It’s no secret or surprise that outgoing Winona State University vice president for university advancement Jim Schmidt is passionate about the university and the region.
Schmidt grew up in southeast Minnesota and can trace his ties to Winona State University back at least three generations.
His great-grandfather worked on the electrical system in Somsen Hall. His grandmother was one of the elementary students educated at the Phelps School. And former WSU president Nels Minne was so impressed with the reading abilities of Jim’s mother, 5-year-old Judy Bambenek, that he enrolled her in kindergarten at Phelps even though she was too young for the program.
“My family’s connections back to Winona State are enormous,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt will leave WSU in the coming weeks to become the next chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Those who have known and worked with him during his years in Winona say it’s a great opportunity for him — and a big loss for the campus, the community and the region.
“As a friend of Jim’s, I am really happy for him,” said former WSU Foundation chair Mike Russell. “As a very loyal and passionate alum, I know it’s going to be a loss for us. We are going to have to pick up our game to make up for it.”
Passion for philanthropy
During his 15 years as vice president at WSU, Schmidt grew the fundraising arms of the university.
He led the university’s first capital campaign, Light the Way, which passed its $10 million goal and primarily funded the Integrated Wellness Complex and student scholarships. He was able to get donations and start endowments for a number of projects and initiatives on campus — including most recently endowing a permanent chief campus landscaper. And he quadrupled the WSU foundation’s assets, from $7 million in 1998 to $32 million last winter.
Schmidt brought fundraising to new heights at WSU, said vice president for finance and administrative services Scott Ellinghuysen, and developed a culture of philanthropy akin to elite private liberal arts colleges.
He was also widely recognized for building genuine relationships with donors, and not just the high-profile ones.
Schmidt recalled working with one WSU employee, a janitor, who was acting as executor of an estate that had been donated to the university.
The man wanted to set up a scholarship of his own, but his resources were limited. Schmidt sat down and worked with him and in 20 minutes they had set up a scholarship agreement.
“He said to me, “Really? I can do this?” Schmidt recalled. “That joy and excitement is the heart of philanthropy. This is the guy scrubbing our toilets and giving back his limited resources to our students.”
Schmidt also has been heavily involved in the Winona community, through work with Visit Winona, his church, the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce board and other groups and organizations.
Schmidt was a board member of Visit Winona from 1999 until 2011 and was chairman of the board in 2002 when Pat Mutter was hired as the new director.
Mutter said Schmidt worked to bring different groups in the city together to work collaboratively, such as Winona Health, Saint Mary’s University, WSU, and other businesses.
“He said everybody had a part in tourism,” Mutter said. “He wanted to leverage everyone’s strengths.”
Victor Vieth, the director of the National Child Protection Training Center on the WSU campus, is a friend and former classmate of Schmidt’s. He said the center wouldn’t exist without Jim.
The idea was born during a dinner with Schmidt and their spouses after Schmidt’s wife, Kim, a nurse, told a story about sexual abuse complications that arose during a birth at a hospital.
They discussed the lack of training or education on sexual abuse, and soon came up with a model curriculum to spread across the country — most of which they figured out at dinner that night.
Schmidt played a major role in creating and developing center, working locally and in Washington D.C., Vieth said, and fought many battles to raise funds and create support for a project not directly tied to the university.
“He can see something ten, 15, 20 years down the road,” Vieth said. “He can make the sacrifices to get there.”
‘A political animal’
Schmidt’s experience in politics goes back to his college days, where he was involved in student government — and partisan politicking.
Russell, WSU’s former foundation chair, was involved with the Republican student group while Schmidt was active with the Democrats. They’re good friends now, but they butted heads back in the day, he said.
We went pretty hard at it at times,” he said. “There was a lot of passion from both sides.”
Schmidt got involved in D.C. politics a year after graduation, working as an aide for Minnesota congressman Tim Penny, before he went into higher education. His political involvement has become less partisan over the years, but he continues to use and hone his skills, those who know him said.
Winona state Rep. Gene Pelowski called Schmidt a “political animal.”
“Jim has been a policy wonk,” Gene said. “He likes the process, and it’s a much better process when you do it locally, when you do it more efficiently, when the decision is made at the local level and not in St. Paul.”
One of the reasons former WSU president Darrell Krueger brought Schmidt to the university in 1998 were these lobbying and political skills.
“He worked well with students and the Legislature,” Krueger said. “To find somebody like that was important.”
Schmidt said he had a baptism by fire his first days at WSU, when Krueger called him into the president’s office and informed him that the university’s boilers were old, obsolete and on the verge of failure.
Krueger told Schmidt his job was to get the university some new boilers — despite the fact that the state Legislature wasn’t planning on spending money on building projects that year.
“I didn’t actually salute, but I was thinking, yes captain, I will go take the hill,” Schmidt said. “And I remember, I was not quite a madman, but I was running all over the Capitol, reminding people about how we needed boilers.”
It worked — the Legislature approved a bill that included money for the boilers. After it passed, Schmidt recalled, he was driving along U.S. Hwy. 61 listening to the radio when a report came on — and heard that Gov. Jesse Ventura had line-item vetoed the boiler funding.
“I almost drove off the road,” he said.
Luckily, the old boilers lasted long enough for the university to get funding the following year.
For Schmidt, it was just the start of his lobbying experience. In future years, WSU received state construction money for a number of projects, including renovating the science buildings, Maxwell Hall, and others.
“We had a really good run,” Schmidt said. “We obviously got a lot of construction projects done.”
Onward to Eau Claire
As his departure day grows closer, Schmidt said it’s getting harder to say goodbye to Winona and WSU.
“This has been my home,” he said. “I walk onto campus and I feel at home.”
But Schmidt said he sees a lot of WSU in UW-Eau Claire. Both are teacher schools in communities originally built around the lumber industry. He said he always told families to send their kids to WSU, but if asked for an out-of-town school would tell them to look at Eau Claire.
When he starts his new job as chancellor, Schmidt said he looks forward to hearing the stories of Eau Claire and the community.
“I want to discover
Eau Claire through their eyes,” he said. “I want to see their eyes light up when they talk about their school.”