Dr. Jon Michael Wefald, the former President of Kansas State University, passed away on the morning of April 16, 2022, at the age of 84. He was preceded in death by his father, Olav, his mother, Walma, and his sister, Beatrice Ann McKibben. Jon was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on November 24, 1937.
Jon graduated from Minot, North Dakota High School in 1955. Jon loved to recall how one of his high school teachers told him not to think about attending college because he wasn’t smart enough. But, never one to back down, Jon went to college anyway. He attended Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland, Washington, and graduated Cum Laude in history. He then received a full ride to be a Teaching Assistant at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, where he received a Master’s Degree in American History. Jon then attended the University of Michigan, where he received his Ph.D. in American History in four years, and met his beloved wife, Ruth Ann. His doctoral dissertation was published in a book called A Voice of Protest that examined the role of Norwegian Americans in American politics. Jon’s Norwegian ancestors came to America in the late 1800s, and Jon was very proud of being 100% Norwegian. Jon and his wife, Ruth Ann Wefald, visited the country of Norway many times.
In June of 1963 Jon and Ruth Ann Joynt were united in marriage. This year would have been their 59th wedding anniversary.
Jon’s first full-time job after completing his doctoral degree was at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota starting in the fall of 1965. In 1970, Jon was appointed Commissioner of Agriculture by Wendell R. Anderson. In 1977, Jon was selected as President of Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota. In the very first fall he was there, Jon traveled to 94 high schools in the region and talked to about 50,000 high school students in a successful attempt to increase enrollment at the University. The next fall, freshman enrollment at Southwest Minnesota State University increased by over 30%. From that point on, people in Marshall, Minnesota and at Southwest State University claimed that Jon “saved” Southwest.
In 1969, Jon and Ruth Ann were blessed by the birth of their son, Skipp Elliott Wefald, and in 1971 by the birth of Andrew Jon Wefald. Today they have seven wonderful grandchildren – Mikaela, Cassandra, Halle, Jonathan, Kayla, Carson, and Emma. They are also blessed by their daughter-in-law Fani.
In 1980, Jon Wefald was chosen to be the Chancellor of Minnesota’s seven State Universities with an enrollment of over 50,000 students. Then, in 1986, the Kansas Board of Regents selected Jon Wefald to be the twelfth President of Kansas State University. He was the President of K-State for 23 years from 1986 to 2009.
Jon transformed Kansas State University from top to bottom over 23 years and credited this success with his development of a superb system for the excellent people that reported to him. He created a brilliant system of delegation of authority and responsibility for them and for his new Academic Deans and Department Heads. Jon never would have accomplished so many historic and transformative accomplishments without the great work of his top Vice Presidents, his Deans, his Department Heads, and the great work of the K-State Faculty Senate and the leadership of the Student Senate leaders. Jon spoke highly of all those he worked with in his time at K-State, calling them brilliant problem solvers, with an attention to detail and a sense of urgency – these colleagues included, but are not limited to, Bob Krause, Jim Coffman, Tom Rawson, Pat Bosco, Beth Unger, Sue Peterson, and Chuck Reagan.
In 1986, when Wefald became President of Kansas State University, the major concern was declining enrollment. From 1979 to 1986, the school’s enrollment had dropped by about 6,000 students. President Wefald made the turnaround of K-State’s student enrollment his Number One priority. Jon’s first hire came in his first week, when he hired Dr. Pat Bosco, an Assistant Vice President for Institutional Development. He made Dr. Bosco the key leader. Dr. Bosco did a brilliant job. During Wefald’s tenure, K-State enrollment soared from 15,000 students to 23,000 students – the greatest enrollment increase in the history of Kansas State University.
From 1986 to 2009, Kansas State University was ranked Number 1 out of 500 public state universities in America in winning the Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, Goldwater, and Udall scholarships. Throughout Jon’s 23 years as President, K-State students were awarded 129 of the highest ranked student scholarships in the nation. Also during Jon’s presidency, he was proud to welcome a number of distinguished guests to the Landon Lecture series, including President George W. Bush, President Bill Clinton, General Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, President Mikhail Gorbachev, and many others. Jon’s Chief of Staff, Charles Reagan, was a master at handling every detail for these outstanding speakers.
