like they should do,” McClane said. “That was really focused on key areas as opposed to just trying to be everything to everybody.”
Calgaard’s vision reframed Trinity’s academic mission, focusing on the undergraduate experience, and he leaned on his role as an effective salesman to convince others of the path forward, McClane said, describing him as tough-minded and negotiable up to a point.
Former Trinity professor Char Miller recalled his first time meeting Calgaard in the spring of 1981. Miller was interviewing for a job at the university and was surprised to learn he would meet with the university president.
Miller said it was the most extraordinary conversation he’s ever had with an administrator.
“Within five seconds I realized, oh my God, this guy is a visionary,” Miller said. “We had what for me seemed like a quick conversation, but it was actually more than an hour. It became clear to me that he knew Trinity was already a good institution, but he wanted to make it better and I wanted to be part of that process.”
In the following years, Miller would see the effort Calgaard was willing to put in to make transformational changes at the university.
Miller remembers how Trinity professors would return to their offices on Sunday, preparing for the week ahead. Calgaard, who Miller described as a micromanager with more knowledge about the institution than anyone else, would wander in and out of offices to visit with professors, dressed in a short-sleeve shirt and shorts.
The university president “was a chimney-like smoker,” Miller said, and faculty could smell him coming, sometimes opting to close their doors to push through tasks.
“I kept mine open in large part because I hoped he would come by, partly because I could get him literally in an unbuttoned state and ask him about the institution,” Miller said. “I’ve never had a president quite like that again.”
Raney served as Calgaard’s vice president for university advancement and recalled similar memories. Trinity’s vice presidents live in houses adjacent to campus and, on weeknights, many would return to their offices in hopes of getting in some extra work.
If Calgaard saw an office light on, “he’d be in there and you’d be starting all over again, very excited about ideas and talking,” Raney said.
Raney’s job was helped in large part by Calgaard’s ability to communicate his vision for the university and a prowess for fundraising that helped make needed changes.
Jim Dublin graduated in the class of 1970, before Calgaard’s time, but remembers when the university president kicked off an ambitious capital campaign aimed at raising close to $50 million in the 1980s. To launch the campaign, Calgaard spoke before several hundred people in the university’s largest dining hall, declaring his dreams for the future.
“He said, in a kind of thesis statement, that Trinity is one of the nation’s finest, small undergraduate liberal arts colleges or universities,” Dublin said. “He didn’t say we hope to be. He said we are, and that’s the way we went.”
But it wasn’t just donors or faculty that Calgaard spent time with. Mayor Ron Nirenberg remembers getting to know the university president when he was a student at Trinity in the 1990s.
As a staff member and eventually the editor of The Trinitonian, the campus newspaper, Nirenberg felt fortunate to spend time with Calgaard. And even though it has been more than two decades since Calgaard was president, his impact has remained.
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“Like a few other presidents in Trinity’s history, like James Laurie, Ron Calgaard’s impact is permanent,” Nirenberg said. “I think we’ll miss knowing that he’s a phone call away, but his legacy is immortal.”
Current Trinity President Danny Anderson agreed, saying in a statement Friday that Calgaard was a “generous source of encouragement” who shared insights about Trinity’s past.
Michael Fischer, who is a professor of public humanities at Trinity, met Calgaard and his wife, Genie, when he first arrived in San Antonio, after Calgaard had stepped down from the university. Fischer said, despite not being on campus, Calgaard remained a wonderful ambassador for the university and for San Antonio.
“They made [me and my wife] feel right at home as soon as we stepped foot on campus,” Fischer said.
Away from Trinity, Calgaard was heavily involved in United Way and the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.
Calgaard is survived by wife Genie, son Kent, daughter Lisa Sands, and grandchildren Eliot and Kathleen.
Trinity plans to celebrate Calgaard’s life at the Margaret B. Parker Chapel on campus at a future date.