Montana State University

Spring 2010

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Mountains and Minds

Because of Stu Knapp, a wide array of MSU programs took flight April 30, 2010 by Evelyn Boswell • Published 04/30/10

Snow was in the forecast on a winter morning, but longtime friends and fellow birders Stu Knapp and Matt Rognlie found time to squeeze in another birding trip around Gallatin County.

Photo by Kelly GorhamPhoto by Kelly Gorham Gorham

Knapp, 81, and Rognlie, 43, have known each other since 1991 when Rognlie began working in Knapp's parasitology laboratory at Montana State University. The two have been birding buddies since Knapp pointed out the birds that fluttered around Marsh Lab.

Knapp is now retired to a senior community in Bozeman after an administrative career in which he was known as one of MSU's greatest utility players. Rognlie is now the information technology systems coordinator for MSU's College of Agriculture/Montana Agricultural Experiment Station. Almost two decades after that first meeting, the two still enjoy doing many things together. But nothing, perhaps, more than birding.

Rognlie's daughter, Miriam, 14, who is something of a whiz at spotting birds, was with them as they drove Rognlie's Suburban onto Heeb Pond Road near Manhattan. At the south end of the pond, ducks swam back and forth across the open water while trumpeter swans snoozed on the ice. Honking geese approached in formation from the west.

A cyclone of birds swirled down to the pond. Miriam's list of sightings sounded like avian poetry: mallards, Canada goose, common merganser, hooded merganser, blue-winged teal, cinnamon teal, northern pintail, gadwall, American wigeon, Barrow's goldeneye, common goldeneye, bufflehead, ring-necked duck and northern shoveler.

In just a short time, the birders figured they had seen more than 1,000 birds at the pond alone. Miriam recorded about 16 species of waterfowl at the pond and 37 bird species overall.

"It doesn't get any better than this," Knapp said. "You come out here sometimes and there won't be anything. This is amazing."

Photo by Kelly GorhamPhoto by Kelly Gorham Gorham

While Knapp was speaking about a grand and unexpected assortment of birds on a winter day, others have used similar terms of abundance when speaking about Knapp, who during his MSU tenure served in a number of administrative jobs unprecedented in MSU recent history.

From the time he came to MSU in 1978 until he retired in 1999, Knapp was vice president for academic affairs, acting president when William Tietz was on a six-month educational sabbatical in 1984 in North Carolina to learn more about integrating research at MSU. He was also parasitology professor, adjunct professor of entomology, deputy commissioner for academic affairs for the Montana University System, and interim dean of MSU's College of Agriculture and director of MAES.

While in those jobs, he instituted several MSU programs that underpin MSU's current identity--quality undergraduate education, student excellence, teaching and learning.

Former MSU President Tietz said teaching and working with students was a key Knapp talent.

"He was very active in developing the honors opportunities for students," Tietz added. Before he came to MSU in 1978 as Tietz's vice president for academic affairs, Knapp had been dean of undergraduate studies and the former director of the University Honors Program at Oregon State University.

These days, Tietz and Knapp get together about once a week. They often leave Highgate Senior Living, where Knapp resides (his wife, Bev, died this spring), in Tietz's green 1982 Volkswagen Rabbit convertible, which is low enough and with doors that open wide enough that Knapp finds it easy to enter, Tietz said. In October, Tietz drove Knapp to the grocery store to buy pumpkins, then carried them up to Knapp's apartment where Knapp painted them in the style of coastal Indians in the Pacific Northwest.

Despite four hip replacements, a pacemaker and Parkinson's disease, Knapp stays as active as he can. He served as president of the Highgate Council for a year and is a former member of the Yellowstone Association Board of Trustees and the Montana Committee for the Humanities Board of Directors.

"He used to say to me, 'Never Forget. It's all about students, students, students.'"

-Cathy Conover

He makes a point of staying in touch with friends from all over campus including Tietz and Rognlie (who he said is like a member of the family). Others include Vince Smith and Myles Watts, professors in the Department of Agricultural Economics/Economics, Jack and Jane Jelinski, from MSU's Department of Modern Languages and Literature and the Local Government Center, respectively, Pierce Mullen from the history department, Jim Anderson from the physics department and Marilyn Jarvis, of MSU's Extended University. Jarvis met Knapp in the early 1990s when he was an instructor for MSU's Lewis and Clark Elderhostel program, which she coordinated.

