University of Wisconsin Stout | Wisconsin's Polytechnic University
That’s how employers describe UW-Stout graduates. Our innovative, career-focused degrees combine applied learning and the liberal arts.
That’s how employers describe UW-Stout graduates. Our innovative, career-focused degrees combine applied learning and the liberal arts.
Doug Mell: Welcome to the summer edition of About Stout. We are pleased to have with us John Wesolek who is retiring on July 1.
Wesolek: The fourth.
Mell: July 4. You’re going to make it to Independence Day – is there some sort of significance to that?
Wesolek: I think it’s going to give Independence Day a whole new meaning for me this year.
Mell: John is dean of the College of Human Development, has been here since James Huff Stout started our university in 1891 or thereabouts, but, well, welcome John. This is the first time, as people who have watched this show before can see that we’re actually outside of our studio. We’re planning on doing more of that this coming academic year. We’re going to try to get out and about a little bit more. We have some more changes planned for the show, but welcome John.
Wesolek: Thank you.
Mell: When did you start? You weren’t here when James Huff Stout started.
Wesolek: No, not quite, but I think a few of the people in the past, like Fryklund was still alive, but it doesn’t seem that long ago though. It was in August of 1969 when it was brought to campus to build a rehabilitation program.
Mell: You were a student here.
Wesolek: I was before that, a year before that.
Mell: Did you actually get a degree?
Wesolek: I got both a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology and then I was one of the first graduates in the rehabilitation program. I graduated in ’68 and then spent one year in the Twin Cities working for school districts, serving the disabled there, and then I got hired to the campus here and began in the fall of ’69.
Mell: As a professor?
Wesolek: As an instructor at the time and was primarily responsible for teaching several courses, but mainly to build an on-campus laboratory that was a functional serving laboratory to assist people with disabilities, to conduct vocational evaluations and do training to get…
Mell: And that became the Vocational Rehabilitation Institute, or did that already exist when you were here?
Wesolek: No, that was the start of it; that’s what it eventually grew into.
Mell: You were in the ground floor of that.
Wesolek: I was, yes. We had several programs, like we had a federal grant for material development center, and then later a research training center and then we got a grant to start both the graduate program and undergraduate program in vocational rehabilitation.
Mell: Where are you from?
Wesolek: Mosinee, Wisconsin – central Wisconsin.
Mell: How did you find your way to UW-Stout as a high school kid?
Wesolek: Well, I told my adviser I wanted to be a draftsman, and he said –.
Mell: (Laughing) Well, that’s not somebody who works for the selective service. Okay, you wanted to draw things on paper.
Wesolek: It’s an old art that’s now gone the route of computers.
Mell: CAD has sort of taken over that?
Wesolek: The CAD’s got that, but my instructor – .
Mell: I remember drafting in high school.
Wesolek: Oh, it was fun. T-square, making straight lines, and I was really intrigued by that and so he said, “Oh, you’ve got to go to Stout,” and when I got here I realized that drafting was part of one or two other programs but it wasn’t a degree in itself, but that was OK. I loved the campus from the moment I arrived.
Wesolek: It was probably about half the size, no maybe a third the size it is now. That was in the fall of ’63 and things were quite different then.
Mell: Yeah. Do you remember who was chancellor?
Wesolek: Yes, it was the – he was just coming in, but Bud Micheels was the chancellor. He had just taken over.
Mell: So how many chancellors have you either gone to school –.
Wesolek: I knew that was going to come up.
Wesolek: Well, Bud Micheels and then Bob Swanson and then Chancellor Sorensen.
Mell: Well, isn’t that something. If you think about your entire tenure here at UW-Stout, you’ve really only served under three chancellors – either learned under or served under three chancellors.
Wesolek: That’s correct. Not a lot of turnover in the upper echelon. I think it’s the mark of people coming to this campus, finding a place that they like and an opportunity to make a difference and grow and develop and see a campus continually improve and thrive, so I think that’s the reason we don’t have a lot of turnover at that level.
Mell: So what was your degree in?
