Hellie: Linfield was the right place

Thomas HellieReprinted with permission of the News-Register. By Starla Pointer, June 7, 2018.  
Back in 2005, Thomas Hellie was content with his job as director of the Kemper Foundation. He enjoyed the work, which put him into contact with colleges and universities across the nation; he liked living in Chicago; and he appreciated his vacations, which that spring took him and his wife, Julie Olds, to Oregon’s wine country.

Then a recruiter called, asking him to apply to become the 19th president of Linfield College, a small liberal arts school at the center of the area he’d just visited and fallen for.

He hadn’t been looking for a new job, he said. But soon he had one: Linfield’s Board of Trustees chose him that November, and he moved onto the McMinnville campus in March 2006.

“Linfield was the right fit for me,” he said this week as he concluded his final month at the college. His replacement, Miles Davis, will move into the President’s House July 1.

“This has been the most important thing I’ve done,” he said. “I was able to affect the lives of thousands of students … and prepare them to go out and help others. That felt like a noble cause.”

Not to mention how he feels about the college: He loves it.

He has one terrible, indelible memory from his tenure: The death of Parker Moore, who was stabbed off campus in November 2014. “A profound feeling of loss … just awful,” he said. “I’ll never forget.”

Most of his other memories are happy: Seeing students succeed in class, on athletic fields, at academic conferences, in graduate school admissions.

Every graduation was a highlight, he said, especially when the speaker was a successful alumni, or when he saw the delight of parents of a first-generation grad. He relished each International Pinot Noir Celebration, just as he loved attending student recitals and plays and the 2011 national championship softball game, in which the Wildcats triumphed.

Numerous mementos are on display in his office in Melrose Hall. As he reflects his 12 years as president, the first thing he shows off is a photo of Linfield Latino students, most of whom are first-generation college students — the kind of student he’s made a special point of trying to attract.

The other item is a cap commemorating the Wildcats’ national baseball championship in 2013. Coach Scott Brosius handed them to players — and the president — after the final run was scored.

“I’m taking this with me,” Hellie said proudly.

When Hellie accepted the president’s job, he said he already knew “Linfield is an excellent college. It’s already in a very great position and its future is even brighter.”

He has helped shape that future during his tenure, which has lasted twice the six-year average for U.S. college presidents.

Under the guidance of Hellie and the Board of Trustees’ Investment Committee, the endowment more than doubled, from $60 million in 2006 to the current $120-plus million. Funds have increased scholarships as well as for endowed professorships, allowing the college to add and retain more faculty members.

One of the most recent boosts to the endowment was part of a $6 million gift from Domaine Serene Winery founders Grace and Ken Evenstad. The gift will endow the Grace and Ken Evenstad Center for Wine Education at Linfield and an endowed faculty position, the Evenstad Chair in Wine Studies.

In addition, since 2006, Linfield has completed construction of a new music building, renovated the Dillin dining hall and remodeled the administration building and Riley, Taylor and Walker halls. It also turned the old Northup Library building, which had been mothballed prior to his arrival, into a new academic center that increased classroom space by 25 percent.

Hellie said he had hoped to see construction of, or at least funding secured for, a new science complex before he retired. However, those efforts coincided with the recession, he said.

It still remains a goal for the college. And when it is eventually built, it will include the Evenstad Wine Laboratory, funded by the Domaine Serene founders’ gift.

Tying Linfield to the surrounding wine industry has been one of Hellie’s favorite projects. He said it has increased opportunities for students and brought attention to the school from France and other parts of the world.

Linfield started and maintains the Oregon Wine History Archives. The collection, which includes items and documents from wine pioneers like David Lett and Susan Sokol Blosser, attracts researchers from all over the globe in person or through the Internet.

The college sponsors wine lectures and seminars. And its innovative Wine Studies program combines wine-specific learning with the liberal arts curriculum, preparing students for careers in all aspects of the local and worldwide industry, from marketing to operating a winery or vineyard.

Thirty-students were enrolled in the Wine Studies minor this year, Hellie said. With a major starting in the fall, he expects interest to grow rapidly.

Hellie also is proud that Linfield has increased its diversity as well as the percentage of first-generation college students during the last 12 years. In 2017, the college was named the most diverse school of its kind in the state.

Since Hellie arrived in McMinnville, Linfield and other four-year schools have weathered changes in the way society views higher education.

Some high school graduates have turned to community colleges, which may offer inexpensive or free tuition, for their first two years. Others have taken job-specific training programs. And still others, of all ages, have questioned whether college is necessary at all.

It bothers him, he said, when people question “anything institutional” and therefore suggest private schools exist to make themselves wealthy.

“At Linfield, no one is here to get rich,” he said. “They’re here because they care about students and about making the world better.”

Hellie said he has no doubts about the value of a college degree, and he cited data in support.

“Even a philosophy major,” he said, will out-earn someone who doesn’t go to college.

“A high school diploma is not enough for so many jobs,” he said. “No question a college degree is valuable. But it won’t be enough in the future.”

Today’s students will be changing jobs several times over the years, so they will constantly need to adapt. They must learn how to learn — something fundamental to Linfield’s type of education, liberal arts.

In addition, Hellie said, liberal arts schools like Linfield “ask students to learn to think critically and make decisions based on facts.” People who can do that “make very good citizens.”

Linfield students also learn “to be open to other opinions and cultures,” Hellie said. “The world is a lot more open now. We need to be able to understand and work together.”

In the last two years, after witnessing a slight downturn in traditional undergraduate enrollment, Linfield has mounted an aggressive marketing campaign using social media and other formats.

In addition to the quality of the college’s liberal arts education, messages promote the small enrollment, making it possible for students to receive personalized attention and engage in research projects alongside professors.

The campaign also emphasizes Linfield’s above-average retention rate and how more than two-thirds of its students graduate within four years; in contrast, Hellie said, two-thirds of public college and university graduates take six years or longer to graduate.

“It’s more complex than just looking at tuition costs,” he said. “It’s really important for us to differentiate ourselves and make the case for the value of this type of education.”

He added, “Liberal arts majors can do anything.”

Hellie and his wife, Julie Olds, have lived in the President’s House for a dozen years, longer than any other place in their 37-year marriage. “It’s home,” he said.

They feel comfortable all over the campus, he said, although perhaps not as much as their dog does. Edgar, a black lab, enjoys regular walks past the dorms and educational buildings.

Edgar will have a new home soon. Hellie and his wife will move to Portland after he finishes at Linfield on June 30.

Hellie said he’s sad to leave McMinnville, “but it’s better for me to get out of town when the new president is here. I don’t want him to feel I’m looking over his shoulder.”

Olds will continue her work as assistant manager with Northwest Senior and Disability Services.

Hellie plans to relax. “I’m taking a gap year,” he said, joking about what students often do between graduation and starting work.

In his case, he said he has no plans for another career. Ditto for doing any theater — he acted and directed as a student at Luther College and theater history professor, but too much time has passed to resume that, he said.

He may eventually decide to do some consulting, travel or even return to school, but his focus is on retirement.

“Doing something new and fun is tantalizing,” he said.