Riding to the top

The story of how a farmhand from Michigan became the University presidentEDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series about University President Bob Bruininks. Tomorrow’s story will focus on his presidency.

Bryce Haugen

Seeking a therapeutic dose of recreation on a recent Sunday morning, Bob Bruininks drove his GMC Envoy to a horse stable about an hour west of the Twin Cities.

Every free weekend, the 65-year-old father of three and grandfather of two escapes his 70-hour-a-week job administering the University of Minnesota system with the help of Boris, his award-winning American Saddlebred.

Unlike his wife, Susan Hagstrum, Bruininks rides without a helmet.

“I’m the sensible one,” Hagstrum teased, before taking a ride on her Saddlebred, Guy.

Sitting behind a podium at the edge of the track, Judy Jensen shouted commands at the two riders.

Bruininks’ wife:
– Susan Hagstrum earned a master’s and doctorate at the University of Minnesota. Formerly a school administrator, since 2002, she’s been a University associate, a designation that allows her to get reimbursed for parking and mileage. “A lot of what I do is fundraising and ‘friendraising,’ ” she said.

Other Family members:
-Todd Bruininks, 39, works for the United States Department of Labor in San Francisco. The Dartmouth graduate recently received an MBA at University of California-Berkeley. He’s an avid fisherman.
-Brian Bruininks, 36, lives in Seattle, where he is a vice president of a commercial real estate firm. The former Colorado College hockey player has two kids: Henry, 4, and Wilson, 18 months. For a while, he played minor league hockey.
-Brett Bruininks, 34, is a doctoral candidate in the University of Minnesota’s kinesiology department. As an undergrad, he served as captain of the Notre Dame hockey team. Currently, he coaches assistant girls hockey at Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield. He often cancels or reschedules dinner with his father. “I’m not the president to him,” Bruininks said. “I’m just his dad.”
-Henry Bruininks, 92, lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., with his second wife, whom he married years after Bob’s mother died. Before retirement, he worked in an upholstery factory, as a semi-professional baseball umpire, a part-time farmer and a landscaper. A child of the depression, he only finished 8th grade. “If he would have had a college education, he would have set the world on fire,” said Susan Hagstrum, his daughter-in-law.

Bruininks on Music:
Bruininks’ musical taste range from jazz to country. “I’m not a hip-hop or rap guy,” he explained. “But all my kids are into it.”

Bruininks the outdoorsman:
On Independence Day 1989 on Loon Lake, Bruininks caught the second-biggest walleye in Minnesota history, a 17-pound 6-ounce whopper that he insists would have broken the state record if he had gotten it to a scale sooner. The Grand Marais newspaper dubbed Bruininks “Walleye Bob,” and interviewed his 39-year-old son Todd. The avid fisherman told the paper, as the president recalled, “I’ve fished with my dad, and I’m honestly convinced based on my observation that this fish committed suicide.” In addition to fishing, Bruininks enjoys hiking on the Gunflint Trail and biking around Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“Not too many people get to yell at the president of the University,” mused a chuckling Jensen, co-owner of Centre Pointe Stables located just outside Delano, Minn.

Since he started riding horses at age 57, Bruininks has developed into a respectable amateur, taking second place in a tri-state competition at the 2006 State Fair. Jensen calls him a “gutsy” rider, who works hard to improve.

Bruininks has exhibited those same traits in his nearly 40 years at the University, Hagstrum said.

“If it’s more challenging,” she said, “it’s more interesting to him.”

Born in Grand Rapids, Mich. less than three months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Bruininks, the eldest of five children in a low-income family, learned hard work at a young age. He entered full-time summer employment at age 13, earning money as a construction worker, wilderness guide, truck driver, department store clerk and a farmhand picking celery. Even a half-century later, he despises the vegetable.

These days, Bruininks oversees five campuses, 18 extension service offices, 13 research stations, about 30 million square feet and a $2.6 billion annual budget.

Today marks the four-year anniversary of his inauguration as the 15th University president.

