Albertson’s legacy is far reaching in time, place
Bobbie Bohen never knew Wisconsin State University-Stevens Point (now UWSP) president James H. Albertson. The 41-year-old was killed in a plane crash in Da Nang in 1967, years before Bohen attended the university.
But Albertson’s mission, values and dedication to bringing about a better life to all through higher education carried her over the years.
Bohen had escaped from a dangerous, domestic violence situation with five children, the youngest age 2 and the oldest age 15. She stayed at the Family Crisis Center, where she and her children received support, counseling and resources. It was there, around 1980, that she was encouraged to and ultimately decided to go back to school and get a degree.
“Because of the help I’d gotten, I decided I wanted to give back, and the only way I could do that was to go back to school and get my degree,” she said.
So with some assistance and a lot of will, grit and determination, she ploughed through the next four years of schooling with just two pair of jeans, two T-shirts and two sweatshirts to her name, focusing on her studies and her children.
Faculty at the university nominated her for awards. When told of the honor, Bohen was grateful, but brushed it aside.
“I was too busy to worry about awards,” she said. “I was worried about getting good grades.”
But earning the Albertson Medallion, the highest award bestowed on a university graduate, turned her life around. She was the first one in her family to finish college, so the award’s dinner ceremony served as her graduation party, complete with family. It was the charge received in accepting the award, however, that made all the difference to her.
“The master of ceremonies said, ‘These are the people the faculty has decided will make the most difference in the world in this graduating class,’” she said. “It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was so busy raising kids and going to school and studying.
“From then on, whenever I got discouraged in my work, I thought of that,” she said. “I always measured myself against that: Am I making a difference?”
Today, the short answer is yes.
Over the years, Bohen has been a social worker, counselor to men and women who batter or have battered their spouses, support to families and children, and a resource for those in need. For more than 25 years she has worked with the Family Crisis Center in some way. She believes she was meant to endure the violence she was subjected to in order to help others.
Two years ago, she received the Governor’s Council on Domestic Abuse’s Courage Award, which honors outstanding achievement and significant contributions in the fight against domestic violence.
“This is the parentheses of my career,” she said of the Courage Award. “(At graduation) ‘this is your charge, go out and make a difference,’ and (now) ‘this is your feedback; you did.’”
And it all tags back to Albertson.
The 50th anniversary of the crash that took the life of Albertson and seven other higher education leaders was celebrated March 22 at the university through a gathering with more than 100 people – including Bohen – organized in part by Albertson’s daughter, C.L. Fornari.
The anniversary brought together families of those killed that day as well as medallion winners, dignitaries and community members.
“His tenure was a short five years, but there’s many accomplishments we attribute to him,” Chancellor Bernie Patterson said.
At age 36, Albertson became the eighth president of the then-Wisconsin State College-Stevens Point. In his five years at the helm, his visionary guidance expanded curriculum, the first graduate degree programs were offered, and enrollment more than doubled. He focused on making students better prepared to succeed by becoming global citizens, and today more than 120 international flags are represented at graduation ceremonies.
The learning resources center built in 1970 was named in his honor. In addition to Albertson Hall, the Albertson Medallion Award was created and is given to less than 1 percent of those graduating each year.
“Can you just imagine what it would be like, what would have occurred, what we might have done differently had he lived out his tenure to 10 or 15 years?” Patterson said. “It was this vision of helping everybody lift themselves up through the power of education … he knew that was going to be sustaining not only our students but (students) around the world.”
That is what led him to travel to various countries, including his visit to universities in Vietnam to study and serve as, in a way, a consultant to Vietnamese educators to better the public higher education system. He, and his colleagues, were flying to a face-to-face meeting to discuss the team’s preliminary report with those leaders when bad weather caused the crash.
Others on the team were Vincent Conroy, Center for Field Studies director, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University; Harry Bangsberg, president of Bemidji State University; A. Donald Beattie, School of Business and Economics dean, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater; Howard Johnshoy, dean, Academic Affairs, Gustavus Adolphus College; Arthur Pickett, Honors Programs director, University of Illinois at Chicago; Melvin Wall, Plant and Earth Sciences head, University of Wisconsin-River Falls; and Robert LaFollette, Higher Education Adviser, U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Operations Mission to Vietnam.
Fornari, who was 16 at the time of her father’s death, said now more than ever it is important to remember the Wisconsin Team and their efforts.
“In a time when so many people in this country have become fearful of those from different cultures, it’s especially important to remember that this team was working for the ideal that good education is beneficial to everyone, in all parts of the world,” she said.
“When people are encouraged to have open minds, and to get to know each other on a one-to-one, group-to-group and country-to-country basis, we all benefit,” Fornari said.
Fornari recognized the children – about a dozen – of the team members at the anniversary. She spoke to the team’s dedication and excitement, their drive, their compassion and their passion to brave leaving their families and venture into a war zone to try and understand, as she said, the problems of a nation that had been exploited for years by other countries and “to look beyond all of that to what might be in the best interests of students.”
She also praised Burdette “Bud” Eagon, dean of innovative programs at WSU-Stevens Point, who days after the March 23 crash was asked to assist with the project. He traveled to Vietnam in mid-April, and served as chief-of-party for the Wisconsin contract until 1974, carrying on his colleague’s work and maintaining connection with all of the families.
“I hope that their mission is not remembered so much for the tragedy of their death, but for the generosity in how they lived their lives and the noble goals they set out to achieve,” Fornari said.