Bill Medland was the picture of courage as he smiled through his cancer. In fact, courage was the topic he wanted to discuss over lunch a couple of years ago.
But Bill wasn’t interested in talking about his own courage — not for a second. He wanted to talk about the courage of young people — specifically the high school seniors nominated for the La Crosse Tribune Extra Effort Awards, which Bill and Viterbo University sponsored from the beginning.
He wanted to talk about the Extra Effort students who had overcome illness or disease or family tragedy or personal challenges to persevere and succeed.
Bill taught us that educators draw inspiration from young people, not the other way around.
That’s why he and his team would serve late-night breakfast before finals week. It’s why he originated a President’s Christmas dinner, where he and faculty and staff would serve students a holiday dinner. It’s why Bill would switch places with a student for a day once each year, or giggle when an undergrad lobbed a snowball toward his office window.
When I heard of Bill’s passing Saturday, I searched my archived email notes and found our last exchange earlier this year.
It was filled with Bill’s kindness and humility. He wanted us to know how much he would miss attending the Extra Effort ceremony in May at the university he led as president from 1991 to 2006.
He was an original partner in the Extra Effort program, and he would tell students at our annual reception how much he admired them.
“I know I couldn’t have done what these young people have done,” Bill would say. “I didn’t have the strength of character, the courage, to do that at their young age.”
It was the only time I ever had difficulty believing Bill.
Oh, I know he meant every word, but how could a man of such courage and determination say he couldn’t measure up.
I remember his story of waking up the echoes — and the admissions director — at Notre Dame.
He readily admitted that he was a young student with less than stellar grades who camped in the admissions office until someone would hear his story and give him a chance to earn a degree.
I can’t imagine anyone in South Bend had heard a speech like Bill’s since the days of Rockne.
As Bill was telling me this story, he was wrapping up the longest tenure in Viterbo’s history. He was a Ph.D. in history — and his history in La Crosse was most impressive.
During his tenure, Viterbo’s funding grew tremendously, and enrollment doubled. To put that growth in perspective, when he retired, a majority of Viterbo’s living alumni had gone to school with Bill as president — an astounding testament to the school’s growth under his guidance.
He built innovative community partnerships as he helped build Viterbo from small college to thriving university. The Amie L. Mathy Center for Recreation and Education is the nation’s only jointly owned facility between a Boys & Girls Club and a university located on campus.
His dream was to see a youngster walk in the Boys & Girls Club entrance as a youngster and walk out of Viterbo and a graduate — a vision that I’m sure will come true.
With all of those accomplishments, Bill also showed the humility to admit he had to conduct a filibuster in order to become a student at Notre Dame.
That was Bill — quiet, unassuming, humble yet persistent.
He and wife, Donna, were foster parents many, many times over. They were the model of servant leadership.
He wouldn’t talk about all of the awards — Tribune Person of the Year, Chamber of Commerce Community Service award, many others. They were all gratifying, but they weren’t his inspiration.
He was inspired to the end by the courage of young people and the power of community collaboration.
And just as students smiled whenever they lobbed a snowball at the university president’s window to get his attention, Bill had just a bit of ornery, too.
A crime-riddled biker bar used to sit next to campus — and it really got under Bill’s skin. Finally, the school bought it and tore it down.
Today, students and community members come together on that spot to discuss serving and leading others in a wonderful new building.
For Bill, it was as much fun as a snowball fight.
Viterbo and our community have been touched by one of the greats.
The partnerships that Bill Medland forged will forever serve as his legacy of servant leadership — a legacy of growing students, not ego.