Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Cincinnati cared, made a difference

By Joseph Steger
Guest columnist

Former University of Cincinnati President Joseph Steger carries a box of personal items from his office to his car as he leaves his office for the very last time Monday afternoon.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
It has been 21 years since Carol and I moved to Cincinnati. During my first weeks at the University of Cincinnati, people kept asking me how I liked the city. Two years later, when I became president of UC, people continued to ask how I liked the city. Today I retire as president after 19 years. Carol and I will continue to make our home here. Still, we are occasionally asked how we like it here.

We like it fine.

Cincinnati has become our home. Cincinnatians have become like family. I would like to tell you a few things about myself and then relate it to how I feel about this city and its university.

My parents never finished high school. We lived in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia. At my high school, there was a fellow named Joe Marshall who taught history, and also driver's training. I was 16 and a wise guy, and he took me aside one day and said, "I've got a job for you." Another teacher had multiple sclerosis, and Mr. Marshall wanted me to pick her up at the train station every morning with the school car. At 7:30 a.m.

My family didn't own a car. I would have given anything to drive. I didn't care what time they needed me.

I was the school's chauffer for a number of years, and when I look back on that experience, I realized that Joe Marshall was the first person who didn't know me who trusted me. It meant an awful lot.

I got what might be called a general education diploma - shop and phys. ed. (I can weld and I can do all kinds of things.) Five of my classmates and I decided, in our great wisdom, to join the service, because they told us we'd go through basic training together. So we got to basic training and I never saw the other five. That's when I knew I was in trouble.

But, I served with a warrant officer, who came to me and said, "You know, you're no dummy. We're going to shrink the Air Force. Would you want to move into the active reserves? You could even go to an ROTC unit. Why don't you go to college?" I didn't know a thing about college, but he told me to get some data on colleges.

I didn't even know how to look up data on colleges. But I went to the library, and got a book and drew a 300-mile radius around Philadelphia. That's how I picked colleges. The Air Force assigned me to Gettysburg College and that warrant officer had changed my life again.

When I got to Gettysburg, we had to write a 500-word theme. I'd never written 25 words in my life. So I handed in my theme and the professor passed them back and said he would like a word with Mr. Steger. (They were more formal in those days.)

"This is an amazing piece of work," he said. I thought I was really doing well, until he said, "There's not a complete sentence in it."

I said, "What's a complete sentence?"

He thought it best that I report weekly to his office. Every Wednesday I showed up, and he told me what a noun was, and a verb, and an adjective. By the end of the year, he had taught me how to write - and I had a D average.

He was a caring teacher, after all, not a miracle worker. He gave his time and his dedication. Without him, I would have flunked out of school.

Eventually, my grades improved, and I was accepted to graduate school. I had the good fortune to work with one of the best people in the field that I wanted to study. He was a tough taskmaster. His students reported at 7 a.m. and worked until 8 or 9 at night. He worked alongside us, but didn't talk much. In fact, he was rather nasty. But one night - a cold mid-winter Kansas night - he invited all of the graduate students to his house for dinner. I arrived wearing a sports jacket. He asked where my overcoat was, and I mumbled something about being young and not needing one.

Three days later he called me into his office. He said, "I'm going to leave. There's something for you behind the door." When he left, I found an overcoat. I put that coat on, and I never forgot it. He never said a word and I never said a word, because he didn't like emotional displays. But he cared.

Why am I telling you these stories?

Because that's what Cincinnati has done for me, and for the University of Cincinnati.

You cared. You made the difference. I didn't make the difference. Maybe I came here at the right time, but without you, without the university's hard-working faculty, without our dedicated alumni, without the generous donors, without our involved board of trustees, without our outstanding students, none of this would have been possible. That's why my job is so much fun.

You made a difference. All the many people Carol and I had the pleasure to meet made a difference at the University of Cincinnati. You are the caregivers. You enabled me to get my job done.

Thank you.


Joseph Steger is the president of the University of Cincinnati. He retires from that post today.

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