The story goes that when Bill Medland first interviewed for the top job at Viterbo University, sitting on the steps of Murphy Center, he looked askance at a neighboring biker bar.
He looked as if, even then, he sensed a need for change.
“He was sure that something needed to replace that,” said Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, a friend.
After Medland became president, the bar was demolished to make room for Viterbo’s D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership, a lasting example of Medland’s steadfast vision for the university. As the longest serving president in Viterbo’s history, Medland led the South Side campus through years of expansion, community collaboration and record enrollment growth. Described by friends as a gentle man and servant leader, Medland died Saturday at his Onalaska home, with family. He was 69.
“His influence is going to be forever lasting,” Weisenbeck said.
William J. Medland was born in Logansport, Ind., and earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Notre Dame.
Lacking the grades and test scores to get in at Notre Dame, Medland got the attention of the admissions director by staking out his office.
Medland earned master’s degrees in history and education, and a Ph. D. in history from Ball State University, with post-doctoral studies at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He worked as provost at St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn., before becoming president of Viterbo in 1991.
Medland was so anxious to meet Viterbo staff when he interviewed, he climbed over a row of chairs in an auditorium to shake hands, said friend Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau is the director of Viterbo’s master’s servant leadership program.
“That was his hallmark,” Thibodeau said. “He met people where they were at.”
Medland became a catalyst of change for the university, serving as president from 1991 to 2006, then as chancellor for another two years.
“We needed to increase enrollment, we needed to increase the number of majors,” Weisenbeck said. “We needed to become financially viable in a way that we had not been.”
Medland’s business sense and adept leadership made that possible.
Weisenbeck, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, chaired the university’s board of trustees for eight years of Medland’s presidency.
Viterbo brought in a record number of students for 13 of Medland’s 15 years at the helm, and the endowment fund skyrocketed from $2.7 million to $21 million.
Viterbo added the Mathy Center, the Reinhart Center and an outdoors athletic complex under his leadership. Also under Medland’s watch, the school changed from college to university.
Physical and financial growth was accompanied by a strengthening of the university’s Catholic and Franciscan identity. Medland’s role in both is evident in the ethics center, Weisenbeck said.
“That’s all part of a great leader’s job,” Weisenbeck said. “To engage people in a way that will best express the institution’s identity.”
Medland’s influence reached far beyond Viterbo’s campus.
He worked with Western Technical College on a new associate of arts degree that would help students transfer between colleges, at a time when Western students were having difficulty transferring, Western President Lee Rasch said. Medland met with Western officials in February, and by fall of that year, the program was available to students.
“He was what I considered to be a true servant leader,” Rasch said. “He was always thinking about what his actions might mean for the people around him.”
Medland worked with the La Crosse Tribune to start the Extra Effort Awards. The program honors Coulee Region high school graduates for community involvement, and for overcoming illness, tragedy and adversity. A group of scholarships awarded through the program are named in his honor.
He helped forge the partnership between the university’s Mathy Center and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater La Crosse, a plan that had its share of doubters, said Rick Artman, Medland’s successor and current Viterbo president.
“That was an innovative idea,” Artman said. “We’ve had people ask us how we did it.”
The project served as a model for a later partnership between the university and the La Crosse Community Theatre, which birthed the Weber Center for the Performing Arts.
Medland was also a dedicated family man and a man of faith, friends say. He and his wife, Donna, opened their home to foster children.
Medland battled cancer for years but rarely talked about his illness, friends say.
In 2008, he left his post as chancellor. At the time, he told the Tribune he felt mixed emotions.
“A certain sadness, because of my long affiliation with the institution,” he said, “but also with a deep appreciation for all that the faculty, staff and students have accomplished during my years of leadership.”
A Mass of Christian Burial is scheduled at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Onalaska. Friends and family may call at the church between 9 and 11 a.m.
Memorials may be given to Viterbo University for the Bill and
Donna Medland Endowed Scholarship for Student Service, Catholic Charities, FSPA or the Franciscan Healthcare Foundation.