Wesolek: Industrial technology, which is a current program now called engineering technology, but essentially that’s the program we had. And as I said, the master’s degree was in vocational rehabilitation.
Mell: How did you make the switch from engineering technology to voc. rehab?
Wesolek: Well, it was an interesting story. I interviewed for a job at Caterpillar in Illinois, and I had accepted that job, and then two days later, met a gentleman by the name of Paul Hoffman, who said, “Would you be interested in a new program we’re starting here in rehabilitation as a master’s degree?” I listened to him thinking, well, I’ll hear him out, but I’m going to Illinois for this job, and then I got a follow-up visit from one of the new professors by the name of Dick Longfellow and he said, “John, this is right for you,” and I thought it was. It was a new program. There was no program like it in the country at the time because the focus of it was on vocational evaluation using work as a means to assess the skills and abilities of people.
Mell: Yeah, what does that mean?
Wesolek: Well, it was kind of a basis for what began as the vocational rehab institute, was that program back then, so I told the folks at Caterpillar that I would do this degree and maybe join them later, but as it turned out, that was my career; it changed right there.
Mell: When did the switch go on from being a student to “I want to teach. I want to work in the academic area for a living,” because obviously you were heading towards a career in industry which is what a lot of our graduates even today do, but how did you make that move to academia?
Wesolek: Well, I think it was the sequence of different opportunities, and the preparation I had was really in vocational assessment and counseling, and the first job after that program, the co-op school rehab center in the Twin Cities, Minnetonka, and while I was there I built the laboratory and expanded the work at these –.
Mell: Now, exactly what does that kind of work entail? I mean, give me an idea of what that…
Wesolek: Well, if you had acquired a disability, say a back injury or something and you could no longer do your former employment. Say you were a laborer in a warehouse or something, we would conduct some assessments to see what other abilities, skills, aptitudes you might have to fit other lines of work.
Mell: To try to keep me in…
Wesolek: In employment, yeah. Sometimes it’s acquired disabilities like an injury or sometimes it’s something you have from birth and the point is to try to match the person with the best job so that both are satisfied.
Mell: Now you were saying this was back when you were a student or at least as a master’s degree student, this was an emerging field.
Wesolek: It was. It was the first master’s program with that focus on it, and we had a federal grant to provide stipends to those students, which was another incentive to people in that area of work.
Mell: Well, obviously, this is one of the areas where Stout has really made a name for itself. The Stout Vocational Rehabilitation Institute is known across the country. It must have been something to be in on the ground floor of that and really see it rise into prominence.
Wesolek: It was real exciting. Doug, we had a lot of ambitious and energized people at the time that came into the program. I mentioned Paul Hoffman who was the person at the time who really founded the program, built or had a remodeled rehab center – the first one on campus – and at any campus in the U.S. and also people who just were really ambitious and had a vision for a better program than was available any place in the country. We were the first institute in higher education to offer that kind of degree. Now there are about 20 that have that program.
Mell: I was going to say, how many are there? I know there are others nationwide now.
Wesolek: Auburn and Northern Colorado and Arizona, to mention a few, but the program started here. We even created the first association of professionals in that – that was built here at Stout. The membership evolved into – there’re probably several thousand professionals certified as vocational evaluators as well.
Mell: As far as an educator goes, that must be pretty fulfilling because you’re working with people, you’re actually making a difference in their lives. I mean, it’s not esoteric, you can see the immediate difference in someone’s life, right? I mean there’s nothing that’s much more; that’s more important than actually keeping someone in the workforce.
Wesolek: That’s very true. I felt Stout was always the perfect place for that type of degree because of the technology emphasis and orientation because while it’s now our polytechnic moniker, it really was at Stout years ago.
Mell: Oh, absolutely.
Wesolek: And we also then had the human service side where we had a large graduate program in guidance and counseling and school counseling and the human side and the technology side sort of merged and one built on the other, so the unique hybrid of that was the creation of vocational rehabilitation, a focus on employment as an outcome, and then it grew into many other facets like assistive technology.
Mell: I was going to say, there are many devices, there are many pieces of equipment that have come out of the institute that now are in use across the country, correct?
