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Retiring North Central College president Harold Wilde looks back

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  • After nearly 22 years as president of North Central College in Naperville, Harold Wilde on Friday announced his intention to retire at the end of the calendar year.

    After nearly 22 years as president of North Central College in Naperville, Harold Wilde on Friday announced his intention to retire at the end of the calendar year.
    Bev Horne/Daily Herald, January 2010


For much of his 20-plus years at the helm of North Central College, Harold "Hal" Wilde has lived in the middle of a campus -- and amid a student body -- that he clearly treasures and admires. When he speaks of the college's success or the achievements of students and alumni, it is with the pride of a father.

But as he approaches his 22nd anniversary as NCC president, Wilde is preparing to step down from his post. He announced Friday that he will retire at the end of this 2012 calendar year.

In November, Wilde talked with the Daily Herald on the occasion of North Central's 150th anniversary, looking back on the school's early days, the founders' values that continue to guide school leadership and the school's partnership with Naperville and peering ahead to what the future may hold for NCC. He gave no indication then that his retirement was on the horizon and even joked that he may still be president in another 50 years.

Q. How can you define North Central's importance to the Naperville community?

A. The citizens of Naperville, in 1870, put up eight acres and the money for the resources to build Old Main to lure the college from Plainfield to Naperville. You could say it was the most farsighted economic development strategy ever. They made a judgment that if this was going to be a great city, it needed a great college.

James Lawrence Nichols came here as a student and stayed on and became a teacher (in 1883) and he wrote a book that sold 3 million copies and became the first great philanthropist from Naperville. So years and years later, we have (the downtown) Nichols Library.

The biggest business in Naperville for most of the 20th century was the Kroehler Manufacturing Co. Peter Kroehler went to Nichols' class and graduated. Nichols invested in him and he became the largest employer in town.

You can go year after year and decade after decade making that kind of connection and obviously it comes up today. We've got 500 employees, an economic impact of well over $100 million and there's very few businesses in downtown Naperville that don't employ our students during the school year.

Q. Several key names in Naperville's history are linked to the college and its success.

A. You look at the history of Naperville and you see the pivotal moments like when Bell Labs moved here. Who was head of Western Electric, the parent company of Bell Labs? It was Harvey Mehlhouse, a North Central alum. That was an important moment in the history of the community.

Who was the greatest developer in Naperville? Harold Moser, a North Central alum. And the list goes on and on.

The decision that was made in 1870 has proved to be a great one. It's also been a great decision for the college. When the college came to Naperville, I don't know that the president and trustees at the time knew what a dynamic place this would become.

Clearly when Naperville is ranked among the top handful of cities in the country, that helps us recruit extraordinary faculty and helps us in terms of the lifestyle we can offer employees. So it's a great relationship and we're very fortunate.

Q. In the school's 150-year history, you are only the ninth president. Why is that stability so important to the college?

A. I started on March 25, 1991, so I'm finishing my 21st year. Having leadership with great continuity is a significant benefit to the college.

I have four vice presidents and myself and among the four vice presidents, I have over 100 years of service to this institution, not even including my time. That tells you something incredible. These people have experienced all kinds of challenges. It makes a huge difference to have people who have tremendous experience and love for the institution.

College campuses are often conservative places where change does not happen quickly. One of the reasons it's important for key people to be around for a long time is because if you're here for a short time, you're not going to get much done. I came in March 1991 and the first major construction project we did was in 1998, seven years after I came. Every year since we've done at least one major construction project.

Q. What has kept you here for 21 years?

A. Why do I love it so much? I live in the middle of campus. My wife and I have lived here for 20 years. We've been married 41 years and have lived over half of that in the middle of a college campus. And you couldn't do that if it weren't a place where people made you feel good. You couldn't do that if the students didn't make you feel good. We're right in the middle of them and thousands of them walk by every day. If they were going to make you feel uncomfortable, it would wear you down.

But it's just the opposite. They make you feel fabulous and lucky to be here. I'm not going to say every day is perfect, but most days I do feel I'm the luckiest guy on the planet. This is a great place to be and our mission is something sacred. You can feel what this institution means to these students.

