By: Kia Farhang and John Lamb, INFORUM
MOORHEAD – Roland Dille, who championed the liberal arts and racial diversity as the longest-serving president of Minnesota State University Moorhead, died Monday.
The 89-year-old was most recently residing at Eventide senior living center in Moorhead.
Leading the university from 1968 until retiring in 1994, he remained a fixture on campus after leaving office, often meeting with professors and advising school administrators.
“He was instrumental in really building what we have today,” said outgoing MSUM President Edna Szymanski. “You can see his legacy everywhere you look.”
Dille’s proudest achievement was Project E-Quality, an initiative to actively seek minority students to attend MSUM. It initially was met with mixed support from the community when it started as a reaction to the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Dille called the program a success because many of those students went on to attend graduate school or attain professional work.
Dille also oversaw the campus additions of Owens Hall, Nemzek Fieldhouse, Livingston Lord Library and the Center for Business. The school’s Center for the Arts is named after him.
An eventful tenure
An English professor who previously taught at the University of Minnesota and St. Olaf College, Dille rose to MSUM’s presidency after John Neumaier left the school for a post at a state college in New York.
In his inauguration speech, Dille said a college education must instill values in students, not just knowledge.
David Wahlberg, executive director of marketing and communications for the school, first met Dille when the president came to Wahlberg’s freshman English class.
“He was a gentleman who always took the time to talk with students (and) listen to what they had to say,” Wahlberg said.
As a member of the student security monitor program, Wahlberg said he often found Dille working in his office late on Saturday nights.
“There were times we would sit and watch 15 minutes of ‘Saturday Night Live’ and talk about what was going on,” Wahlberg said.
Dille’s presidency was not without controversy. In the summer after his first year in office, he declined to renew the teaching post of a Vietnam War protester.
Though he later claimed the reason for his decision was purely budgetary, Dille’s decision came under fire from those who felt the teacher’s political views had played a role.
When the Highway Patrol was preparing to roll onto campus to stop an expected war-era demonstration, Dille stopped the authorities.
“People said, ‘Why are your students so radical?’ I said, ‘Because we taught them to think,’” Dille said during a recent roundtable conversation with the four living MSUM presidents.
“A lot of presidents lost their jobs in that ’60s and ’70s time,” said MSUM archivist Terry Shoptaugh. “He was able to weather that and that is an astonishing achievement.”
“He would meet with the students in his office and because of that, he could diffuse a lot of those things,” said Larry Scott, who was a student in Dille’s English class before becoming the school’s sports information director.
At the height of the Vietnam war, Dille hired Tom McGrath to teach English. The poet, who was born and raised on a Ransom County, N.D., farm, was labeled “Tommy the Commie” for his works on social issues. Later, Dille would honor the late poet with the suggestion of founding the Tom McGrath Visiting Writers Series, which still exists.
“He was truly a leader,” former English teacher Mark Vinz said of Dille. “He truly led by example. What he accomplished in his long tenure is really quite remarkable.”
In 1969, Dille also suspended publication of the school’s weekly newspaper, The Mistic, after it published excerpts from two articles banned from the college literary magazine.
The stories involved “four-letter words and descriptions of national leaders engaged in sexual acts,” according to a Forum story written when Dille retired in 1994.
Dille had a longstanding debate with David Flint, a political science professor who clashed with Dille over issues of free speech and the separation of church and state.
Flint encouraged Dille, who played Santa Claus on campus and in the community for 26 years, to ban all holiday decorations at the school. Dille declined, but Flint said their arguments never got personal.
“I think,” Flint told The Forum in 1994, “that he’s honestly had a historic presidency here and the community and the university and the state, for that matter, should be damn grateful.”
Playing Santa wasn’t Dille’s only bit of dressing up for a role. During the school’s annual “Old Fashioned Fourth of July” celebrations, which started under Dille, the president would dress up as Uncle Sam and greet guests, showing an uncanny ability to recall the names of former faculty members and students.