Wesolek: Yes. We have products out there now that are patented. We have many others that are produced by other vendors but we trial test them here. We bring people to campus. I think that was another unique feature, that we’re not just theoretical. We have a residence program. We have people who come here with real problems, real issues to solve and then practitioners along with students.
Mell: Generally stay at McCalmont.
Wesolek: Right. They come out of here with some direction and focus and a plan – a plan to get back to a vocation, or career. And Stout enables that to happen and things just grew from there. I think we have an international reputation for that. I know that when I was involved with the European platform for vocational rehabilitation, I was amazed when I attended my first conference meeting in Berlin and everyone knew what Stout did. I was taken aback by that. But the same occurred when we visited London, Ireland, and the Netherlands and other places there, so we were an integral part of that, and I served on the vocational commission for Rehab International for a number of years. And it was, I think, a recognition that Stout had an integral place and a special place among that profession, and we had a visitor one time who came here from Scotland and I talked to our Chancellor Sorensen into joining us for a round of golf on Saturday and he was with this gentlemen who was –.
Mell: They weren’t wearing kilts or anything?
Wesolek: There were not wearing kilts. We tried to talk him into it, but it wouldn’t go. But they rode together in the cart and they really had a good visit, but one of the things that the chancellor asked, he says, “Why did you come here?” and he says, “When you go to vocational rehabilitation programs in the U.S., you start at Stout,” and I was pretty impressed with the perception of where we stood in the field. So I take a lot of pride in that as well as a lot of our faculty and staff.
Mell: So, bachelor’s degree here, master’s degree here, Ph.D.?
Wesolek: University of Northern Colorado in rehabilitative counseling.
Mell: Now, were you teaching here at the time that you…?
Wesolek: I took a leave. No, I moved there and I taught there for about a year and a half as I was doing my credits.
Mell: Did your credit work and then came back and while you were finishing your…
Wesolek: I came back in 1985 then came back to the full-time position as director of the rehab institute, the founder of which was Paul Hoffman.
Mell: Did you ever at any point think, “I’m going to be here…” I mean college professors now, I mean not all of them, there’s a lot of movement, and obviously with everything that’s going on in higher education these days, there’s a lot more movement than there was back then, but did you ever think when you were here in ’68, ’69, ’70, “I’m going to be here until 2008 when I retire?”
Wesolek: I really came back to develop this initial center called Evaluation and Training Center, and I told my wife, we had just gotten married, in the summer of ’69 that I’d stay for one year, two years tops and then a gentleman who was here who was at the University of Georgia at the time to recruit me to the doctoral program at Georgia in Athens, and when I told my wife I was considering this, she said, “Well, you know I’m pregnant,” and I said, “Oh my God.”
Mell: She just mentioned…
Wesolek: It sort of changed things a little bit. So we did stay here and it was great. We enjoy the community; we love west central Wisconsin.
Mell: We’ll talk about sports in a minute.
Wesolek: But, it was a good call, and absolutely no regrets.
Mell: There must have been plenty of opportunity in the past to move. I mean, you were…
Wesolek: Well, I think at one point I was pretty serious about a job in Denver when I was at the University of Northern Colorado, but then decided to come back to Stout again and I’m glad I did. It worked out well, and Doug, I have to tell you that when I look back 39 years, it just doesn’t seem that long ago, it really doesn’t. And as I’m sort of winding down and going through my files and preparing my office to transition to another person, time goes quickly, and the more I look at it and look back, the better I feel about…
Mell: Oh sure. When you’re in the middle of stuff – all the pressures of being a dean and even a professor, it’s hard to have any perspective, and now I assume that there’s a lot of perspective. So you started out in vocational rehabilitation, but obviously, as dean, you transitioned into much more than you probably thought you would have as a vocational rehabilitation – how did that happen?
Wesolek: The transition to being the dean? Well, I really was asked to serve as an interim dean.
Mell: You were head of the rehabilitation institute…
Wesolek: Which was in the College of Education and Human Development at the time, so when the dean moved on and they were in the process of a search –.
Mell: Who was it?