Q. In 2008, the college unveiled its 13,000-square-foot Wentz Concert Hall. Since then, the facility has lured artists such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Yo-Yo Ma. What does that exposure mean for the college?

A. The reality of colleges and universities, and there are 3,500 in this country, is that the schools you've heard of will generally be the schools that have a Division I football or basketball team. They'll be the schools you hear of when they play Notre Dame.

Small colleges, the top-ranked small colleges in the country, tend to be schools that very few people have heard of, no matter how good they are. And that's a challenge, but it's a reality. The way you've heard of schools is going to be because of the media events and such that are put into your mind.

So similarly when students choose a college, you can have, as we do, the best faculty you'll find anywhere. I'll put my faculty up against anyone. But how do you illustrate that to an 18-year-old who is coming here for a day or to fill out an application? How do they know or figure that out? It's very hard.

When you build a facility like the Wentz, that facility makes a statement. We've got wonderful music and performing faculty, but when the Wentz went up it got the attention of every kid in every high school within 250 miles who is interested in performing.

Yo-Yo Ma standing on the stage, looking at the audience and saying "I love this hall," you can't beat that. That message gets out to prospective students and artists who want to record here.

You could think of the Wentz as our Big 10 football team. It illustrates, in concrete form, what is here and that is 150 years of super-dedicated teaching of the highest quality.

Q. How has the student body evolved at North Central?

A. When I came here, North Central had 2,500 students and a little less than half were part-time. Today we have 3,000 and of those, a little over 2,500 are full-time. The number of full-time students in my time here has just about doubled. That shift reflects that 20 years ago there weren't many local schools serving the needs of part-time students. Now there's about 10.

We have put our emphasis over the past 20 years on growing the full-time undergraduate population. We've more than doubled the number of students who live on campus. Those are significant changes and they've happened by element of our strategic plan.

The goal has been to strengthen the core component of the college experience and I think that has happened. I think we have a much more vibrant student life over the past 20 years. Every way you would measure the student experience, having that critical mass of full-time graduates has ramped up that experience in a positive way.

Q. What element of North Central's history are you most proud of? What are you most proud of during your tenure?

A. It's exciting to know the history and discover how many things make North Central distinctive and a school I love. How many of those things have been here throughout our history?

The first president of the college, A.A. Smith, came here and was an outspoken opponent of slavery. He became the first president in the first year of the Civil War and he wasn't even a member of the parent religious denomination. The school was founded by German Methodists.

From the day the school was founded, it was a school that was committed to equal rights. From the day it was founded, it was a coed school, which was rare. The day it was founded it was a school that was religiously -- even though it was equally grounded in a Christian tradition -- open to diverse perspectives. You look back and say in 1861, that was all pretty rare and a special thing.

You come back 150 years later and know this college has always had a deep commitment to service, a deep commitment to citizenship, and it's always been a school that had high standards. These are things that attracted me here 21 years ago.

As I look back on my tenure here, my hope is not that we've veered off into a new direction but rather that we've kept the college on a path and a trajectory set by those remarkable founders a century and a half ago.

Q. What does the future hold for North Central?

A. A couple students sent me an email a couple days ago and they said they wanted to get a banner from the sesquicentennial celebration and take a photo with me so they can take a photo with the president at their 50th reunion. My response was, "What makes you think I won't still be here?"

What the sesquicentennial is all about is knowing our past better so we can ensure our future. That's why the slogan is "A Promising Start." We're reminding ourselves that a celebration like this is about using this moment, not just to have a big party and pat ourselves on the back, not just to feel good about all of the ways the college has grown throughout the years.

Those are all good things but we also need to raise the money to lay the groundwork for the college to come. And we're a great institution, but there are still challenges.

We want to build a new science center and that will be the most expensive project in the college's history. We don't use debt for those projects so we need to raise a ton of money. We need to make sure we have scholarship dollars to maintain. Right now, up to one-third of our first-year students are on Federal Pell grants and Illinois Map grants. It's a wonderful thing that the college is more economically diverse than it ever has been, but federal dollars are also more iffy than in any point in history.

If we do our job right over this year, we will have set in motion some steps that will ensure the remarkable momentum the college has had for many, many years will sustain far into the future.

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