Most friends and close colleagues interviewed described the tall, white-haired leader as a sincere, charming fellow – a competent visionary with a knack for implementing tough policy. Bruininks’ few vocal critics question his policy but rarely his motives.

A high school ‘goof-off’

The captain of his basketball team and a three-sport athlete, Bruininks claims he was a high school “goof-off.”

“The principal called me into his office one time and said ‘you’re never going to graduate from this place,’ ” Bruininks recalled.

His father, 92-year-old Henry Bruininks, tells a different story.

“He was always ambitious,” Henry Bruininks said from his condo in Grand Rapids. “He was a well-behaved young fellow. He never gave his mother and me any trouble at all.”

After graduating from high school in 1959, Bob Bruininks enrolled at Western Michigan University as a first-generation college student.

He briefly considered a career in music. But although he still occasionally displays his trumpet skills – he performed the Minnesota Rouser at his inauguration and at every bowl game – Bruininks fatefully decided to become an educator.

In 1964, he earned degrees with honors in music and social sciences, and then earned a doctorate in educational psychology at what is now Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Becoming Minnesotan

Not long after Bruininks finished graduate school, the University of Minnesota offered him a faculty position. Still sporting a crew cut, he arrived in 1968 – and never left.

He embraced Minnesota culture, building a cabin on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where he fishes and hikes when his schedule – and the weather – allows.

During a breakfast of quiche and fruit at Eastcliff, his University-provided home along the river in St. Paul, Bruininks spoke fondly of his adopted home state, a “cauldron of great new ideas.” Later in the day, following an extended interview on Minnesota Public Radio, he traveled to Washington, D.C.

“When I travel anywhere in the world and that plane hits the tarmac at the Minneapolis airport, it just feels so good to be home,” he said. “And we’ll travel – and we do travel now – but we’ll always make our home here.”

Hagstrum, a lifelong Minnesotan and former school administrator, met Bruininks in 1981 when he and a colleague tried to convince her to take a 50 percent pay cut and work at the University.

According to Hagstrum, who had three children from a previous marriage, it took Bruininks, also divorced, two years to muster the courage to call her for a date. Bruininks insists he waited a year.

Professor to president

Throughout the 1970s, Bruininks earned prestige as an educational psychology professor. Eventually, he became “one of the world’s great experts on K-12 education,” said former University President Mark Yudof, now chancellor of the University of Texas system.

Bruininks took a two-year career detour in 1974 when he worked for Gov. Wendell Anderson in the state planning agency. There, he helped develop a proposal to deinstitutionalize the state hospital system and reintegrate developmentally disabled children into the community.

“I think that work sort of laid the foundation for about 30 years of development,” Bruininks said.

Two years after returning to the University, in 1978, he began a seven-year stint as chairman of the psychoeducational studies department, where he oversaw its merger with another department in an effort to cut costs.

Bruininks as a humorist:
The president is known to be a dryly funny guy, often using self-deprecating humor to great effect.
– Mary Jo Kane, chairwoman of the kinesiology department, recalls a gleeful Bruininks celebrating a second-place finish at a horse show. He lost to a 13-year-old girl. She was his only competitor.
– Minnesota Student Association president Max Page attended a ground-breaking on the St. Paul campus that featured a horse and plow. He remembers Bruininks suggesting that they use a horse and plow at the stadium groundbreaking. The president then turned bizarre, as Page recalls: “He turned to his assistant, Lynn Holleran, and said, ‘We wanted, when the Gophers make it to the Rose Bowl, we wanted to have some horses dig a plow from here to Pasadena. Lynn, did we look into that?’ – and he was totally serious. And Lynn was just like, ‘yeah, we looked into it – it’s not possible.’ ” Page said Bruininks also employs quirky sayings, such as “Like a dog to a bone, I was there.”