Wesolek: Ed Biggerstaff. He was actually, he is still here, but they reorganized and so I was asked to serve in the role of interim dean.
Mell: Was that with the College of Human Development, or was that the predecessor to the College of Human Development?
Wesolek: It was at that time called the School of Education and Human Services, and then it merged and became the College of Human Development, and I agreed to do it but with the intention of going back into rehab, but then I agreed to throw my hat in the ring.
Mell: They made you an offer you couldn’t refuse.
Wesolek: Well, it worked out. It worked out well. It’s been a great experience, and the years I served as dean, since 1999, to date were the years that went by the quickest. They were full of fun, full of challenges. I got to know so much more about the campus and the faculty in this college.
Mell: So almost 10 years as dean.
Wesolek: Almost 10 years, yeah. And outstanding people. I think the one thing I take away is the utmost respect for the hard work that so many around here do to serve students, and people who come to the campus for all kinds of services.
Mell: But instead of being able to concentrate on one, this college encompasses a lot of different areas, I mean all the way; we’re at corner three here, from hospitality, food, golf.
Wesolek: Well, I did, up until a year ago, athletics was also part of the college, and we take programs like psychology, to dietetics, to human development, family studies.
Mell: How do you get up to speed about this, something that’s really outside your area of expertise, your academic area of expertise?
Wesolek: I leaned on a lot of people for my quick-learning curve, and I don’t know if I acquired a solid background on all of it, but I really depended on the people who had expertise. To me, those folks –.
Mell: What’s the largest program in this college? Is it H&T?
Wesolek: Currently, it’s the hotel and restaurant program. Hotel and restaurant and tourism – about 620 students now.
Mell: Wow, that’s a lot of students.
Wesolek: Yeah, and now, as you well know, we’ll do another reorganization and that will become part of the College of Management. But, the core of what we’ll do now, which I think is very aptly named. The new college will become the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences is a very good fit. And it really speaks to what Stout is in our polytech era.
Mell: Talk a little bit about the hotel and tourism program. Again, that’s another one of these programs that when people talk about Stout across the country, that’s another one of our programs that really Stout is known for.
Wesolek: It is amazing, Doug, that I can go to a hotel in any major city, and if they don’t have someone who’s employed there from Stout, they certainly know someone who was there or somebody who’s at the next hotel. We virtually have graduates all over this country and internationally. At one point we were nearly 1,500 students in the program – about a third of Stout’s enrollment was in one program, and those folks are out there, and a lot of the alumni had made significant names for themselves and had done so well in the field. And I remember the first time I attended the National Restaurant Association industry conference in Chicago at McCormick Place; it was packed with all the vendors and all the representatives from the hotel industry, but predominantly at that time the restaurant industry and food industry, and I realized what a huge impact that facet of our university had in the economy, in the national economy from food preparation to food production to even the growing and even the wines and spirits and so much to what related to what Stout was integral in doing. It was pretty impressive. I was in awe, and that program has really been kind of near and dear to me as it emerged and kept on growing. As I learn more about it, I have a great respect for how that was built, as I do for the rehabilitation program, and many other programs, but in particular, hotel restaurant is one of the earmarks of Stout, no question.
Mell: One of your new offspring is the golf enterprise management program, and a program that is just seeing tremendous growth, even in an economy that’s uncertain, to say the least. Talk a little bit about how that program came about.
Wesolek: Well, actually, it’s embedded in the hotel-restaurant club managers base discipline. We were approached by a gentleman in the Twin Cities area who was the executive director for the Midwest Golf Course Owners, which is a unit or a chapter of the National Golf Course Owners. That group represents about 7,500 golf courses in the U.S. and now in Europe another 200.
Mell: So the influence23:10 came from the industry.
Wesolek: They came to Stout and said, “We want a program that prepares people for the business side of golf.”
Mell: Not how to cure your slice.
Mell: How to grow your grass.
Wesolek: How to slice beef. I would always tell parents of the students about the program that I have a golf towel in one hand and a dish towel in the other and I said, “You’re going to get a lot more time with this one than with this one. So plan on the inside-out in terms of golf as a club.”
Mell: The growth has probably even exceeded your expectations.
