Reflections: Others reminisce about Rod Erickson

Rod Erickson has a national reputation for his strong dedication to Penn State and higher education in general. He also is known for his intelligence, calm demeanor, integrity and ability to get things done.

Those who know him best shared some of their stories:

Rodney A. Erickson

Rod and Shari Erickson, Christmas around 1968.

Image: Photo provided

Shari Erickson talks about how she met Rod.

"I was a bridesmaid in a friend's wedding in Grimes, Iowa, where I grew up. At that point I was living in Cody, Wyo., as a social worker. I was flying from Billings to Des Moines with a layover in Minneapolis, and had a good friend, Kate, that was working for Pillsbury in Minneapolis. So I called Kate and said, 'meet me at the airport. I've got a three-hour layover.' I got in and she was there, and it was terribly hot. This was long before TSA restrictions, so she said, 'Hey, let's go over to some friends' house, where her boyfriend lived. There were five guys living there, and Rod rented this horrible little room down in the basement. I ended up staying in Minneapolis that night to go to a party, and took a flight the next day into Des Moines. So we met at a party in Minneapolis. There was a huge attraction, and we decided to get married after we'd really only been together 17 days. We didn't get married right away, but we decided pretty quickly."

Blannie Bowen, vice provost for academic affairs, remembers well Erickson's disdain for long meetings when they worked together in the Graduate School.

"We used to have Graduate School staff meetings and those things would go on, it seemed like three hours or so. When he first became dean, Rod told everybody to be brief when we went around the table to talk about what we were doing, but nobody was brief. At one meeting, Rod said, 'We really need to speed this up. We should be able to get out in an hour,' but the next meeting was just as bad. At the third meeting, after an hour he said, 'I've scheduled another meeting. You can stay here all day if you'd like, but I've got to go. Blannie's associate dean, so he'll finish the meeting.' Then he got up and walked out of the room. They all just looked at each other. That was the last time our staff meeting went over an hour."

Brenda Hameister, special assistant to the executive vice president and provost, said it's the little things she remembers most about working for Erickson that stand out for her.

"When he was giving remarks that we had worked on together and when I was in the audience – and I wasn't always there – I'd see him get a little twinkle in his eye before he came to a passage I knew he really felt good about and felt confident about. He had this little grin and little twinkle, and it was just neat to see. It was often an occasion when someone was retiring, and he was able to compliment that person. I think one interesting thing as a writer working with Rod is that he is such an excellent writer himself. It was remarkable to see the changes he made on the drafts I gave him, finding a better way to say something. It was inspiring."

Monica Nachman, executive assistant to the executive vice president and provost, appreciated Erickson's down-to-earth nature.

"I remember one event that he and Shari were hosting at their home, he left the office early to help Shari get everything ready. I left to also help and probably got there a half-hour after him.  As I was coming up the driveway, I saw him on one of his tractors, cutting the grass, flying, literally flying to get that grass cut before the event.  I think he loves that, being out there working with this tractors either plowing or cutting grass. Another genuine aspect that endeared him, and Shari, to me was seeing the two of them together. We all saw this in the office and spoke of it and noted how we all felt the same way. They weren’t afraid to show their affection for one another in front of anyone. To us, it made them so human."

Brent Yarnal, professor of geography and chair of the Penn State Faculty Senate, remembers his first encounters with Erickson:

"I've known Rod since 1984. I met him at the job interview here at Penn State. As I was coming into the department, he was just transitioning from associate to full professor. I had met a couple of the more senior faculty who were internationally famous and so the chance of being on the same faculty as them I thought was quite attractive. But it was some of the younger guys that were even more exciting, and Rod was one of those people. One of the first things that happened when I joined the department in the summer of 1985 was that Rod and Shari had my wife and me over to their place for dinner, which was most kind because my wife was extremely pregnant, ready to have the baby at any minute. He's just a really good man, a good family man, and he's a lot of fun to be with. When he was our department head in Geography, he would have the department over to his farm quite regularly. The whole department, all of our children, would go out there. I remember my kids, their big thrill was that they'd ride on Rod's lap on his tractor around the farm. He's just that kind of guy. He delights in the ordinary things and enjoys life a lot. He's a great administrator, he's a great academic, but he's just a good man, and I think that's worth repeating again and again."

Rodney A. Erickson

Rod Erickson, executive vice president and provost, joined Madlyn Hanes, CEO of Penn State Great Valley, for a brief ride in an earth-moving machine at the construction site for the campus' Conference Center in 2001.

Image: Penn State

Madlyn Hanes, vice president for Commonwealth Campuses, had a story to share.

"Rod is a good sport and very good-natured. When Rod was dean of the Graduate School, I was CEO of Penn State Great Valley School of Graduate Professional Studies.  Rod made regular visits to the campus, and was always well received. The campus was growing and we were planning our expansion. On one of those occasions, construction had begun on a new conference and academic building. Heavy machinery had already been on-site, moving earth and clearing the way for laying the building foundation. Knowing Rod would be visiting, and knowing his experience driving bulldozers and tractors on his farm, we arranged to have a large earthmover remain for a photo op. After our meetings ended, we invited him to pose with me alongside the earthmover. This he did and more. Rod asked for the keys to take it 'for a spin.' He smiled, donned a hard hat, climbed up, started the engine, maneuvered levers, and away he went, moving a few mounds of dirt with ease. People flooded out of their offices to watch. He was at home on this mammoth contraption to the thrill of spectators. I, on the other hand, climbed up -- with help -- held on for dear life and managed to keep smiling for the camera. It was a great photo op, and an even greater memory."

Robert Pangborn, vice president and dean for Undergraduate Education, recalls learning of the tremendous amount of respect Rod Erickson's national counterparts have for him.

"When Dr. Erickson was appointed as president and asked me to fill in as the interim provost, I began to attend the meetings with counterparts in the CIC and AAU. Whenever I met with members of these provosts' groups who had interacted with Rod over his many years in that post, the tremendous respect they felt for Rod was immediately obvious. He was always noted for his breadth of knowledge, thoughtful and sensible contributions, and warm disposition."

Barbara Korner, dean of the College of Arts and Architecture, remembers her first conversation with Erickson.

"My first conversation with then Provost Rod Erickson came when he called to invite me to return to Penn State as one of the finalists for the Arts & Architecture dean’s position. It was around 6 p.m. on Saturday evening, Dec. 2, 2006. Several friends had gathered in our home in Gainesville, Fla., to watch Florida play Arkansas. He identified himself and asked if I had a few minutes to talk. 'Yes, although kickoff for the SEC championship football game is in a few minutes.' With a hearty chuckle he said he understood the urgency and proceeded to tell me his reason for calling. His humanity, warmth, directness and brevity made me very pleased to respond that I would be honored to return for campus interviews. I suspect he’s among the few people who would have responded so positively to such a cheeky response from a candidate; I guessed from that initial conversation that he would be a pleasure to work for and that has certainly proven to be the case."

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Last Updated May 13, 2014