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Former president Jon Wefald remembered as leader who made Kansas State 'relevant'

Jon Wefald
Courtesy Kansas State University
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Former Kansas State President Jon Wefald.

Jon Wefald was K-State's president for more than two decades. The school says Wefald died Saturday at age 84.

TOPEKA — Jon Wefald is being remembered as “a human dynamo,” a Kansas State University president for more than two decades who increased the school's enrollment, improved academic programs and boosted research funding — while finally finding a coach who could win football games.

Wefald, also a former Minnesota State university system chancellor and Minnesota state agriculture commissioner, died Saturday at age 84, Kansas State said. Wefald suffered a heart attack at his home on Bay Lake in Minnesota, about 120 miles north of Minneapolis.

Wefald was president of Kansas State from 1986 until the end of the 2008-09 school year. The university said that during Wefald's tenure, enrollment grew to 23,000 students from 16,000, the campus added 2.2 million square feet of new building space and annual research funding increased to $134 million from $18 million.

“He was just a human dynamo,” said former U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas State graduate and friend of Wefald's who worked with him to secure a national biosecurity lab on the university's main campus in Manhattan. “Jon just came down and turned everything around in an amazing, short period of time — athletically and academically.”

During Wefald’s tenure, the university built and opened its Biosecurity Research Institute and, just months before he retired in 2009, landed the federal government’s National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.

“President Wefald moved our school from very good to great, but most importantly, he made us relevant," Pat Bosco, a former Kansas State vice president for student life, said in a statement.

Wefald's best known decision might have been hiring Bill Snyder to coach a football team known for its losing seasons. Under Snyder, the Wildcats had a winning program and a team that regularly made postseason bowl games.

“Jon was a major part of the reason we came to Manhattan,” Snyder said in a statement. “He was always so very determined to assist our program and all other programs — athletic and academic — to become the very best they could be.”

Wefald served as Minnesota's appointed agriculture commissioner in the 1970s, then as head of the Minnesota State system in 1982-86. Roberts recalled that when Wefald took over as Kansas State president, enrollment had been dropping and, athletically, it was "in danger of going to the Missouri Valley Conference.”

“He shook us by the back of the collar and said, ‘What kind university do you want?’ ” Roberts said.

Roberts said that Wefald make a point of recruiting not only athletes to Kansas State but the top students at high schools throughout western Kansas. He remembered that on one tour of the Kansas State campus, Wefald stopped to pick up bits of trash.

“I said, ‘Don’t you have people to do that?’ And he said, ‘They damn well better do a job — a better job — tomorrow,’” Roberts recalled.