From 1986 to 2009, the Wefald Administration constructed four of the most impressive buildings in the history of K-State: the Hale Library, the Beach Museum of Art, the Alumni Building, and the Leadership Studies Building. The K-State team constructed 35 new buildings over Jon’s 23 years. The total square footage of K-State in 2009 was 9,207,145 square feet, Wefald’s team constructed a total of 5,943,295 square feet – meaning that Wefald’s team constructed close to two-thirds of the entire campus over his tenure. These projects of the Wefald team would cost close to $3.5 billion dollars today.
The Wefald Leadership team of Ron Trewyn, Jim Guikema, Sue Peterson, Tom Rawson, U.S. Senator Pat Roberts, and Governor Kathleen Sebelius led the way in securing support from state legislators and key members of Congress to vote for a proposal for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) building to be built at Kansas State University. The $1.4 billion dollar building now dominates much of K-State’s campus. It was 2006 in the living room of the K-State President’s home in a meeting between Senator Pat Roberts and Jon Wefald, where Jon said that he thought K-State could come up with the winning proposal out of all the state universities in the nation to win the vote for the NBAF proposal. Two years later, K-State won the proposal in a unanimous vote by the NBAF Commission.
Jon’s memory at Kansas State University will live on through Wefald Hall, a splendid $80-million-dollar residence hall, named after Jon Wefald in 2017. Jon’s legacy extends through Manhattan, Kansas. Several years earlier, the Mayor of Manhattan and the Manhattan City Council also named the Manhattan City Pavilion after Jon and Ruth Ann. This pavilion is located in City Park, just a short distance south of the Kansas State campus. In 2001, Dr. Robert J. Shoop wrote a wonderful book about Jon’s presidency, called A University Renaissance: Jon Wefald's Presidency at Kansas State.
At the conclusion of Jon’s tenure as president of K-State, he completed a book entitled The Transformative Years At Kansas State: The Years of President Jon Wefald from 1986 to 2009, about his 23 years as President at Kansas State University.
In retirement, Jon and Ruth Ann made a decision to move permanently to their beloved lake home on Bay Lake, Minnesota. Their family has enjoyed making memories there since they purchased the home in 2002. Jon loved all of nature, especially birds, and wrote a paper about the beautiful loons on the lake, called “The Most Magical Bird in the World: The Common Loon.” Jon fed the birds each day and loved watching them enjoy the food that he so generously offered.
Jon, in many respects, was a Renaissance man. He had a curious mind and wrote papers on such topics as General Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Genghis Khan, the Roman Colosseum, and the Negro Baseball Leagues. He loved reading history and was always eager to discuss it with friends, family, and colleagues.
Jon also loved sports, and attended hundreds of K-State football, men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, and baseball games. The hiring of Coach Bill Snyder in 1988 was one of his proudest achievements, and he loved every single victory that was celebrated under his leadership. Attending bowl games was a highlight of his years as president, and he kept in touch with many of his coach and player friends until the end.
Another one of Jon’s great loves was the K-State Marching Band. Jon always said you have to have a great marching band if you want to have a great football team. Dr. Frank Tracz, Director of the K-State Band, remained one of Jon’s dearest friends well after Jon retired.
The funeral will be held at All Faiths Chapel on the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan, Kansas, at 10:00 AM on Saturday, April 23, 2022. A lunch and reception will follow at 12:00 PM at Colbert Hills Golf Course, 5200 Colbert Hills Drive.
Jon is lovingly remembered by his family by his kind and generous heart. He loved his family deeply and enjoyed the many phone calls and visits with them. Jon is survived by his loving wife, Ruth Ann, sons, Skipp and Andrew, daughter-in-law Fani, and grandchildren Mikaela, Cassandra, Halle, Jonathan, Kayla, Carson, and Emma. Jon is also survived by his two brothers and their wives, Knut and Joan Wefald and Bob and Susan Wefald, and their children. Jon will be greatly missed by all, and forever loved.
The family requests no flowers, but memorials may be sent to Kansas State University for the Marching Band, or to Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota in memory of Jon Wefald.
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