What about Bob?:
– He’s of 100 percent Dutch ancestry.
– He turned 65 on Thursday.
– His name is pronounced Bruin-inks, not Bruin-icks.
– In conversation, he quotes widely, from Yogi Berra to Winston Churchill to African proverbs (“sticks in a bundle are more difficult to break”).
– He loves doing radio interviews and, on occasion, fills in for Dave Lee and Don Shelby on WCCO. He was filling in for Shelby when the news of former Gopher hockey coach Herb Brooks’ death hit the wire, and he conducted some of the first interviews about it.
– He married Susan Hagstrum on New Year’s Day, 1986.
– He’s a member of Phi Delta Kappa fraternity.
– He vacationed with his family in Puerto Vallarta over winter break.
– He worked his way through college with several jobs and a few loans. “It makes me deeply appreciative of what students and families are facing today,” Bruininks said. He continued playing basketball in graduate school and beyond. At what is now Vanderbilt University, Bruininks, a self-described “dirty player,” played on a team called “Random Samples.” “And we played like it, too,” Bruininks said.

After stepping down as chairman, Bruininks founded several programs with a shoestring budget, including the Institute for Community Integration. That center now secures about $20 million a year in federal grants.

Bruininks on pop culture:
The University president is not a fan of reality television, especially “American Idol.” “Simon says too much,” he quipped. “I don’t like TV that debases and demeans other people.” He prefers History Channel specials, “Masterpiece Theater” and “Law and Order.”

Bruininks on religion:
Although Bruininks and Hagstrum consider themselves religious, the president said, they are “extraordinarily tolerant” and not “devoutly committed to any particular denomination.” He said they don’t belong to a church, but give money to a wide range of charitable causes.

In 1992, then-President Nils Hasselmo appointed Bruininks dean of the College of Education.

“It seemed to me that he had both the scholarly qualifications, he had the status among his colleagues and he had a real vision for outreach for the college,” said Hasselmo, now retired and living in Tucson, Ariz. “Those are splendid qualifications for a dean.”

As dean, Bruininks cemented his reputation as an effective administrator. When faced with a steep budget cut that required significant restructuring of the college, “he made changes in a very constructive fashion – never a word of complaint,” Hasselmo said.

Jim Infante, Hasselmo’s second-in-command during much of his presidency, said he relied on the “thoughtful” and “perceptive” Bruininks more than any other dean.

“He was just a masterful negotiator,” Infante said from his retirement home in Upstate New York. “I’m not surprised at all that he’s now president.”

When Yudof became president in 1997, Bruininks continued climbing the administrative ladder – this time as senior vice president of academic affairs and provost, Infante’s former position. Yudof skipped the ordinary search process and hired Bruininks after only speaking with him a few times and hearing glowing reviews from the dean’s colleagues.

He said he didn’t regret the decision.

“First, if I had goofy ideas, he’d shoot them down, which is what you hope a provost would do,” Yudof said. “And if I had good ideas Ö he was tremendous at implementing policy and bringing people on board.”

In the summer of 2002, Yudof accepted the University of Texas chancellorship, and the Board of Regents named Bruininks interim president at a special meeting. Bruininks said he wasn’t interested in the long-term position, preferring to take a sabbatical and return to the faculty.

But after an exhaustive nationwide search process, the Board named Bruininks the lone finalist Nov. 7. The next day, Regents unanimously approved the promotion.

“We had looked from east to west to north to south, and after doing that we felt that the best president was the interim president,” said then-Regents chairwoman Maureen Reed. “I’m so glad he accepted.”

Although becoming president was perhaps the most significant moment of Bruininks’ life, his old fishing buddy, Richard Weatherman, remembers one of the luckiest, when the president caught the second-largest walleye in Minnesota history. But neither luck nor ambition, Weatherman said, made Bruininks president.

“You could look at it that way,” said Weatherman, Bruininks’ colleague for nearly 30 years. “But I think you’d be wrong. He made his luck. He didn’t do it with intention or anything like that … He just gives so much to what he does that he’s going to come to the surface.

“You could say, oh well, it’s serendipity. But it’s not like he won the lottery. He gave a lot to get there, but it wasn’t with the intent to get there. He doesn’t have that kind of motive in his body, but he was absolutely ready and prepared.”