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Sue's Views: Coming for dinner and staying for life

Earlier this year, I was at a funeral in a small church near DeGraff, listening to a distant relative I had never met eulogize an uncle who had lived an unusual life that only occasionally included my branch of the family tree. However, what she said gave me a new appreciation for the folks who have had a mostly unheralded life despite their great influence on the world around them.

Her comment was, "When a person dies, it's like a library burning down."

I thought of that on Monday evening when I heard that Tom McRoberts had died. It was as though I had heard that the Library of Congress was ablaze. It is a tremendous loss.

I met Tom almost 30 years ago, when I was a wide-eyed freshman at the University of Minnesota, Morris. I was a bright and confident 18 year old, ready to move away from home to attend a top-ranked university to earn a college degree and become rich and famous.

Or that was what I thought it was going to be like. In fact, I was barely 18, away from home for the first time and alternating between being homesick and mad at myself for moving away from all of my friends to the college at the edge of the earth. I spent a lot of money on phone calls and trips home that first year.

During that time, all freshmen were required to take a course called, Connections: A Freshman Seminar. The course was designed to provide freshmen with a personalized liberal education experience. The course description emphasized that students and faculty would explore the connections between course work and intellectual and ethical growth, so students would gain confidence in expressing opinions and get to know the faculty better.

Tom lead a seminar titled, "Heros, Villians and Fools in History." Now, I was not and am not a big history buff so I was glad that the class was only offered on a pass/fail grading system. I was not planning on putting much effort into this course.

As it turned out, this was the class that I couldn't miss. Tom was not as much interested in stuffing historical details into my memory as he was in helping me, and the other students, understand how you form an opinion and how you might change one, including your own. More importantly, he showed me that if nothing else, history teaches you perspective.

As it turns out, those conversations with Tom were far more significant than the two credits that appear on my college transcript. Having Tom help me find the right perspective on my freshman year went a long way in my decision to attend UMM for my sophomore year. And while I have had moments of doubt about some career choices over the years, I am certain that UMM was absolutely the best college I could have attended.

There are many former students who have much more compelling stories than mine about Tom's influence and support. Once during a trip to Washington, D.C. with the Barnes-Aastad group, I was in the middle of getting the bum's rush from a consultant who had only grudgingly agreed to a meeting. Turns out he was an alum and merely wanted to be polite to some of the townsfolk. When I mentioned that I had taken a class with Tom, suddenly, we were having a whole different meeting. The consultant was almost giddy, wanting to share stories of his classes with Tom. And, of course, since I had learned from the great Tom McRoberts, he'd love to help our group. When I shared with Tom that it was his name that opened up an opportunity, his comment was that the report of his influence was an exaggeration.

Throughout the years that followed college, I saw Tom often. When I worked in radio, he would joke that anytime I was ready to interrupt the regular programming to interview him, he was ready. Once I started working at the newspaper, the line changed slightly to posing for his head shot for the front page. Of course, when the opportunity arose to be in the spotlight, Tom was never in a hurry to step into it. Often, he had to be dragged there.

In an interview with Judy Riley after he was named director of Continuing Education and Regional Programs at UMM, Tom said, "Essentially, I came to dinner and stayed forever."

I am so glad that Tom stayed as long as he did.