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Dick McKaig: Vestige of a Wellsian world


By Brad Zehr



At his official retirement ceremony in early June, Dick McKaig received a small replica of the Herman B Wells statue and bench that graces the corner of IU’s historic Old Crescent.

The bronze-cast sculpture shows Wells, jacket unbuttoned and necktie loosened, extending a hand and a familiar smile, as if to say, “Sit here, stay awhile.”

His likeness rests fittingly at the invisible but undeniable border between two campus worlds: the student body and the administration, Ballantine and Bryan halls. Wells, who nurtured this once-small, Midwestern college into an iconic, world-recognized institution, was beloved most of all for his approachability and good humor in dealing with students.

Dean of Students Dick McKaig embodies this Wellsian philosophy of commonality.
Stories abound of McKaig’s constant presence at campus events and willingness to meet students at whatever intellectual, social or emotional level they were at. His energetic participation in all types of IU traditions dissolved the student-administrator wall that is entrenched at the modern mega-university.

At a time when historic higher education institutions like IU evolve into corporations – for which brand development rather than student development is the ultimate metric – McKaig made IU less of a diploma factory and more of a living room. He made the atmosphere less cutthroat and more conversational.

And he made sure our “leaders of tomorrow” loosened up and laughed a little. No title was above a pie in the face.

For three decades, “Hermie” Wells donned a Santa suit at the annual all-campus Christmas party. Along with an entourage of student elves, he would greet a packed Alumni Hall with holiday cheer and bags of candy canes.

McKaig forwent Dockers and cuff links every year in favor of swim trunks and floaties – publicly. He rotated student apparel into his speech wardrobe, like a backward ball cap, an iPod and peel-and-stick tattoos. And I can’t begin to imagine the scope of his IU club T-shirt collection.

He’s a down-to-earth, fun-loving friend to students and a polished, professional administrator at the same time. He could discuss University policy with the president’s circle on the second floor of Bryan Hall and leave to play cornhole in Dunn Meadow.

Wells elevated student opinion to the highest levels of administrative decision-making.
He was lauded as being one of the most accessible major university presidents in the country, holding regular office hours and walking across campus solely to talk with students.

“A satisfied student body is, after all, the greatest public-relations asset a university can have,” Wells wrote in his autobiography. McKaig has certainly satisfied.

Thousands of alumni know his name, and he knows theirs. McKaig is notorious, as was Wells, for offering fair, candid advice to those who seek it. He is a friend and advocate first, an administrator second.

The next dean of students, Pete Goldsmith, certainly has a bar to meet, and the key move he should glean from the Wells-McKaig playbook is to simply relax and have fun.

We college students don’t need or want any more committees or initiatives or no-smoking rules. We want an in-touch representative who isn’t afraid to act goofy once in a while.

Friday ends 38 years of dedicated service not only to a school, but also to a community and to a state and to the tens of thousands of students who are better people for having met Dick McKaig.

So ends the stewardship of a true Wellsian ambassador.

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