Wesolek: It really has, Doug. We projected the program to go to about 200 in five years, and in two years it’s at 180, and we also will be having about 20 students fully online as we do the e-synchronous delivery in the fall, and it’s been really rewarding. It really is my involvement as a special contribution to the hospitality program and the club management program at Stout, but a lot of hard-working people here helped create that golf management program and put the critical elements together. It’s been a lot of fun.
Mell: Well, we’re going to go down memory lane just a little bit.
Mell: We have some pictures here, and our viewers will see –.
Wesolek: This isn’t fair.
Mell: Yeah, I know it’s not fair, but why don’t we talk a little bit about this picture here. John Wesolek through the years.
Wesolek: Well, you caught me in my favorite leisure suit.
Mell: (Laughing) With the wide lapel.
Wesolek: With the wide lapels and I was a frequent shopper at Polyester Lester’s and actually this is back in the ‘70s and this was my office in what was then the farmers’ store. And in the early days of the rehab on campus, we were in many different places in this town, not campus space. We had the, at that time, the vocational development center located in a building which essentially now is the parking lot and restaurant of Burger King.
Wesolek: And my wife was good at – she made that suit actually.
Mell: We have to check out – I really enjoy the pants in that one. You could probably play checkers or chess on those pants.
Wesolek: Well, you know, at that time, golfers wore these plaids, you see?
Mell: You’re not golfing yet.
Wesolek: No, but I was only a couple of miles away from the course. That was a... really embarrassing.
Mell: I enjoyed – these are the old Los Angeles Lakers shorts that you’re wearing in this particular picture.
Wesolek: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, that was out at Wakanda Park, the party before I was leaving to Colorado, my son Mark and one of the faculty here, Gerry Schneck and yeah, boy, were shorts that short? Oh my gosh.
Mell: Yeah they were, yeah.
Wesolek: Something like the Celtics of the ‘60s.
Mell: Here you are with former governor Patrick Lucey.
Wesolek: Yeah, we had, I think, three or four governors visit our campus and toured through the rehab center. This was also in that former farmers’ store building.
Mell: And keeping with the leisure suit theme.
Wesolek: Well, of course, you know, I looked in my closet that morning and said, “Gee, the governor’s coming, what should I wear? Ooh, this would be the…”
Mell: Polyester suit. And here’s a picture. Can you – who are these people?
Wesolek: Well these are folks that are part of the core of the rehab program here. Jo Jalowitz is still my budget person, Jeb Kaiser in Eau Claire is retired from private practice, Al Noll is retired, Karen Hodgson is in partnership in health in Eau Claire, she runs that. Dan McAlees is retired. He did a phenomenal job at bringing grants in for like 25 years. And Ron Fry retired as one of the leaders of our material development center.
Mell: And we have one final. This is probably my favorite. That’s a nice shot of John Wesolek.
Wesolek: The sideburns, oh God!
Wesolek: I don’t know – they’re featured this week at Goodwill or somewhere.
Mell: What are you going to remember most – we have like one minute left. What are you going to remember most about UW-Stout, John?
Wesolek: Well, I think, the people on campus, but I think just phenomenal friends and lifelong friends. And also, my involvement in athletics. I really love sports and athletics, and as you probably know the history of Stout, we don’t win many championships, so the ones we do, like the football one of 2000.
Mell: You really do live and die with our athletics teams.
Wesolek: I do. I really love our Blue Devil athletics and the three-peat in women’s basketball is phenomenal to me, and also we have a track star who won four national titles, and those are some things that I really take to heart and will reflect on as I leave here, and I think just the overall tempo and energy of this campus is something I look back on. We’re vibrant, and it’s continuing. There’s new leadership and there are new people coming up, and exciting times are still ahead. Doug, thank you.
Mell: Good luck in retirement.
Wesolek: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Mell: That does is for one of our summer editions of About Stout. We’ll be back in a few weeks with another edition. We’re going to talk, I think, about the upcoming Board of Regents meeting that we have, inserting our computer engineering program, something we’re working hard for, but enjoy your summer. Thank you very much for watching.