“What struck me was his phenomenal memory,” Shoptaugh recalls. “He would remember people from 15 or 20 years before and chat with them … He always had a smile and always had something nice to say to them.”
In December, Shoptaugh and Dille released their book, “MSUM Memories,” which chronicles the university’s first 125 years.
Dille was also active in the community. In a 1981 speech to the Moorhead Area Chamber of Commerce, of which he was vice president, he chided the board of directors for complaining about the city and constantly comparing it unfavorably to Fargo.
“If we can take pleasure in having Winnipeg and Minneapolis within driving distance, and the lakes and forests closer than that, we should find some pleasure in having Fargo within spitting distance,” he said.
In 1982, Dille declined interest in becoming the acting chancellor of the Minnesota State University System after being the unanimous choice to fill the vacant position.
Born and raised on a farm near Dassel, Minn., Dille’s passion for education helped him instill an appreciation for diversity and the liberal arts in his children.
“He worked very long hours, but he always came home for dinner,” said his son, Benjamin Dille.
Taking a stand
Dille was born Sept. 16, 1924. He spent a year at the University of Minnesota before joining the Army in 1943. He served in England, France and Germany during World War II.
Dille returned to school after the war and earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature. He married Beth Hopeman in 1948 and began teaching at Dassel High School the next year.
After a string of teaching posts, Dille came to MSUM – then Moorhead State College – in 1963, where he rose quickly to the presidency.
Dille received threats on his children’s lives as he pushed heavily to recruit black students and faculty.
“Roland focused on diversity at a time when it wasn’t popular to focus on diversity,” Szymanski said. “He was ahead of his time.”
“He thought it was right, and he knew other people wouldn’t like it. As we look back on it, that was a turning point of the school,” said Scott.
President Jimmy Carter appointed Dille to the National Council for the Humanities, and Dille also served as president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
He is survived by his wife, Beth; daughters Deborah of Berkeley, Calif., Martha of Prior Lake, Minn., and Sarah of Moorhead; son Benjamin of Astana, Kazakhstan; 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by Wright Funeral Home in Moorhead.
Editor’s note: Video clip is from Sept. 27, 2013 at MSUM.
View video here.
Former MSUM President Dr. Roland Dille Dies
Valley News Live video here.
Dr. Roland Dille passed away on May 26, 2014, surrounded by his loving family. Dr. Dille was MSUM’s longest running president, serving from 1968-1994.
Dr. Dille was born on September 16, 1924, on a farm near Dassel, Minnesota, where he attended public schools. He often referenced his childhood in Dassel in speeches and writings. After a year at the University of Minnesota, he was inducted into the U.S. infantry in 1943. During World War Two, he served in England, France, and Germany, and, after the war, in Salzburg, Austria during the Occupation.
After the war, he returned to the University of Minnesota, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English Literature, summa cum laude. In 1948, he married Beth Hopeman of Moorhead. Dr. Dille’s career in education began in 1949 when he returned to teach at his native Dassel High School. In 1950, he returned to the University of Minnesota, earning his doctorate in twentieth-century British literature.
From 1956 to 1961, Dr. Dille taught English at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. From 1961 to 1963, he taught English at California Lutheran College from which he was let go after opposing college administration actions that he believed to be unjust. Dr. Dille was hired by Moorhead State College’s then-President John Neumaier, joining the English Department in 1963. In 1966, he was named Dean of Academic Affairs and in 1968 became its president, retiring in 1994.