"Stu spearheaded the creation of many of the most successful programs in the history of MSU's Elderhostel," said Jarvis, who said Knapp is the epitome of "a gentleman and a scholar." In addition to Lewis and Clark, Stu is considered to be an expert on many other subjects, as well as a boundless resource for new and exciting ideas."

Photo by Kelly GorhamPhoto by Kelly Gorham Gorham

New and exciting ideas were also the hallmark of Knapp's time at MSU. In the People's Interest, MSU's history written by Robert Rydell, Jeff Safford and Mullen, noted that Knapp helped organize MSU's undergraduate research and creativity program and teaching-learning committees, both now part of the university's culture. He also secured a large grant to fund a teaching and writing program across the curriculum, which was praised for improving the general education of the student body.

He also started MSU's International Studies program that still attracts international students to MSU and provides opportunities for MSU student exchanges abroad.

Cathy Conover, MSU's vice president for communications and public affairs, said that making opportunities for students was at the center of everything Knapp did at MSU.

Conover said she has known Knapp for years, but worked most closely with him when he was deputy commissioner for academic affairs and she was in her first years as MSU's lobbyist to the Montana Legislature. She still recalls his advice.

"He used to say to me, 'Never forget. It's all about students, students, students,'" Conover recalled. "Any time we would be talking about something--a piece of legislation, some policy or something, he would stop and look at me and say, 'What's it all about, Cathy? Students, students, students.'"

Knapp himself was a student in his native Oregon, earning both bachelor's and master's degrees in science from Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, where he later earned the school's alumni achievement award in 2003. (He also received MSU Alumni Association's Blue and Gold award). He received his doctorate in parasitology from Kansas State.

"I loved higher education," he said, explaining why he accepted job after job, delaying retirement until age 70. "To me, it's a pleasure to work with students. I like to work with faculty. Old or young, it didn't make any difference."

Knapp said he enjoyed all of his jobs at MSU, whether he was teaching undergraduate students, mentoring grad students or learning how to better incorporate research into MSU's curriculum.

He signed off on the grant proposal that established MSU's writing lab. He designed a course on great expeditions and others that followed the grain and beef out of Montana. He wrote a grant to study regional education telecommunications. He says he's proud of the number of MSU students who've won prestigious scholarships and gives insight into their success.

"You just have to be aggressive about these things," Knapp said. "You have to go after it."

Knapp said he does have a favorite among his many jobs.

"I had more fun as dean and director (of the College of Agriculture and MAES for one year) than any other job I ever had," Knapp said. "I had great people to work with, a lot of really bright people, and I learned a lot about agriculture."

Jeff Jacobsen, current dean of the College of Agriculture and director of MAES, recalled that Knapp had a "unique inquisitive approach to all aspects of his job. As interim dean, he brought enthusiasm, respect and fairness to us with all his observations and questions that created a positive can-do work environment where everyone felt listened to and appreciated.

"He has the magic touch of engagement with students, staff, faculty and administrators."

Perhaps one clue to Knapp's ability to engage with all around him is his congenial personality.

He has always been quick with a fitting joke or a pun, and on this day he came prepared with birding humor.

What did one turkey vulture say to another as he flew away?"

"Carry on. Carri-on."

"Where do all the crows hang out on Saturday night?"

"The crowbar."

Near the West Gallatin River, Rognlie commented that he had never seen so many downy woodpeckers at one spot, and mentioned the large number of magpies, saying they were probably there because people dumped deer carcasses. He whistled for chickadees, setting off a brief bird-to-man dialogue. Knapp said he doesn't do bird calls and can't hear little birds any more, but he still enjoys birding.

"I have to go through my books and refresh myself," Knapp says. "It's particularly interesting to read about their habits."

Back home by mid-afternoon, Knapp climbed down from his perch in Rognlie's Suburban. Rognlie and Miriam accompany Knapp to his Highgate apartment, their goodbyes paralleling an exchange from earlier in the day:

"Wow, this was awesome," Rognlie said.

"What a day we picked," Knapp whispered in agreement.