Don and Shirley Beggs spent enough time in academia to know that the honeymoon period for university presidents and their spouses doesn’t usually last longer than a couple of years. Certainly not the 13 years Don Beggs sat in the president’s office at Wichita State University. Somehow, the Beggses wrote a different ending to the story.
As they prepare to depart Wichita this month for a new home in Bloomington, Illinois, they’ve received the keys to the city and standing ovations seemingly everywhere they go.
“It’s just all been grand in every way,” Shirley said.
Oh, there are critics, as there would be in any institution full of opinionated people. But for the most part, Don Beggs is credited with overseeing substantial improvements to the campus, redefining the university’s focus and steering it through tough economic times. Shirley has been at his side all the way, the school’s biggest cheerleader who also publicly fought a battle with cancer.
So what are the Beggses looking forward to? Rest, first of all.
“We’re going to basically figure out how tired we are,” Don Beggs said. “I look forward to getting up when it’s light, not dark.”
Shirley echoes that thought.
“We just both want our remaining years to be years where we can come and go as we want, play with the cat, be with our children and grandchildren and take some trips.”
The Beggses’ son, Brent, his wife and two children live in Bloomington, where Brent teaches at Illinois State. Their daughter, Pam, and her two children live about two hours away in O’Fallon, Illinois. She’s a first- grade teacher.
Don and Shirley built a villa-style house on the edge of Bloomington several years ago. It sits across the road from a cornfield. “I’m responsible for about eight feet around the house,” Don said with a smile.
Great ideas, tough times
As president of WSU, of course, Beggs’s responsibilities were multiplied by about 14,000 students and the university that exists to teach them. Among achievements he’s proudest of, Beggs listed the renovation of Koch Arena and numerous other capital improvements on campus (carefully noting that some were underway before he arrived); the public-private partnership embodied by the National Institute for Aviation Research at WSU; and something most of the public might not be aware of — increased incentive pay for professors.
He also loves the “I Am Wichita State” ad campaign.
“If we don’t feel good about ourselves, how can we convince others that we’re a good place to be?”
Asked about regrets, Beggs said “great ideas” circulate around campus that never materialize because of a lack of money. And referring to budget cuts and tuition increases brought on by the economic downturn, he said, “There were tough times. I’m not going to smooth over things.”
Beggs said he won’t take offense if new WSU president John William Bardo takes a different approach to running the institution.
“The new person has to make it better and to make it better he has to change some things that I might not want to change.”
But he noted that WSU students completed a record number of credit hours this year, and that when the state Board of Regents went looking for his replacement, they reaffirmed Wichita State’s mission as an “urban serving” university. That means WSU isn’t a flagship university like the University of Kansas or land-grant institution like Kansas State. It has a narrower focus, with an emphasis on getting students jobs and establishing relationships with local industries.
“We’re a niche university,” he said. “We’re expected to serve Wichita and south-central Kansas and in select areas — like engineering — serve the state, nation and world.”
Beyond fulfilling a year’s consulting contract with WSU, Don said he has no plans to continue working.
“If I was going to stay in academia, I would still be at Wichita State,” he said. “I’ve already written all the books I’m capable of writing.” But after that initial rest period, one gets the idea that he and Shirley will find interesting things to do.
First of all, the Beggses, who are both 70, want to focus on their health. Both like to walk and Shirley, whose cancer has not reappeared, likes to ride her bicycle. “What I want to do is get into a regular pattern,” Don said.
The completion of a high-speed train will soon make trips from Bloomington to Chicago and St. Louis a lot faster, and Don said the couple plan to take advantage of cultural attractions in cities.
Campus improvements will be a big part of Don Beggs’s legacy. Koch Arena, the Welcome Center, Garvey International Education, the Downtown Center, Westside Campus, Aviation Testing Laboratory Building and 20 more facilities were built or renovated on his watch.
He may not realize it, but he’ll be traveling a little farther as well. Shirley said she’s planning for them to take a river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, pass through the Panama Canal by boat and visit Churchill, Canada to see polar bears.
At some point, after settling in Bloomington, they’ll look for a nonprofit organization to get involved with. They’ll find a church and sing in the choir.
The Beggses’ willingness to throw themselves into life in Wichita — on and off the WSU campus — was one thing that endeared them to the city. The Beggses attended an average of 30 events a week and often opened up the president’s home for receptions and banquets (which helped draw donations for its renovation).
Don Beggs said he’s been asked if the couple, whose enthusiasm for Shocker sports was apparent, would switch their allegiance to the Illinois State Redbirds. “No, we’re Shockers,” he said.
Shirley, asked what she’ll miss about Wichita, mentions Wichita Music Theater, Chamber Music at the Barn, the Wichita Symphony and Grand Opera and the Orpheum.
“Mainly, I’m going to miss the people,” she said. “And we’ll terribly miss our students. Everywhere we go we run into people we really care about. But we will be back to visit from time to time.”
After all, they’ve got the keys to the city.