The nation was in conflict when he assumed leadership at MSUM (then Moorhead State College) in 1968, a year that brought a divided nation the assassinations of both Senator Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and mounting tensions on college campuses across the country, including Moorhead. As the symbol of authority, President Dille was not immune to rising hostility. Starting while he was a Dean and continuing after he assumed the presidency, Dr. Dille and others resolved to work to address national racial issues locally, by recruiting Black students and faculty, a decision opposed by a vociferous few. He received threats on the lives of his children and black paint was splattered on his car. When a student fired a gun on campus, intensifying racial tensions, Dr. Dille calmed hostilities by publically speaking against violence. At the same time, student opposition to the war in Vietnam led to widespread unrest that reached Moorhead. Local professors were advising students on draft dodging; William Kunstler spoke at Moorhead and urged the students to burn the campus down; and the student newspaper bitterly opposed the Vietnam War. During a moratorium on campus following the Kent State shooting, Dr. Dille told State police — poised to stop an expected demonstration — to stay off campus, averting violent confrontation. Dr. Dille himself had come to oppose the war, and testified in support of conscientious objectors, including some of the most strident campus radicals, future Minneapolis City Council Member Brian Coyle among them.
From this tumultuous beginning, Roland Dille remained a friend of the student. He co-founded Tri-College University to expand course options for students throughout the area and created the New Center to meet the needs of students with unrealized potential. During his tenure, MSUM’s enrollment more than doubled, five new buildings were built, the library was expanded, and land was acquired for future expansion. When asked what he would like to be remembered for, Dille said, “Getting students to accept and seriously support the liberal arts as an essential background for working, voting, living people. We’re entering a period when the nation is looking at our education system for answers. It wants a more rigorous education where students are made to challenge their potential.”
Dr. Dille estimated he worked more or less closely with a thousand teachers over the years, once saying, “If it is important not to lose faith in teachers, it is even more important not to lose faith in young people. And that means accepting the endless complexities of human beings…. We must ask of our colleges that they provide not just advanced training but education, an education that addresses the fullness of possibilities, that does not deny to its students intellectual, spiritual, and imaginative challenges and growth.”
Dr. Dille’s dedication to the humanities and education took him far from Moorhead and around the globe on educational missions that included a newly-opening China. He was appointed by President Carter to the National Council for the Humanities and was elected President of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. He served as Acting Chancellor of the Minnesota State University System, declining the invitation to apply for the permanent job. In 1989, he was named one of the 100 most effective college presidents in the United States.
While at Moorhead State, he was active in the local community as well, as member of the Moorhead Rotary Club, board chair of the Moorhead Area Chamber of Commerce, and member of the boards of several historical societies, including the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. His numerous publications also showed an abiding interest in serving both campus and community, comprising reviews and essays on literature, education, and local history.
After his retirement, he was named President Emeritus of Moorhead State University and to the Honorary Council of the Minnesota Historical Society. The Minnesota Humanities Commission established the Roland Dille Award for Distinguished Service and MSUM named the Roland Dille Center for the Arts after him. Dille has received many honors in his name for his contributions to MSUM, such as the Roland and Beth Dille Distinguished Faculty Lecturer Award and the Dille Fund for Excellence. He remained active, in demand as a public speaker and continuing to write on a variety of topics, including on the history of his hometown. A temporary exhibit, “Roland Dille and the Dassel Story,” has just opened at the Dassel History Center and Ergot Museum.
Roland is preceded in death by his parents Oliver and Eleanor Dille and his brother Donald. He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Beth (Hopeman), by his children Deborah (Vincent Casalaina) of Berkeley California, Martha of Prior Lake, Sarah (Daniel Stauffer) of Moorhead, and Benjamin (Anna) of Astana, Kazakhstan; by grandchildren Amy, Annie (Neil Holmgren), and Stewart Jollymore, Aidan Lynch, Angela Plitkow (Matt), Deborah Schmidt, Nicolas Dille-Umber, Alexander Dibrov, and Daniel and Elizabeth Dille; and by one great grandchild, Gabriel.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions in Dr. Dille’s name to the Dille Fund for Excellence or to the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.
Funeral arrangements are pending through Wright Funeral Home in Moorhead.
Former MSUM President Roland Dille dies at age 89
Former President of Moorhead State Roland Dille died last night at the age of 89.
He died around 1:00 am in Eventide Lutheran Home.
President Dille was MSUM’s longest serving president from 1968-1994.
The university’s Center for the Arts is named after him.